The key factors that spawned international terrorism show no signs of abating over the next 15 years. Facilitated by global communications, the revival of Muslim identity will create a framework for the spread of radical Islamic ideology inside and outside the Middle East, including Southeast Asia, Central Asia and Western Europe, where religious identity has traditionally not been as strong. This revival has been accompanied by a deepening solidarity among Muslims caught up in national or regional separatist struggles, such as Palestine, Chechnya, Iraq, Kashmir, Mindanao, and southern Thailand, and has emerged in response to government repression, corruption, and ineffectiveness. Informal networks of charitable foundations, and other mechanisms will continue to proliferate and be exploited by radical elements; alienation among unemployed youths will swell the ranks of those vulnerable to terrorist recruitment.
We expect that by 2020 al-Qa’ida will be superceded by similarly inspired Islamic extremist groups, and there is a substantial risk that broad Islamic movements akin to al-Qa’ida will merge with local separatist movements. Information technology, allowing for instant connectivity, communication, and learning, will enable the terrorist threat to become increasingly decentralized, evolving into an eclectic array of groups, cells, and individuals that do not need a stationary headquarters to plan and carry out operations. Training materials, targeting guidance, weapons know-how, and fund-raising will become virtual (i.e., online).
Terrorist attacks will continue to primarily employ conventional weapons, incorporating new twists and constantly adapting to counterterrorist efforts. Terrorists probably will be most original not in the technologies or weapons they use but rather in their operational concepts—i.e., the scope, design, or support arrangements for attacks.
Strong terrorist interest in acquiring chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear weapons increases the risk of a major terrorist attack involving WMD. Our greatest concern is that terrorists might acquire biological agents or, less likely, a nuclear device, either of which could cause mass casualties. Bioterrorism appears particularly suited to the smaller, better-informed groups. We also expect that terrorists will attempt cyber attacks to disrupt critical information networks and, even more likely, to cause physical damage to information systems.