2010: A Scenario for Terror

A number of trends indicate a strong potential for a resurgence in international terror this coming year.

Don’t want to be a Gloomy Gus on New Year’s Eve, but I will speculate that Islamicist terrorism will recapture international attention, especially in the West, this coming year.

It’s not as if terrorism stopped happening in 2009. It definitely took off in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region but it was so clearly aimed at the regimes in Islamabad and Kabul that it was not seen as an international threat. The Tehreek e Taliban were dangerous, but didn’t show any interest in attacking London or Louisiana, just Lahore.

But a number of trends may come to maturity this coming year and their fallout points to a return to globe-spanning terrorism.

One is the rise, already commented on by various counterterrorism experts, of the Al Qaeda regional affiliates. After a relatively long lull, the end of the past year saw the chapter in Iraq stage a series of spectacular bomb blasts, the chapter in Somalia actually carving out its own bit of territory, and the chapter in the Arabian Peninsula try to assassinate a Saudi minister and blow up a US airliner.

Though they’ve been around for years, these regional affiliates had been either browbeaten into silence or had focussed on local targets. With the attempt over Detroit, Al Qaeda Arabia officially declared itself a global contender. Yemen only generated two international Al Qaeda attacks between 2000-2008. Now two have arisen in the last five months of 2009. I suspect it won’t take long for more such plots to surface. I’ll put a small side bet that Somalia is going to go from being a safe haven to an exporter this coming year.

The original Al Qaeda also got very hoity-toity after 9/11, declining to carry out attacks that were not spectacular. They also had to be multiple. All of that is clearly gone. It is now carry out terrorist attacks when the opportunity arises, don’t worry about bells and whistles.

Two is that home-grown terrorism has been on a steady rise in the West but even in places like Asia and Africa. A Rand Corporation study, excluding the war zones of Iraq and Afghanistan, has shown a steady increase in lone gunmen inspired by Al Qaeda carrying out or plotting terrorist act since 2001.

2009 was a peak year for the US. Though the shootings in Arkansas and Fort Hood were the only ones to make it to page one, it is less known that eight other such plots were nipped in the bud.

While no one is completely clear what leads a person to take the path of self-radicalisation, at least two macro causes are evident. One is a bad economy, which tends to drive marginal people over the edge. Don’t expect the West’s economy to be good news in 2010. Two is the pressure of US cum Western war efforts in Muslim dominated areas. Afghanistan is going to be an even bloodier place next year as the new NATO deployments begin to bite.

The trends aren’t too good for Europe either, especially the United Kingdom. Every counterterrorism person I speak to in the US, when asked what worries him or her the most, says, “BritPak.” In other words, radicalized British citizens of Pakistani origin. Among other things, they don’t need visas to enter the US.

Finally, there’s Pakistan. The civilian regime of Asif Ali Zardari is going to be fighting for its life in 2010 and I wouldn’t bet money on its survival beyond the summer. But this will effectively mean that there will be even less authority in Islamabad than normal.

When the Pakistani state is weak and its leadership is daggers drawn, the jihadi groups there get more leeway to do what they are best at – which is wage terror.

India has screamed and shouted, cajoled and caressed, all of 2009 in an attempt to get Pakistan – and vicariously the US – to at least get the Lashkar e Toiba to keep a low profile. It’s worked to some degree. Lashkar has done nearly nothing since the Mumbai 26/11 attacks. But it can’t continue for too long.

More importantly, as Pakistan itself is squeezed by further internal terror attacks and the expansion of the US war in Afghanistan, the more likely it is that a nexus of Islamicist military officers and terrorist groups will seek to ease the pressure by attacking something, anything, further afield. India is the obvious target. But I would argue that militant groups other than Lashkar, because of Al Qaeda’s influence (yes, all those videotapes do have an impact) are increasingly prone to seeing New York as preferable to New Delhi has a means to earn street-cred.

I could and hope that I am completely wrong. Watch and see.

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