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Threat Trends and Possible Strategies

More than 800 people, including 107 foreigners, were taken hostage for four days in Aménas, Algeria, on January 16, 2013, by al Qaeda terrorists; 39 hostages were killed. In Boston, Massachusetts, on April 15, 2013, two pressure cooker bombs exploded during the Boston Marathon—allegedly planted by two brothers motivated by radical Islamic beliefs; more than 260 people were injured, and three people were killed. In Nairobi, Kenya, September 21, 2013, al Shabaab militants stormed a mall, shooting non-Muslims. More than 200 were injured, with at least 68 killed.

These terrorist attacks top the charts of the incidents that occurred around the world in 2013. Though terrorists still favor traditional methods—explosives and arms—the terrorist threatscape is constantly evolving, and government and security professionals must evolve in how they counter those threats in 2014 and beyond. 


One notable trend that is worth keeping an eye on is terror groups’ use of technologically savvy recruitment methods. Robin McFee, who chairs ASIS International’s Global Terrorism Council, notes how al Qaeda and other extremist groups are leveraging the Internet and video games for recruitment. Extremists are taking to multiplayer networked video games where players can team up—and talk with—anyone in the world.

Sometimes this cyber-radicalization is subtle, like encouraging virtual teammates to fight in the name of a certain ideology, and sometimes it’s more direct, which can be seen in some Internet recruiting forums. Either way, extremist groups are indoctrinating young minds all over the world through online technology. “More and more, cyberspace is being used as a highly effective way of reaching young adults who are susceptible to being indoctrinated,” she says.

Speaking at a panel on online radicalization last year, Peter Neumann, director of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, noted that “As older people, we don’t fully get the idea that you can develop social ties to people online.” And Imam Suhaib Webb, of the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center, noted at the same event that as far back as 2004, the imams began to realize that the Internet was becoming a mosque for the mosqueless. Webb tries to reach them in a positive way through that same medium.


Another ongoing trend is that of influential terrorist organizations collaborating to carry out attacks, McFee says. This occurs in regions where there is a power vacuum, a large impoverished sector of society, and few opportunities for young men. For example, McFee notes, groups such as Hezbollah, Hamas, and other small franchises are all thriving in Iran. Combined, these extremist organizations can take advantage of larger numbers and a range of skill sets to train radicalized people to carry out attacks, she says.

Not so alone. Another issue is that of the lone wolf terrorist, a concern because he or she is harder to track or catch if unaffiliated with any group. They are sometimes called self-radicalized, but McFee says it may not be accurate to call them lone wolves or self-radicalized, since they do tend to get their ideas from the major groups in one way or another—which gets back to the impact of online influences. They may find bomb-making materials and inspirational jihadist literature online, for example.

At other times, they are not nearly as alone as they appear at first. For example, the brothers who allegedly carried out the Boston Marathon bombing were initially thought to be working as lone wolves since they had lived in America for 11 years, according to news reports. However, it was later revealed that older brother Tamerlan Tsarnaev had spent six months in Russia, where he is believed to have become radicalized and possibly trained.

“These weren’t two kids who watched Bill Nye the Science Guy and decided to cook up something in their backyard,” McFee says. “[Tamerlan] was well trained in sophisticated stuff. They were both good at evading security cameras and other security measures.”

McFee says this type of indoctrination and training will continue to increase because it’s so easy to reach “psychologically susceptible” young people over the Internet. This will lead to an increase in Boston Marathon-type attacks—small pockets of indoctrinated nationals carrying out sophisticated, specific attacks, she says.

Longer-term strategies. Apart from the efforts to counter threats at home via airport checkpoints, border security, and other internal measures, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is trying to preemptively fight transnational crime through programs focused on bolstering the security capacity of partner nations. For example, according to a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, the DHS spent approximately $451 million on these programs in 2012 (2013 figures were not available at press time).

They consist of four types of efforts: deploying programs abroad that inhibit people who present a threat to the United States; working with and sharing information with international and federal partners to help counter terrorism; working alongside foreign officials in assessing their own security vulnerabilities; and helping other nations strengthen their security infrastructure through training and consultation.

Although the GAO found that the programs have contributed to fighting terrorism, the agency recommended that the DHS establish clearer priorities and better ways to track whether program spending was directed in ways that were optimal for furthering those priorities.

But 10 years after the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, it may be time to reassess not just how DHS handles some policies but how it’s structured. In anticipation of the second quadrennial homeland security review of the agency (due in December but not out at press time), The Heritage Foundation last year laid out what it saw as major concerns—such as that DHS and the Department of Justice (DOJ) are still fighting over who should take the lead on intelligence information sharing with state and local law enforcement. It’s time to cede that ground to the DOJ, it said. For example, the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Forces (JTTFs) are more established than the DHS’s fusion centers and the dual-tracking of these sometimes competing efforts creates inefficiencies.

The group also calls on DHS to find ways to coordinate work better with state and local law enforcement in intelligence gathering and counterterrorism. Another suggestion is to stop involving the federal government in routine disasters. Instead, it advocates letting the Federal Emergency Management Agency focus (FEMA) resources on preparing for truly catastrophic events, because the federal government still lacks that type of comprehensive plan. 

While advocating that Congress rein in FEMA, The Heritage Foundation calls on legislators to strengthen DHS’s central authority over its component agencies, so that it is not such a weak institution. The group’s paper on the issue says that DHS needs clearer authority to resolve inter-agency conflicts and create strategies that cut across these units. DHS needs the equivalent, it wrote, of what was done for the Department of Defense.

However, preventing attacks isn’t just the government’s battle. Private security operations have a role to play as well, as ASIS members know.

“We have eyes and ears and boots on the ground in places that sworn officers aren’t, like malls and office buildings,” says McFee.

“At the end of the day, security is local. The reason that we minimized the number of deaths in Boston was because law enforcement was working well with fire rescue, hospitals, and the people, and there is tremendous infrastructure there,” she says. “Thanks to that, we were able to save a lot of people. Can that be said if it happened anywhere else? With few exceptions, there’s a big question mark.”