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Experts Share Perspectives on Current Global Terrorism Threat

Black flags pinned into a map of terrorist attacks in Western Europe.

With an increase in recent terrorist incidents, questions are being raised about who is carrying out and inspiring the attacks – and possible connections. A panel of experts discussed the global terrorism landscape at an event hosted by the AU’s School of Public Affairs on March 29.

“There is a lot of difficulty parsing through the nature of the threat that we face in the U.S. and Europe and it’s a complexity that is probably only going to grow as ISIS continues to lose territory,” said SPA Assistant Professor Tricia Bacon.

Seamus Hughes, deputy director for Program on Extremism at George Washington University, shared what he has learned tracking ISIS-related cases in the U.S., talking with prosecutors, individuals charged, family members, and observing online terrorism recruiters. There have been 117 people arrested or charged in the U.S. since 2014, with 63 in 2015, another 35 in 2016 and four in 2017, Hughes said.

“There is no method to the madness,” said Hughes. “There’s no typical profile of an ISIS recruit. They are old, young, college educated and high school drop outs.”

About 89 percent are male and the average age is 27.

Hughes said the driver for many was traveling to the so-called caliphate and just one-third expressed and domestic terrorism plotting. The downward trend in recruits may be linked to restricted travel, ISIS suffering significant losses, and difficulty getting content online, Hughes told the audience.

While Twitter has taken down some terrorism content, the scene has moved to another group chat site, Telegram.

“The numbers are going down online, but the guys that are left are really true believers,” said Hughes. Those active in ISIS now are a mix of new virtual entrepreneurs acting solo and those part of old-school style group attacks.”

Also on the panel was Jytte Klausen, professor of international cooperation at Brandeis University, who has collected data on jihadists and argues that there is no such thing as homegrown terrorism, except possibly in the U.S. Teams of recruits are deeply connected with others and networked as they carry out attacks, she said.

“We are in a new era of terrorism with the emergence of transnational force of terrorism,” said Klausen. “It is built on a deep bench of social capital, networks, knowledge of each other, and friendships.”

Fernando Reinares organized the event for SPA. He is currently a visiting scholar from Madrid, Spain, where he is a Full Professor of Political Science and Security Studies at Universidad Rey Juan Carlos as well as a Senior Analyst on International Terrorism at Elcano Royal Institute. Between 2004 and 2006 he served as Senior Advisor on Antiterrorism Policy to Spain's Ministry of Interior and subsequently as Chairman of the European Commission Expert Group on Radicalization.