Global Risk Themes 2020, #7: Terrorism and militancy

In contrast to some other non-state threats the recent trend among terrorist groups has been towards less technological sophistication rather than more.

Coinciding with the fall of its self-styled caliphate in Syria, Islamic State (IS) has increased its focus on encouraging operational autonomy and opportunism among supportive groups and individuals internationally. The threat from such actors is broadly at the lower end of the technical spectrum and has been reflected in the prominence of knives, vehicular ramming and crude improvised explosives in recent IS-linked attacks and plots, particularly in Europe.

Coordinated bombings against churches and hotels in Sri Lanka in April 2019 show that there is still potential for outliers to this trend, in the shape of more ambitious, complex attacks in countries with relatively little history of Islamist terrorism. The targeting of such attacks is inherently difficult to predict, although countries with sizeable radicalised Muslim populations and a recent history of targeted IS recruitment face the highest threat. Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, the Maldives and the Philippines all fall into that category.

The majority of mass-casualty attacks remain concentrated in countries with established IS or al-Qaeda-linked insurgencies (particularly Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Libya, Somalia and Nigeria) and those in which IS and/or al-Qaeda are actively seeking to co-opt local Islamist insurgent movements (particularly in the Sahel and East Africa).

There have been further indicators in 2019 of sustained intent to attack international targets in Kenya, including hotels. There is also continued intent and capability in the major cities of Pakistan and India despite security improvements in both countries. Politicians, government departments and security forces will remain a focus, meaning that businesses face the greatest risk where they are in physical proximity to these targets (for example in international hotels or working on projects with government departments or state-owned companies).

Attacks motivated by right-wing and racist sentiments are increasing in frequency and ambition in the West, accounting for two of the deadliest terrorist incidents of 2019 in the Christchurch mosque shootings in New Zealand and a mass shooting at a Walmart store in El Paso, Texas. Multiple right-wing extremist plots have been disrupted in Europe and are now treated as terrorist threats by the governments of the UK, Germany and France. Elections in the US and several European countries in which immigration and race issues feature prominently will sustain this rising trend in 2020.


The unpredictability of such attacks places a premium on well-drilled crisis procedures and tactical analysis, enabling companies to maximise operational resilience. In the US there is mounting staff and customer pressure for companies to take action – for example through screening and onsite security – in a space in which the government is seen to be failing. In the EU, regulatory demands on social media companies to act against hate speech and inflammatory content are set to increase further in 2020.

Sibylline Annual Forecast 2020: Global Themes

This post is part of a series of eight global themes to watch in 2020. These form part of our annual forecast product, released to clients in December and including regional deep dives on the Americas, Europe, MENA, Africa, Eurasia and Asia Pacific in addition to an overview of key events and flashpoints in the year ahead. Please contact us if you are interested in receiving this product or finding out more about the World Risk Register.


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