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Terrorism’s evolving nature makes it a potent threat

Kristian Alexander and Sultan Majed Mohamed Al-Ali
15 Feb 2023 00:03:42 | Update: 15 Feb 2023 00:03:42
Terrorism’s evolving nature makes it a potent threat

For the fourth successive year, the UAE has retained its first place in the Global Terrorism Index, making it among the safest countries in the world. According to the annual report produced by the Sydney-based Institute for Economics and Peace, the UAE has a “very low” risk of terrorism occurring on its soil. Abu Dhabi was ranked the safest city for the second year in a row based on the Numbeo Index, which ranks the overall safety level of 338 cities in the world based on factors such as cost of living, pollution and violent crime statistics.

While the rankings represent good news for the UAE, experts warn that transnational terrorism is still one of the most potent threats to international peace and security. A recent study by Nato’s Centre of Excellence, titled “Emerging Threats in Terrorism”, suggests that security threats are highly uncertain right now, especially with the proliferation of new technologies. Terrorist groups tend to be “learning organisations” that are able to adapt quickly to the asymmetric environment they operate in. Groups with malicious motivations could use technologies such as AI and drones to commit attacks on cyber security systems or critical infrastructure. These potential acts of cyber terrorism require a high level of technical proficiency, making them difficult to accomplish, but such attacks, though rarely made public, are occurring more frequently.

Another trend in terrorism is the decentralisation of terrorist movements. According to data collected by the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project, “non-state groups were involved in 64 per cent of all armed, organised activities in 2022 and perpetrated 76 per cent of all violence targeting civilians”. In 2022, there were more than 3,000 such localised armed militias, mostly in weak or failing states where economic decline and large-scale conflict are present.

A major danger zone for terrorism, for example, remains in West Africa and, in particular, in the Horn of Africa, where geopolitical, demographic and socio-economic inequalities create vulnerabilities that can lead to ideologies that promote violence. Al Shabab is the most prominent and most lethal of all Al Qaeda affiliates that operates in the Horn of Africa. They have demonstrated their capability to carry out successful operations across the region and currently control large portions of southern Somalia.

Terrorism and a possible upsurge in violence are always influenced by a number of structural factors, such as geopolitical, demographic and socio-economic inequalities, and ideological trends and dynamics that create risks and vulnerabilities. The war in Ukraine, in particular, has given new momentum to various transformations and crises that were already under way, increasing the sense of global disorder and acceleration, of geopolitical uncertainty, and of terrorist activities. It has also served as a magnet for a number of far-right extremists looking to gain experience in weapons training and fighting.

The presence of homegrown far-right terrorists and white supremacists, who radicalise on the internet in ideological echo chambers, could lead to “anti-government extremism” in the West. Jeffrey Kaplan, a terrorism expert and a senior fellow at the Danube Institute in Hungary, expects an increase in far-right terrorism in the US and some states in Western Europe, particularly Germany, Sweden and perhaps the UK. “What is interesting,” Mr Kaplan notes, “is that, where lone-wolf operations were the norm for the last few years, small groups or networks may re-emerge as players.”

A UK House of Lords Committee also highlights the heightened extremist threat in Afghanistan after the Taliban returned to power in 2021. The Taliban were originally founded in the 1990s as an Islamist militant group, and while in power they used brutal violence to implement their interpretation of Sharia law. The US invaded Afghanistan in 2001 under the pretext that the Taliban were harbouring 9/11 architect and Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. With the withdrawal of US troops in August 2021, the worry is that the Taliban will seek retribution against their opponents and/or support burgeoning terror networks in the region.

The risk of witnessing an act of terrorism is quite low, and the actual numbers of people injured or killed in terror attacks are insignificant compared to all other causes of death in the world. What makes terrorism particularly insidious, however, is the fear it induces in the public. These feelings of vulnerability have knock-on effects to both the mental and physical health of the citizenry.

Government response to terrorism is also complicated. If they respond too harshly, they risk curtailing civil liberties, which might inspire militant groups inside their countries. If governments become complacent about terrorism or focus on other, possibly more pressing, security concerns, their countries become targets.

The National