August 6th, 2014

The Evolving Terrorist Threat

Posted at 1:00 AM ET

Terrorist activity over the last 18 months has reflected the changing terrorism landscape. Several important developments have occurred since the beginning of 2013, starting with French military intervention in Mali in January 2013 to prevent the country from becoming a failed state and base for jihadist terrorists.

This was quickly followed by a terrorist attack in Algeria that targeted the In Aménas gas plant operated by the Algerian state oil company, Sonatrach, along with BP and Statoil. The attack by a group led by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a former leader of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), resulted in the death of at least 39 foreign workers. Although (re)insurers escaped significant losses from the attacks, the event demonstrated the threat against Western interests in the region.

The first successful major attack on US soil since September 11, 2001 also occurred in 2013 when two bombs detonated near the finish line of the Boston marathon in April. The bombings were carried out by brothers Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev. Dzhokhar, a US citizen, and Tamerlan, his application for citizenship pending, were seemingly self-radicalized individuals who had lived in the United States for a number of years and received no known assistance from overseas groups. The attack took a degree of sophistication and planning that set it apart from the mass shootings by lone individuals that had previously occurred in the United States. The explosions killed three people and approximately 260 more were injured. According to the Massachusetts Division of Insurance, property and casualty (P&C) insurers have paid a total of approximately USD2 million in bomb-related P&C claims (despite the event not being certified a terrorist act for the Terrorism Risk Insurance Program Reauthorization Act [TRIPRA] purposes).

The Boston attack served as a stark reminder that the United States and other Western countries remain vulnerable to radicalized homegrown terrorists that use relatively simple improvised explosive devices (IEDs). While such individuals and small cells have no direct links to al-Qaeda, they have heeded the call from senior al-Qaeda leaders, such as Ayman al-Zawahiri, to carry out attacks in their home countries with the resources at their disposal rather than risk detection by forming larger groups with other extremists.

This has resulted in an increased frequency of low capability attacks by lone attackers with no direct connection to al-Qaeda. In addition to the Boston bombings, a number of attacks perpetrated by individuals inspired by al-Qaeda have occurred recently, including shooting attacks by Mohommed Merah in France in 2012, the stabbing of Lee Rigby, a British soldier, in London in 2013 and the gun attack on a Jewish museum in Belgium in 2014. A number of failed attacks have also occurred during this time.

However, al-Qaeda continues to harbor ambitions of larger-scale attacks as evidenced by the promotion of AQAP’s Nasir al-Wuhayshi (a clear advocate of transnational attacks) within the core group. The resilience of al-Qaeda and its affiliates was also demonstrated when al-Shabaab conducted its highest profile transnational attack in September 2013. Despite suffering repeated territorial setbacks in Somalia and a persistent counter-terrorism campaign in 2013, al-Shabaab militants armed with assault rifles, machine guns and grenades attacked the Westgate shopping mall in the Kenyan capital city of Nairobi. The Westgate mall was likely to have been selected as a high profile, soft target popular with wealthy Kenyans and foreigners. The attack resulted in the death of at least 67 people, inflicting significant damage to the building and causing the largest terrorism-related loss to the (re)insurance sector for a number of years.

Technical advancements have also given terrorist organizations relatively new vehicles to promote their ideology, recruit new members and incite attacks, whether it is by utilizing the internet or communicating via email, social networking, chat rooms or mobile applications.

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