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Top 10 terrorism trends: 2008-2012

Top 10 terrorism trends: 2008-2012

To mark the 50th edition of Risk Advisory’s Terrorism Tracker newsletter, our Intelligence & Analysis team have identified their top ten most significant terrorism trends since the publication began in September 2008.

After the Ben Ali regime in Tunisia fell to a popular pro-democracy uprising in January 2011, the dust had hardly settled before commentators began predicating the end of Al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda and likeminded extremists played no role in the Arab Spring, but the Islamist militancy has arguably been one of its greatest beneficiaries. Al-Qaeda affiliates and jihadist factions have exploited the tumult of the past year and expanded their operations across a host of countries in the Middle East and North Africa, increasingly free from the suppression by Western-backed autocratic regimes. Since January 2011, we have recorded an overall 52% increase in attacks in Libya, Syria, Yemen, Egypt, Syria and the Sahel, all regions, affected by weakened domestic security and the proliferation of weapons from destabilised countries. These groups are stronger in their local environments than ever before. Rather than a nail in the coffin, the Arab Spring has presented Al-Qaeda the lifeline and opportunities it so desperately needed.

Al Qaeda

After nearly ten years of searching, in May 2011 the US government finally found and killed Osama bin Laden. Eighteen months on, the achievement seems more symbolically important than operationally significant. As the Arab Spring Paradox trend suggests, the loss of the most iconic figurehead in the global jihadist movement has had little bearing on the threat in countries where Al-Qaeda’s affiliates are active. Although Bin Laden’s successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, has apparently managed to keep the broader Al-Qaeda movement together, it appears that Al-Qaeda’s ‘brand’ no longer holds the same currency. Even Al-Qaeda affiliates seem to have spawned new groups with names that emphasise a local agenda, rather than the global jihad of Al-Qaeda. This includes Ansar al-Sharia in Yemen, MOJWA in Mali and Algeria, and the Islamic State of Iraq. Despite new and sometimes highly effective Salafist jihadist factions emerging in Syria, Libya, Mali and Egypt, there have been no newly formed groups that have openly adopted the Al-Qaeda name since AQAP in 2009. Since our first issue, the centres of gravity for transnational Islamist terrorism have shifted from the Middle East to the Afghanistan-Pakistan region and back again, but also most notably to the African continent. Groups operating in Africa – including, AQIM, MOJWA, Al-Shabaab and Boko Haram – have become increasingly internationalised and according to US officials are attempting to coordinate their efforts. The militant Islamist takeover of northern Mali, and increasing sophistication and geographical reach of Boko Haram’s operations in Nigeria show the serious challenges this new generation of terrorist groups in the Sahel and Sub-Saharan Africa now pose to security, stability and development in West and East Africa. ?


One of the most notable trends in the past four years has been the increased threat posed by ‘lone wolf’ jihadists to Europe and America. Through English language propaganda like Inspire and even direct contact over the internet, Al-Qaeda and its affiliates have increasingly called on sympathisers in the West to mount ‘individual jihad’ attacks in their home countries with no training and limited guidance. Since October 2010, Al-Qaeda followers have conducted at least 11 ‘lone wolf’ attacks in Western cities, while security forces have thwarted 13 others in the US. The majority of attacks have been relatively unsophisticated, but plotters have aspired to cause mass casualties. In December 2010, a suicide bomber attempted to kill scores of Christmas shoppers in Stockholm, while in March 2012 a self-proclaimed jihadist killed seven people in nine days in southern France. Terrorists acting alone pose significant challenges to law enforcement officials in terms of detection and interdiction, who now regard lone wolves as one of the greatest security threats to the West.


Since launching the Terrorism Tracker database, attacks on businesses have represented around 13% of the total we have recorded worldwide. The most frequently targeted business sector has been retail followed by oil and gas, construction and tourism sectors. Attacks on retail account for 23% of all incidents, indicating that potentially crowded civilian areas remain a key target for terrorist groups. As the most accessible and vulnerable form of business in some areas, terrorist target retail outlets for extortion, to disrupt daily life and to prevent the sale of certain products or services they oppose. The next most targeted sector has been oil and gas, with around 20% of all incidents targeting business. The construction and financial sectors were targets in 11% and 10% of all cases respectively. Pakistan is the most affected country in terms of attacks on business. Over the past year, Pakistan has the highest number of attacks against commercial interests, accounting for 15% of attacks on businesses worldwide.


In our first publication, we profiled the Basque militant group ETA, and its four-decade campaign in for an independent state. In October 2011, after 43 years and more than 800 deaths, ETA laid down its weapons and declared a permanent ceasefire. There are growing indications that two other long-running secular insurgencies may be about to end. Both FARC in Colombia and MILF in the Philippines are currently engaged in peace talks. But a host of other separatist campaigns – such as those in Thailand, India, Pakistan, and Papua – are ongoing and show few signs of ending any time soon.


Despite concerns among western governments about unconventional terrorism, such as nuclear, chemical or biological threat, we have still seen almost no diversion from conventional tactics. The use of explosives and firearms remained the tactic of choice. Indeed, there has been very little change since 2007 in the types of tactics used by the majority of terrorist organisations. Although some, including us, expected the use of armed attacks or swarm tactics to increase following the November 2008 Mumbai attack, conventional bombings have remained the preferred method of choice for around 50% of incidents over the past three years. That said, armed attacks are on the increase. According to the Terrorism Tracker database, the incidence of such attacks rose by 8% worldwide over the past year, and by 17% since 2007.


Islamist groups have dominated the headlines, but since 2009 there has been a resurgence in far-left and anarchist terrorism, which appears has been a direct consequence of the global economic crisis. Although the frequency of far-leftist attacks have fallen since a peak in 2010, anti-establishment and far-left groups have continued to conduct low-level attacks on financial institutions and international companies in Greece. In March, attackers threw a grenade at a branch of Eurobank in Athens, and three months later anarchists attacked Microsoft’s Greek headquarters in the same city.

Social Media

The adage that terrorism feeds from the oxygen of publicity remains evident in how terrorist groups around the world have embraced social media. Things have come a long way from Al-Qaeda handing video tapes to Al-Jazeera in 2001, now nearly every major terrorist group releases communiqués and media online with ever higher production values. Jihadist web forums have existed since 2000, but in the past three years, groups from a broad spectrum have increasingly used social media platforms – such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube – to propagate their grievances and share video clips and images. Although extremist websites remain popular, social media sites allow terrorists to spread messages to larger audiences. Al-Shabaab in Somalia has one of the most developed media presences; it opened its Twitter account in December 2011 and currently has over 17,400 followers.


Since Obama assumed office in January 2009, the United States has significantly increased its use of drones to target terrorists in northwestern Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and possibly other countries. In the past three years, the US has killed over 30 senior Al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders in Pakistan alone. These counterterrorism successes appear to have eroded the ability of Al-Qaeda to conduct operations outside the Afghanistan-Pakistan region and denied it relative freedom of movement. The expansion of drones, in both frequency and across theatres, is one of the most defining counterterrorism developments in recent years.

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Published: 4th December 2012