December 10th, 2012

The Global Terrorist Threat Today

Posted at 1:00 AM ET

David Flandro, Global Head of Business Intelligence, Julian Alovisi, Assistant Vice President, Lucy Dalimonte, Senior Vice President, Ellen Rieder, Managing Director and Emma Karhan, Senior Vice President

Al-Qaeda Core Group

Al-Qaeda suffered a massive setback when U.S. forces killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan in May 2011. The death of bin Laden was a huge blow to the al-Qaeda core group and represented the most significant counter-terrorism success for the United States to date. This, along with the demise of several other senior al-Qaeda figures in drone strike attacks in Pakistan, has weakened the core group’s capability to conduct spectacular attacks against Western countries. Nevertheless, al-Qaeda’s ideology and threat remain, and its aspiration to carry out large-scale attacks against Western interests has been reinforced by the new leadership of Ayman al-Zawahiri.

Affiliated al-Qaeda Groups

Intelligence agencies believe some al-Qaeda affiliates have now eclipsed the core group as the most imminent threat to the Western world. These regional groups operate with a large degree of devolution and autonomy and have become a preeminent threat to Western interests. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Yemen and al-Shabab in Somalia are among the most active and dangerous al-Qaeda affiliates.

Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula

AQAP was formed in January 2009 as the result of a merger between al-Qaeda’s Yemeni and Saudi branches. The group originally carried out attacks in Yemen and Saudi Arabia but has since expanded operations to target the United States. AQAP was responsible for Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s attempted bombing of a Northwest Airlines flight as it approached Detroit on December 25, 2009, and, more recently, the cargo plane bomb plot that aimed to detonate two explosive-laden packages on cargo planes bound for the United States. In late 2010, the group announced its “Operation Hemorrhage” strategy that calls for a large number of inexpensive, small-scale attacks against U.S. interests.

The heightened risk from AQAP seemed to be confirmed in 2011 when National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) Director Michael Leiter said the group could be the most significant risk to the United States. Since then, AQAP has been hit by the deaths of its American-born leader, Anwar al-Awlaki, and other senior AQAP operatives including its second in command, Said al-Shihri) in drone attacks.

AQAP is also currently fighting to maintain its territory in southern Yemen as the country’s new president, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, attempts to consolidate his power. AQAP’s recent strategy of mainly focusing its attention on domestic targets suggests the group is conscious of the threat posed by the country’s new leadership.

However, AQAP’s repeated attempts to assassinate high-level government and military officials demonstrate its ability to mount destructive attacks throughout Yemen and further destabilize the country. In addition, intelligence officials continue to believe AQAP presents a serious threat to Western interests, particularly as the group still possesses the ability to construct powerful bomb-making devices. Indeed, U.S. intelligence services said they had foiled a plot by AQAP to target a U.S. bound passenger plane as recently as May 2012.


Al-Shabab is the most prominent insurgent group in Somalia and is known to have successfully recruited American and European Muslims. The group declared it had merged with al-Qaeda in February 2012. This move was indicative of the group’s increasingly global agenda in which it has issued specific threats against countries it perceives to be supporting the transitional government in Somalia. Indeed, al-Shabab was responsible for the bombings in the Uganda capital of Kampala on July 11, 2010, which killed more than 70 people. It is thought Uganda was targeted in retaliation for the presence of Ugandan troops in Somalia.

Since then, al-Shabab has come under pressure from an offensive by Somali and African Union forces, forcing fighters to retreat from the capital of Mogadishu in 2011 and their southern stronghold of Kismayo in 2012. However, the group continues to carry out frequent attacks on government, military and civilian targets inside Somalia and intelligence analysts fear the group will increasingly pursue attacks against U.S. and Western interests following the merger with al-Qaeda. Western counter-terrorism officials have also expressed concern over co-operation between al-Shabab and other Islamist militant groups in Africa, including al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

The long-standing absence of authority in Somalia has also resulted in Somali pirates becoming a major threat to international shipping in the region. According to the International Maritime Bureau (IMB), piracy attacks reached an all-time high in 2010 when 53 vessels were seized worldwide (all but four taken by Somali pirates). However, improved security measures by commercial shipping companies and more aggressive anti-piracy patrols by navies have seen pirate attacks fall significantly. The IMB Piracy Reporting Centre said that 233 incidents were reported in the first nine months of 2012, the lowest number since 2008. It added that the decrease was due to the decline in Somali piracy incidents, dropping from 199 in the first nine months of 2011 to 70 in 2012. Somali pirates also hijacked fewer vessels in the first half of 2012, down to 13 from 21.

Domestic Terror

Despite often being overshadowed by the transnational Islamist terrorist threat, destructive acts have been carried out over several years by domestic groups and individuals. These include Timothy McVeigh of the Oklahoma bombing in the United States, the Irish Republican Army (IRA) in the United Kingdom and the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka. These acts have resulted in significant property losses for (re)insurers. Indeed, as shown in Table 1, seven of the top ten most costly terrorist attacks (in terms of insured property losses) between 1990 and 2012 were carried out by these domestic groups.

Table 1


More recently, several high-profile domestic attacks have included fatal bombings and shootings in Norway, Russia, Northern Ireland and the United States (including the murder of six Sikhs in Wisconsin). In addition, a recent study by the U.S. Congressional
Research Service shows that domestic terrorists have been responsible for more than two dozen incidents in the United States since 2004.

The threat posed by domestic terrorists will continue to be a concern for (re)insurers, particularly as the recent rise in radical Islamist-linked homegrown terrorist activity has led to questions over whether these plots could constitute domestic terrorism.

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