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Global terrorism trends suggest extremists will adapt and evolve

03 Jan 2021

Global terrorism trends suggest extremists will adapt and evolve

03 Jan 2021

Recent years have seen noticeable evolutions in patterns of global terrorism and the potential threat that it poses to the international community. The latest annual edition of the Global Terrorism Index (GTI) has registered a further drop in terrorist incidents that maintains a general trend evident in the data gathered worldwide.[1] Nevertheless, emerging patterns of terrorism and the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic remain sources of concern.

The recent figures suggest that the regional distribution of terrorist incidents has shifted, though South Asia remains the most affected region. In terms of future trends, ISIS will continue to present a threat, not least through online activities, even though its affiliate groups and individuals are increasingly fragmented. Another issue of concern is the growing activities of far-right groups in North America, Europe, and elsewhere. While the Covid-19 pandemic may have disrupted some terrorist activities, vulnerable populations’ economic damage may give extremist groups new opportunities to secure recruits.

General global trends

The latest GTI report notes a continued decline in terrorism-related incidents that maintains a trend evident over the last five years. The total number of deaths from terrorism incidents have fallen for a fifth consecutive year after fatalities reached a peak in 2014; the figures collected show that the total number of deaths fell by 15.5 percent to 13,826. As many as 103 countries improved their GTI score in terms of terrorism-related fatalities; 35 recorded a decline. The GTI score methodology also incorporates data related to incidents, injuries, and property damage caused by terrorism for over five years.[2]

Overall, the GTI report notes that deaths from terrorism are now 59 percent lower than their peak occurrence in 2014. This decline in mortality rates has been the largest in Iraq, Syria, and Nigeria. The overall fall in terrorism-related deaths is also reflected in reductions in the number of countries experiencing deaths from terrorism. While 63 countries recorded at least one death from terrorism in 2019, this number represents the lowest number recorded since 2013. Terrorism’s impact in seven of the nine regions of the world was lower in 2019. South Asia recorded the largest decline, followed by Central America and the Caribbean; the latter region has recorded the lowest regional impact of terrorism for the past 17 years. The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region saw the largest regional improvement in terms of declines in terrorist activity for the second consecutive year. Overall, deaths in MENA have fallen by 87 percent since 2016 and are now recording their lowest levels since 2003.[3]

However, attacks by far-right terrorists in North America, Western Europe, and Oceania have increased by 250 percent since 2014; such attacks are now more frequent than at any time in the last 50 years. Besides, deaths attributable to ISIS affiliates in sub-Saharan Africa have increased by 67 percent. In total, attacks by ISIS and its affiliates took place in 27 countries in 2019. In general, terrorist activity in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa has increased, with both regions having recorded more terrorism-related deaths than MENA since 2018.[4]

According to the GTI 2020, the 10 countries most affected by terrorism[5] were:

  • Afghanistan
  • Iraq
  • Nigeria
  • Syria
  • Somalia
  • Yemen
  • Pakistan
  • India
  • Democratic Republic of Congo
  • Philippines

Although the largest fall in the impact of terrorism occurred in Afghanistan, which recorded 1,654 fewer deaths from terrorism, a 22.4 percent decrease from the prior year, the country remains the leading victim of terrorism after surpassing Iraq in 2018. Nigeria recorded the second-largest reduction in deaths from terrorism in 2019, with the number falling from 2,043 to 1,245. This 39.1 percent reduction is mainly attributable to fewer deaths at the hands of Fulani extremists. However, there has been a corresponding small increase in deaths attributed to Boko Haram, the most active terrorist group in Nigeria over the past decade. Nevertheless, terrorism-related deaths in Nigeria now amount to 83 percent less than their peak in 2014.[6]

In general, the region most impacted by terrorist activity and incidents remains South Asia, even though there is an evident decline in terrorist attacks in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India. Overall, South Asia recorded more deaths from terrorism than any other region over the past two years. Increased ISIS activity in sub-Saharan Africa is the primary factor in that region, recording the second-highest regional number of terrorism deaths despite a significant decrease in Nigeria. Overall, 41 percent of all ISIS-related attacks in 2019 occurred in sub-Saharan Africa.[7]

The global economic impact of terrorism was estimated to be USD 26.4 billion in 2019; this represents a 25 percent decrease compared to the previous year. Nevertheless, financial estimates of terror-related damage cannot fully quantify indirect impacts on economic activity and insurance and security costs incurred by countering terrorism.[8]

In general, while terrorism’s impacts have declined, they remain an urgent and destructive global problem challenge. Terrorism generally thrives on instability, with over 96 percent of deaths from terrorism in 2019 occurring in countries affected by inter-state and civil conflict. The 10 countries subject to the highest impact of terrorism are involved in at least one ongoing military conflict.

Emerging terror trends: The continued threat of ISIS

In general, a steady decline in ISIS’s capabilities has been evident: deaths caused by ISIS activity have fallen from 1,571 to 942 since 2018. Although 339 incidents were attributed to ISIS in 2019, this represents the lowest rate of attacks since its inception. However, while ISIS activity in MENA has steadily declined in recent years, the group has attracted new affiliates in other regions.[9]

This is particularly evident in sub-Saharan Africa. According to the GTI, seven of the 10 countries that registered the largest increase in terrorism according to the GTI are in sub-Saharan Africa: Burkina Faso, Mozambique, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Mali, Niger, Cameron, and Ethiopia. Burkina Faso has seen the largest increase in terrorism-related deaths; a total rise from 86 to 593 represents a 590 percent increase. Three terrorist groups – the Islamic State in Greater Sahara (ISGS), Jamaat Nusrat Al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM), and the Burkina Faso branch of Ansar Al-Islam – are primarily responsible for the increased death toll.[10]

In addition, terrorists have also continued to target several European countries. Such attacks have received a lot of news coverage. The issue has been re-elevated to the public agenda, but they are not genuinely out of line with past years. Numerous terrorist attacks (15) have been perpetrated on European soil from 2015 to 2018. This raises several questions, such as: What are the strategic aims of these attacks? What has led/enabled/facilitated these attacks? How can we contextualize these terrorist attacks in Europe?

Firstly, it has become apparent that the threat of ISIS has increasingly diversified and become more geographically diffuse, especially in the aftermath of its demise in Syria and Iraq. The frequency of plots has ebbed and flowed, and it bears reminding that many reports on terrorist incidents tend to exclude foiled or failed plots. Although there has been a steady pace of ISIS-inspired and directed terrorist attacks over the last few years, large-scale plots involving complex networks of operatives and top-down directives appear to be a thing of the past. Within general terrorism trends, such attacks are increasingly a marginal phenomenon.[11]

Second, these types of smaller attacks have led to and are intended to generate an increased fear of terrorism. As is typical of all terrorist events, part of the underlying strategy is to suggest/to signal that such violent assaults can take place/happen anywhere, anytime, and by anyone without much planning or preparation or forewarning. Another element of ISIS’s terror strategy in Europe is to create/entice/promote a feeling of contagious violence to stimulate more attacks and encourage others to “follow the example.”[12] The overarching goal is to incite a global insurgency that seeks to inspire Muslims across the world.  ISIS wants to up the frequency of attacks to compete with some of its adversaries to claim quantity over quality and be seen as the prime representative of the so-called jihadist community worldwide.

Another explanation of why such attacks have been carried out in Europe might be explained by the fact that many of those seeking to travel from various European capitals to Iraq and Syria to join ISIS were prevented from doing so by intelligence services. The subsequent disappointment and reaction might have led to such attacks as a means of retaliation. According to one study, such “frustrated travelers” have launched unsophisticated attacks in their home countries as a means of furthering ISIS’s cause from their country of residence. Figures suggest that 25 “frustrated traveler” plots initiated in Europe from January 2014 to June 2019 eventually led to eight attacks, which resulted in 18 injuries and seven deaths.[13]


One key factor in the diffusion and decentralization of ISIS’s threat is the increased use of social media to distribute propaganda and incitement. The increase in the use of such digital platforms to recruit, instruct, and encourage terrorist operatives has, according to one analysis, transformed ISIS from an insurgent group holding actual territory into a “Virtual Caliphate.” ISIS is now using online spaces and digital platforms to showcase a discourse on the religion’s role on deeds, emphasizing the duty to help fellow Muslims rather than referencing a possible re-emergence of ISIS.[14] Also, the modus operandi of recent European “jihadists” indicates that firearms, knives, and vehicles have become the preferred weapons of choice since they are easily accessible, readily available, and are relatively inexpensive. These types of weapons are easy to acquire, although they generally do not kill a large number of people.[15]

A comprehensive GLOBSEC Policy Institute study found a so-called “crime-terror nexus” underlying many European jihadis’ background. Their results, based on data sets from numerous countries in Europe (France, UK, Spain, Italy, and Greece), indicate that “…a significant number of European jihadis have been involved in some criminal activity before committing acts of political violence.”[16] Almost one-third of European jihadis had a serious run-in with the law, committing crimes such as robberies, burglaries, thefts, trafficking of goods and fraud (to name a few). Many of those arrested and convicted served prison sentences, during their incarceration, turned from criminals to terrorists by being radicalized through contacts with other radicalized prisoners. The GLOBSEC study also points to the overall nature of European jihad as a homegrown phenomenon, many of which are naturalized or first-generation and generally made up/composed of poorly educated males (in terms of formal high school or higher education).[17]

ISIS has also exploited the political and cultural issues unique/particular to the Muslim diaspora communities in its recruitment (propaganda) methods. The lack of social integration, unemployment, and discrimination among young people in various neighborhoods can lead to social marginalization, leading to a higher probability of committing such attacks. Many European Muslim communities feel angry since terrorists are frequently conflated with Muslims in general, casting a web of suspicion on various religious communities residing in Europe.[18] This leads to a polarization problem of Muslim citizens in Europe. ISIS has sought to capitalize on existing inter-communal tensions in Europe characterized by alienation, marginalization, and the fear of the ‘other.’

Emerging trends: The growth of the Far Right

While terrorist attacks by far-right groups are relatively rare compared to other forms of terrorist activity, a very evident trend in recent years is a rapid growth in such incidents. Attacks by far-right groups in North America, Western Europe, and Oceania grew by 250 percent since 2014. Among the 89 deaths attributed to far-right terrorists in 2019, 51 occurred in the attacks on mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. In addition, far-right terrorism is also more likely to be carried out in the form of actions by individuals unaffiliated with specific groups; such attacks accounted for 60 percent of far-right attacks from 1970 to 2019, compared to less than 10 percent for both far left and separatist political and terrorist groups.[19]

To a significant extent, far-right activities are provoked by Islamophobia and perceptions of Islamist extremist groups’ threat posed. Far-right extremist terrorism thus at least partially mirrors the ideologies of their Islamist targets. Such reactions are a fulfillment of ISIS’s strategy to “push European states toward polarization to facilitate jihadist ambitions, those being, continued intervention abroad and securitization of Islam at home, showcasing Europe as hostile to Muslims, all of which promote the idea of a ‘war on Islam.’”[20]

Therefore, terrorist attacks intended to provoke an Islamophobic backlash succeed according to the degree of violent reaction from other community groups. By provoking reprisals targeting Muslims living in Europe, reciprocal radicalization between the far-right and violent Islamists holds the potential to worsen the situation.[21] Evidence gathered by the Counter Extremism Project in Austria suggests that attacks directed against Muslims, asylum seekers, and associated institutions have persisted and even increased. Their annual report states that new far-right groups like the Identarian Movement Austria, whose rhetoric focuses on the perceived fear of ‘Islamization’ of Western societies, have gained popularity and that the migration influx into Europe has increased xenophobic sentiments, which have gradually fueled far-right extremism in Austria.[22]

A broader, worrying trend related to such developments is the increased acceptance of political violence as an acceptable phenomenon in numerous countries. Statistical trends suggest that such violence is seen as more and more justifiable by partisan individuals in increasingly polarized societies. In the United States, nearly 40 percent of both Democrat and Republican poll respondents in 2020 agreed that politically motivated violence was acceptable in some circumstances; this represents an increase from less than 10 percent of respondents agreeing with this proposition in 2018. These figures correspond with an increase in violent demonstrations in western societies due to a rise in social and political instability.[23]

The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic

In some respects, the curfews, closed borders and grounded commercial airliners seen during the Covid-19 pandemic have inhibited terrorist activity. Insurgent groups have had their movements, operations, and recruitment efforts restricted. Lockdown measures that have limited use of public spaces also have limited potential targets for terrorists. For organizations such as ISIS, the pandemic will impede the execution of large-scale, sophisticated attacks on significant targets. Simultaneously, the pandemic restrictions are likely to pose fewer problems for smaller, locally-based terrorist groups and individuals acting under their initiative.

However, the Covid-19 pandemic will likely exacerbate terrorist activity in specific regions and present new challenges to counter such attacks. Such challenges often relate to the state’s capacity to exercise its authority and ensure its people’s welfare at a time of increasing economic stress. The pandemic may offer opportunities for terrorists to regroup and increase their territorial range as governments are distracted by the public health crisis from focusing on counter-terrorism measures. In areas where state governance is deficient or seen as illegitimate, terrorist groups could exploit the power vacuum to provide essential services to local populations subject to poverty and marginalization.

The pandemic might also provide a more favorable context for those groups seeking to recruit and radicalize new members. The Taliban has suggested that the Covid-19 virus was sent by God as a punishment for the “sins of mankind,” while ISIS has referred to it as a “soldier of Allah.” It is notable that both Al-Qaeda has sought to exploit the current situation by encouraging non-Muslims in the West to convert to Islam, while ISIS has continued to call for global jihad and encourage followers to launch attacks while the pandemic stretches security and government forces.

Increased government deficits generated by the economic crisis seen during the pandemic may affect counter-terrorism operations. There is a risk that the downturn caused by Covid-19 could increase political instability in some places and that governments under financial pressure may decide to cut back on counter-terrorism initiatives. Operations by the global coalition to defeat ISIS have already been affected, as seen in Iraq’s case where some members of the international coalition plan to withdraw their forces due to fears of the spread of Covid-19.[24]

The future outlook

In conclusion, it is evident that while the incidence of terrorism worldwide is in decline, the threat is evolving and may further develop in uncertain directions as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. The GTI 2020 report highlights the extent to which international terrorism has declined in recent years. One of the most encouraging findings is the extent to which terrorist activity in the MENA region – one which in recent years has seen significant violence in areas of instability – has dropped by over 80 percent in the last four years. Nevertheless, concerns persist over ISIS’s ability to attract extend its operations in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia while also recruiting radicalized individuals in Europe. As a phenomenon that is at least partially a reaction to the continued Islamist extremist threat and a reflection of more divided societies, the rise of the far-right also poses a growing challenge.

The onset of the global Covid-19 pandemic has placed additional strains on regional governments. It increases the risk that ISIS and other terrorist groups can exploit poor governance and the lack of security to gain recruits and expand their influence and marginalized areas. To counter such challenges, states subject to instability need to expand their counter-terrorism cooperation with regional neighbors and draw on international actors’ resources to prevent a recurrence of terrorist activity. The global community must also be mindful of terrorist groups seeking to exploit social media platforms to spread extremist messages and leverage marginalized groups’ legitimate grievances.

While the global trend of a decline in terrorism is encouraging, continued vigilance and a range of policy tools are needed if the international community sustains the pressure on terrorist groups and ensures security for vulnerable populations.


[1] Institute for Economic and Peace, Global Terrorism Index 2020: Measuring the Impact of Terrorism, Sydney, November 2020: The Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP), in collaboration with the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) led by the University of Maryland, has collated and presented data on more than 170,000 terrorist incidents since 1970.  The GTI) report is a thoroughly comprehensive study that presents “the impact of terrorism for 163 countries covering 99.7 percent of the world’s population” and “looks at the application of systems thinking to terrorism, using mainly statistical techniques and mathematical models to better understand the dynamics of terrorism and its subsequent impact on society.”

[2] Institute for Economic and Peace, Global Terrorism Index 2020, p. 12.

[3] Institute for Economic and Peace, Global Terrorism Index 2020, p. 13.

[4] ‘2020 Global Terrorism Index: Deaths from terrorism reach five-year low, but new risks emerge,’ PRN Newswire (Asia), November 25, 2020:

[5] Institute for Economic and Peace, Global Terrorism Index 2020, p. 18.

[6] ‘Changing tactics on terrorism,’ Christian Science Monitor, December 18, 2020:

[7] Institute for Economic and Peace, Global Terrorism Index 2020, pp. 34-8.

[8] Institute for Economic and Peace, Global Terrorism Index 2020, pp. 30-9.

[9] Institute for Economic and Peace, Global Terrorism Index 2020, pp. 53-9.

[10] Institute for Economic and Peace, Global Terrorism Index 2020, pp. 80-2.

[11] Robin Simcox, ‘The Post-Caliphate Threat in Europe-and the Need for Continuing U.S. Assistance,’ The Heritage Foundation, 2019:

[12] Thomas Renard, ‘Fear Not: A Critical Perspective on the Terrorist Threat in Europe.’ Security Policy Brief, EGMONT, No. 77, 2016, pp.1-8:

[13] Robin Simcox, ‘When Terrorists Stay Home: The Evolving Threat to Europe from Frustrated Travelers,’ CTC Sentinel, 2019, pp. 46-55:

[14] Michael Krona, ‘Revisiting the Ecosystem of Islamic State’s ‘Virtual Caliphate,’, GNET, 2020:

[15] Seth Jones, ‘Keep Calm and Carry on: The Terrorist Threat in the United Kingdom,’ Center for Strategic & International Studies, CSIS Briefs, 2018, pp. 1-5;

[16] GLOBSEC, ‘Who are the European Jihadis? Project Midterm Report,’ Brussels, 2018, pp. 1-36:

[17] GLOBSEC, ‘Who are the European Jihadis?’

[18] Onur Sultan. ‘Post-Daesh Challenges for Europe,’ Horizon Insights, Vol. 1, No. 1, 2018, pp. 64-81;

[19] Institute for Economic and Peace, Global Terrorism Index 2020, pp. 60-6.

[20] John Turner, ‘Manufacturing the Jihad in Europe: The Islamic State’s Strategy,’ The International Spectator, Vol. 55, No. 1, 2020, pp. 112-125;

[21] David Rappaport, ‘Why has the Islamic State changed its Strategy and Mounted the Paris-Brussels Attacks?’ Perspectives on Terrorism, Vol. 10, Issue 2, 2016, pp.24-32;

[22] Counter Extremism Project, Austria: Extremism & Counter-Extremism, 2020

[23] Institute for Economic and Peace, Global Terrorism Index 2020, p. 17.

[24] Institute for Economic and Peace, Global Terrorism Index 2020, p. 29.

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