Non-State Actors

Terrorism Outlook: United States

December 28, 2020

Michael Ellmer

 

Key Judgements

 

KJ-1. Based on the current statistical trends, it is likely that future terrorist attacks in the US will primarily utilize explosives, firearms, and incendiary devices.

 

KJ-2. It is highly likely that US and international terrorist groups who target the US will utilize social media and other internet capabilities in order to recruit and plan attacks.

 

KJ-3. It is likely that the primary targets and victims of future terrorist attacks will be members of specific political or ethnic groups due to recent trends in political and race-driven violence and incidents.

 

KJ-4. It is highly likely that far-right and politically motivated groups will carry out most future attacks in the US.

 

 

Background

 

The bulk of terrorist activities within the United States (US) has taken place between 2000 and 2020. According to the Global Terrorism Database (GTD), there have been 563 incidents within this timeframe. The most prominent successful incident was September 11th, 2001 when the insurgent group Al Qaeda conducted four coordinated terrorist attacks in the states of New York, Virginia, and Pennsylvania, resulting in 2,996 deaths. Apart from that incident, most of the US domestic terrorism has been conducted at a smaller scale, originating from various underground groups and cells, and lone-wolf attacks.

 

Since the September 11th attack, the United States has taken significant measures at a federal level in order to fight and end terrorism, both internationally and domestically. The Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act (USA Patriot Act) was a congressional act legislated in 2001 which was an intensive legislative package designed to aid government and local law enforcement and intelligence agencies in preventing future attacks.

 

 

Weapons

 

Background

 

 

According to the GTD, the weapons used in terrorist attacks can be generally classified in these categories: biological/chemical, explosives, firearms, incendiary, melee, equipment sabotage, and vehicle-borne. According to the graph that accompanies this section, some weapons have had a steady use between 2000-2010, such as incendiary devices and explosives. The use of firearms has been at its height between 2015-2020, as well as melee attacks (knives, blunt objects, hands and feet).

 

The statistics on the graph reflect both successful and unsuccessful uses of the annotated weaponry, and some years have a high number despite the bulk of the attacks stemming from one plot. An example of this is the explosives statistic for 2018, which records 21 uses. 15 of those uses were un-operational letter bombs mailed to prominent political figures and celebrities by a man named Cesar Sayoc, a Pro-Trump extremist. Chemical and biological weapons have not had a strong usage in the US apart from the early 2000’s when a series of anthrax infected letters were mailed to various media and government figures.        

 

Predictions

Based on the current statistical trends, it is likely that future attacks will primarily use explosives, firearms, and incendiary devices. Firearms are relatively easy to acquire in the US, both legally and illegally, and that makes them a viable option due to accessibility and efficiency. There has been a recent minor spike in the use of explosives and incendiary devices within attacks which is likely due to the nature of the political and social unrest that has been the impetus of most attacks. Homemade weaponry within those classes is both affordable and difficult to trace. Terrorist groups such as the newly labelled left-wing extremists ANTIFA as well as far-right groups like the Boogaloo Movement have both either used or plotted to use incendiary devices and explosives. It is likely that will continue following the ongoing contested national presidential election.   

 

           

Tactics

 

Background

 

Terrorist attacks in the US are primarily targeted at specific targets and do not often result in high casualties. Eco-terrorist groups such as the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) and Earth Liberation Front (ELF) have a historical trend of targeting facilities and infrastructure with incendiary devices and explosives, although in some instances without regard to the potential of causalities. Similarly, Anti-Abortion extremists also target infrastructure (abortion clinics), although at times personnel as well. Attacks on infrastructure are generally meant to either display a message or disrupt operations of the target. Extremist attacks towards religious, political, or social groups, are generally conducted with the intent to injure or kill. These sorts of attacks are generally conducted using firearms, explosives, or melee weapons, and take place at places of worship or social events. Lone wolf attacks can be both specifically targeted and random.  

 

 

Predictions

It is highly likely that terrorist groups will utilize social media and other internet capabilities in order to recruit and plan attacks. As technology has advanced and internet usage has increased, terrorist groups and ideological movements have been cultivated through online media platforms, such as 4chan, 8chan, and Facebook. Groups often use these platforms as a central point to find or radicalize vulnerable citizens into being sympathetic to their cause or intrigued to take a part within it.

 

Recent trends display an increase of politically motivated attacks, with a noticeable increase in far-right extremists during the past four years of the Trump Administration. In 2019, FBI Director Christopher Wray said during testimony in front of the House Judiciary Committee, that “The spate of attacks we saw in 2019 underscores the continued threat posed by domestic violent extremists and perpetrators of hate crimes”. The hate crimes mentioned are primarily tied to the significant rise of activity within the modern white nationalist movement. The guerilla-style tactics these groups use will likely be continued in the future, based on the current trends.  

 

 

Targets & Victims

 

Background

Graph sourced by GTD

 

According to the GTD, there have been 7 attacks out of the 563 between 2000-2018 that have resulted in 101+ casualties. There has been 1 between 51-100 causalities, 19 between 11-50, 34 between 1-10, and 401 with zero causalities. Businesses and religious institutions remain the primary targets, followed by private citizens and government employees and infrastructure.          

 

Predictions     

 

It is likely that the primary targets and victims of future terrorist attacks will be members of specific political or ethnic groups. This prediction is based on both current trends as well as recent activities. Although jihadi-inspired attacks have been a historically mainstream fear among the general public, they have been a relatively abstract percentage of recent attacks. The defeat of ISIS in the Middle East coupled with the decrease in troops and operations in the global war on terror has had a realistic probability of lessening jihadi-inspired attacks. The rise in politically and socially motivated incidents equates to a likelihood of attacks isolated to specific groups. That prediction does not nullify the potential of unknown attacks on the general public by unidentified groups, although there is no current OSINT that reflects that possibility.

 

 

Assailants

 

Background

 

 

The primary assailants in US terrorist instances between 2000-2020 have been: the ALF, the ELF, Anti-Abortion extremists, jihadi-influenced extremists, anti-government extremists, anti-Muslim extremists, right-wing extremists, white nationalists and neo-Nazi’s, and other various hate groups. There has been a large portion of attacks that are categorized as having an “unknown” assailant, although inferences can be made about possible motives or ideological allegiances depending on the individual case information. The ALF and ELF have had a dramatic decrease in activity over the past 15 years, as well as eco-terrorism in general.   

 

 

Predictions 

 

It is highly likely that far-right and politically motivated groups will carry out most future attacks in the US. The current political and social climate in the US is at a heightened state of unrest, as it has been since the 2016 election of current President Donald J. Trump. The November 2020 election resulted in a loss for Trump and a victory for democratic nominee Joe Biden. The Trump administration has refused to accept the legitimacy of the election, which has resulted in a highly contested legal and rhetorical battle.

 

It is highly likely that far-right groups will see this election as a threat to both democracy as well as the US Constitution, which is a basis for their ideologies. A non-peaceful resolution or outcome of the election’s current results will likely lead in an increase of the already heightened activity of far-right groups, as well as their left-wing counterparts.

 

 

ICoD: 12/NOV/2020

 

 

Image: FBI (link)

 

 

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