17 December 2020

2021 outlook – Post COVID-19 terrorism

Sorin Butiri

The development of COVID-19 vaccines and the mass vaccination of the world will make individuals the possibility to travel again, yet with few restrictions, which would also increase the opportunity for conducting terrorist attacks in 2021. Also, considering that more and more terrorist organizations and groups are interested in buying toxic chemical substances we cannot ignore the possibility of attacks using such substances. Globally, Africa and the South Asia area will continue to be the areas that are exposed the most to terrorist actions. Europe will continue to be in 2021 an attractive target for the terrorist organizations. The attacks could be executed by the members of terrorist organizations infiltrated on the continent along the illegal migrations or by the sympathizers of the above mentioned organizations who stay in Europe and were radicalized online.

Image source: Profimedia

A 2020 global retrospective

This year that’s close to an end was marked by the new coronavirus pandemic. As for terrorism, this pandemic had both “advantages” and “disadvantages”, diminishing the terrorists’ capacity to travel and conduct huge attacks in crowded areas, yet exposing many people, mostly young people, to the online radicalization.

Operational perspective

In 2020, Al-Qaida (AQ) and the “Islamic State from Iraq and Levant (ISIL or ISIS) had limited resources to attack the West, even if their rhetoric has encouraged the execution of some attacks following the “lonely wolf” type. Also, both organizations have sought to recruit foreign fighters or locals to complete their groups, which have limited their operational capacity to conquer new territories or to destabilize some governments. Both organizations and their branches have been deeply involved in the Egypt and Iraq insurgences and the civil wars from Afghanistan, Libya, Syria and Yemen.

AQ has focused its entire energy on survival. The AQ networks currently has 7 groups which are operating separately from its nucleus, in: 1) Algeria, Libya and Tunisia; 2) Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger; 3) India and Pakistan; 4) Somalia; 5)Syria; 6)Yemen; 7)Bangladesh and Myanmar. The strongest group that’s affiliated to AQ is Al-Shabaab, which is operating in the East of the African continent.

AQ has also tried to get involved in the Afghan politics. The organization’s leadership has stated that the peace agreement between the US and the Taliban was a “historical victory”, because it could lead to the full withdrawal of the US troops from Afghanistan. Starting with May 2020, AQ met with high Taliban leaders frequently, despite the commitments the Taliban assumed with the US of not hosting AQ members on Afghanistan’s territory.

ISIL has, also, at least 7 affiliated groups in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Egypt, Sahel, Libya, Philippines and West Africa. ISIL tries to inspire attacks in the West but, at the same time, it proved that it has limited resources outside the Middle East. Also, during 2020, ISIL lost some of its social media platforms. The affiliated group that operates in the Sinai Peninsula launched large scale attacks in the region, but the branches from Afghanistan, Libya and Yemen did not conduct significant actions, as they were permanently pressured by the local and international military forces.

Therefore, the center of gravity of the ISIL terrorist actions remained Africa, especially the Sub-Saharan area. The most affected states were: Burkina Faso, Mozambique, Congo, Mali, Niger, Cameroon and Ethiopia.

But even if ISIL moved the center of gravity of their activities in Africa, their objective to “attack” the European states is still out there. The recent attacks from Nice (France) and Vienna (Austria) are confirming the hypothesis.


In 2020, the propaganda of the terrorist groups and organizations has increased, looking for recruits and the necessary funds for the development of the current activities. The pandemic of the new coronavirus has offered a series of opportunities to the two major terrorist organizations – ISIL and AQ. While both organizations are exploiting these opportunities, each has chosen its own way of behaving in the media. Both ISIL and AQ agree that the virus is a “punishment” from Allah, but the problem of the conspiracy theories on the origins of the virus or the exploitation method of the COVID-19 threat is marking a difference between the messages of the two groups. These media and operational differences are nothing new, as they were frequently observed in Africa with the affiliated groups of the two terrorist organizations.

The AQ position in the propaganda field has indicated that the organization’s efforts were focused on getting financial resources and attracting new sympathizers through faith, not brutal coercive measures.

Also, through the messages it sends, ISIL saw an opportunity in the current pandemic to continue the attacks and the “jihad”, given that the security forces of the targeted states have been and are involved in preventing the effects of the new coronavirus.

The interest to using chemical weapons

 The intention to conduct terrorist attacks with CBRN materials (chemical, bacteriological, radiologic and nuclear) has continued to be present on the online terrorist forums. The conversations were about the ways to conduct such attacks, personal experiences about using chemical substances. Also, there were posted books and photos about the way to use and maneuver the CBRN materials or encouragements for planning and executing some CBRN material attacks.

What’s more alarming for Europe is that some of the people who have launched attacks in the European states in 2020 were known by the intelligence services and the law forces, some of them being even previously convicted for actions related to terrorist activities. But the indulgence of the politicians for these activities and the decrease of the punishments through laws on probation led to killing or wounding innocent people by the sympathizers of terrorist organizations.

The global perspective for 2021

The economies’ recovery, the mass vaccination plans and the restart of the flights (and not only that!) as part of the daily life could favor the emergence of large-scale terrorism acts. The national authorities will be challenged in terms of how they allot health resources, education, economic recovery, the fight against terrorism and the provision of the citizens and the nation’s security.

Africa will continue to be in 2021 as well the “jihadists’ main battlefield”. The most affected states will be: Mali, Chad, Niger, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Mauritania, Mozambique, Somalia.

Possible developments in the operational plan

AQ is in a difficult situation, which will affect next year's operational plans. Specifically, it is possible that leader Ayman al-Zawahiri died and another leader Abu Muhammad al-Masri was killed by the Israelis.

Most likely, AQ will continue the strategy initiated by Ayman al-Zawahiri, namely:

1) avoiding the establishment of a "caliphate", as ISIL did, in order not to attract constant and punctual pressure from the USA;

2) maintaining relations with affiliated groups;

3) a more "soft" approach to "global jihad";

4) keeping in touch with the Taliban in the Afghan peace process.

AQ is unlikely to be able to carry out a major attack, although if Ayman al-Zawahiri died, the new leader would need such action to gain the respect and loyalty of the leaders of the affiliated groups.

Most likely, the AQ will focus on Africa and Southeast Asia. Al-Shabaab, Somalia's AQ affiliate group and the strongest AQ affiliate group on the African continent, will benefit from the withdrawal of US troops from the country and growing instability in Somalia and neighboring Ethiopia. At the same time, we can say that Al-Shabaab will keep its operational capabilities to carry out attacks both in Somalia and in neighboring states.

The ISIL leadership and members will continue to fight for the establishment of a "caliphate" in Iraq and Syria. At the same time, the center of gravity of their actions will remain in Africa, especially in the Sub-Saharan area, to try to create a "caliphate" in this area as well. ISIL will maintain its mode of operation characterized by extreme violence, as demonstrated by its terrible videos with beheadings. Just like in AQ’s case, ISIL is unlikely to reach the operational capacity to carry out a major attack in the West. However, the remaining active ISIL online forums will encourage supporters in Europe or so-called "lone wolves" to carry out attacks. From this perspective, we cannot rule out the possibility that in 2021 we will witness attacks such as Vienna, Nice or London.

Local conflicts between AQ and ISIL affiliated groups will continue. Although, in the long run, we can say that these rivalries will weaken the operational and logistical capabilities of the involved groups, in the short and medium term the population will continue to suffer, the humanitarian situation will continue to worsen and the individual and collective security will slowly disappear.

Estimations on the activity of terrorist groups in Africa in 2021 are presented in Figure 1.

The interest in the use of chemical weapons

Although the procurement, handling and use of CBRN materials in a terrorist attack have been reduced, according to information posted on various forums, the execution of such an attack remains low, yet not impossible.

Perspective for Europe

The fact that the number of terrorist attacks has decreased in 2019, compared to the previous year, and that in 2020 it remained at approximately the same levels, compared to 2019, does not mean that the threat has disappeared. The attacks in Nice, Paris, London or Vienna are the relevant examples to that end.

At the same time, recent attacks in France and Austria have highlighted gaps in justice systems and de-radicalization programs sponsored by some governments.

The "jihadist" picture in Europe will not change significantly in 2021. It will be composed of connected networks, but with weak connections. Members of these networks will be mainly involved in terrorism-related activities, such as financing, recruitment or radicalization. It is unlikely that these networks will interconnect and develop a common strategy for actions across Europe.

Islamist groups of European residents will be present, especially in large cities. Their geographical expansion will continue in 2021, given that traffic restrictions have been replaced by communication within online social networks.

Propaganda and recruitment will take place, also in 2021, mostly in the online environment, mainly among very close friends or even family. Continuing this strategy will keep the risk of information leakage low and increase recruitment efficiency.

Given the measures taken by some social networks to combat extremist or terrorist messages, it is expected that in 2021, online communication will return to previously used methods or to online conversations between only two people (not in groups or forums).

The infiltration of members of terrorist organizations into waves of illegal migrants from Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq or Africa and the use of false identity documents to enter European territory will continue in 2021, but without becoming a systematic method.

While efforts to travel to insurgent areas will be further reduced, European citizens returning from these areas, their children and wives, as well as those who have been prevented from traveling to these areas will continue to be a long-term challenge for security services. To these categories will be added those who have been convicted of acts of terrorism or related activities and are due to be released (sooner or later) in 2021. The threat is amplified by the continuous messages of ISIL and AQ to these people to carry out attacks in the countries of origin.

Under these conditions, the repatriation issue of some European citizens who joined ISIL, but also that of illegal migrants, will periodically return to the attention of public opinion, the media and the authorities.

In November 2020, following the terrorist attacks in France, Germany and Austria, EU home affairs ministers agreed to step up their joint counter-terrorism efforts without compromising EU common values ​​such as democracy, justice and freedom of expression.

Instead of an epilogue

The Salafist-jihadist picture in Europe will not suffer major changes in 2021. The two main terrorist organizations, AQ and ISIL, will continue to attract new members, provide the necessary financial support and keep the "conquered" territories under control. Members of the two terrorist organizations will continue to be involved in the insurgencies in Egypt and Iraq and in the civil wars in Afghanistan, Libya, Syria and Yemen.

Globally, Africa and South Asia will remain the most vulnerable to terrorism.

Both terrorist organizations need a major attack to restore their image, and the desire to "attack” European states is still present. From this perspective, even if the number of Islamist terrorist attacks remained low in 2020, the threat has not disappeared.

But until the new year comes, we still have the winter holidays. The relaxation of quarantine restrictions, already announced by the authorities in some European countries, will give the population a chance to go shopping. Or, precisely this relaxation can be an opportunity for members and supporters of terrorist organizations. An attack on the eve of Christmas or the New Year will reveal the bombers and the organization they belong to or sympathize with, through the media impact of their action.

Thus, we cannot ignore the hipothesis for other “lonely wolfs” or even “frozen cells” of ISIL and AQ to take advantage of the population’s vigilance decrease after the quarantine is over, of the crowding from shops or markets to conduct terrorist attacks.