Ascending Curve:

Terrorist Activity Trends in 2022
Ascending Curve:
December 26, 2021

It appears that the activity of terrorist organizations could spike upwards in some areas, specifically in South Asia, following the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan and the implications of that on the activity of extremist groups in those areas. ISIS operations against the Taliban have increased, amid talk of greater freedom of movement for Al-Qaeda after the US withdrawal. Turning to Africa, which is in crisis in the first place, it is possible to expect an increase in terrorist activity, and even an increase in qualitative operations. For ISIS specifically, this is in light of the transition to a new stage of attempting to take control and extend influence, specifically towards the Lake Chad Basin and in the Sahel region. ISIS is also expected to continue trying to regain its positions in Iraq and Syria. Given counterterrorism trends, negotiating with armed groups might emerge as an option in some countries, while the US strategy of targeting the leaders and cadres of terrorist organizations looks like it will continue. There may be an increasing role for private security companies, and some countries could turn to using artificial intelligence technologies in the fight against terrorism.

Asian Hotspots

In 2022, the pace of terrorist attacks in Asia is likely to increase. Some hubs of activity can be identified as follows:

1. ISIS repositioning in South Asia: Armed groups are expected to reposition in South Asia (which topped the ranking of areas most affected by terrorism, according to the 2020 Global Terrorism Index), specifically following the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan. This is linked to the significant activity of ISIS’s so-called “Khorasan Province” against the Taliban and civilians alike. Some Western estimates indicate that ISIS has carried out dozens of operations since this past August. In the latest issue of the Al-Naba newspaper published by ISIS on 2 December 2021, the Khorasan branch topped the ranking of branches in terms of the number of operations. ISIS is expected to continue operations in Afghanistan over the past year, as well as activity, if limited, in Pakistan.  

2. ISIS refocuses attacks on India: ISIS is expected to push for more recruitment and exploit the Kashmir crisis. Although it is unable to expand its operations, which have come intermittently, it seems to be trying to focus again on India next year, carrying out limited operations at the end of this year. ISIS carried out two operations in October 2021 and one in November, after its operations halted in August and September 2021, according to what ISIS accounts on the application Telegram announced.

3. Greater freedom of movement for Al-Qaeda in South Asia: Unlike ISIS operations, the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan is a significant opportunity for Al-Qaeda, as it allows for freedom of movement and the reorganization of central leadership ranks. In this context, Western analyses, such as “Terrorism in South Asia after the Fall of Afghanistan” published on the website War on the Rocks, warn that Al-Qaeda is attempting to revive its branch in the Indian subcontinent. ISIS may focus its operations on South Asia next year, especially since the Kashmir crisis is an important factor in mobilization and increasing recruitment, given the group’s links and ties to other organizations such as Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed and it benefiting from the Taliban’s relations with those groups.

African Hotbeds

Acts of violence and terrorism are likely to continue in Africa at a steady pace through 2022, and may increase in some countries that are seeing significant ISIS activity. According to the rate of operations in the first half of 2021, the Africa Center for Strategic Studies expects operations to reach a record high of 5,110 violent incidents. While operations are increasing in terms of the number of countries, the largest proportions were in Somalia (Al-Shabab) and the Sahel region (Macina Liberation Front), groups associated with Al-Qaeda. Some trends related to terrorism in Africa can be summarized as follows:

1. Field expansion in the Lake Chad Basin: It can be said that terrorism is entering a new phase in Africa in 2022. This involves attempts to impose more influence and expand the field in some countries—especially in the Lake Chad Basin—as well as tighten control over the borders between countries where it is located. In addition, Cameroon, Nigeria, and Chad have announced an increase in the frequency of terrorist organizations targeting local military sites. This can be explained in the context of those organizations attempting to reduce the official military presence in their areas of influence in those countries.

2. Increased terrorist activity in Burkina Faso: Operations in Burkina Faso may escalate in 2022, in light of two operations carried out against security forces on the northern border with Mali in November 2021, an area of influence for ISIS and Al-Qaeda groups. Notably, clashes previously took place between these two organizations in southeastern Mali towards the northern border of Burkina Faso in 2020. Operations were also carried out in 2021 that were sporadic but impactful, as the victims were soldiers.

3. Steady pace of Al-Shabab operations and ISIS escalation: It can be said that the pace of Al-Shabab operations in Somalia is expected to be stable or to increase insignificantly in 2022. The year may see an attempt by ISIS to regroup after the decline of its operations in Puntland province. No operations have been announced in Puntland since September 2021, in exchange for focusing operations—if limited in comparison to al-Shabaab—on areas in the vicinity of the capital Mogadishu. But ISIS is trying to revitalize its operations by organizing trainings for new fighters, as announced in November 2021.

Repositioning in the Arab Region

Despite the decline in terrorist operations in the Arab region over the past two years, some countries—particularly Iraq and Syria—continue to see terrorist activity due to considerations related to ISIS activity and the continuation of the conflict in Syria until today. Given the “Operation Inherent Resolve” report issued by the US Inspector General in the Department of Defense and Department of State with international cooperation for the period from 1 July to 30 September 2021, the US still sees ISIS in Iraq and Syria as a threat. Despite the operational decline of ISIS activities, failure to maintain pressure on it could lead to the resurgence of its terrorist activities.

The report identified the trend line of ISIS operations in Iraq, which shows an escalation of operations starting from March 2021 and rising to a peak in May, approaching an upper limit of 100 terrorist operations, before the curve gradually declines during June and until September 2021, without falling below 50 monthly operations.

In Syria, it is clear from the curve that operations approached a limit of 50 operations in the first three months of 2021, before steepening slightly this past April and May, and then beginning to decline gradually until September 2021. Some trends in terrorist groups’ activity, where in Syria, Iraq, or some other Arab countries, can be identified as follows:

1. ISIS activity against the Kurds in Syria: Although the previously mentioned report acknowledges that the focus of ISIS operations was on Syrian army forces, there was a shift in the organization’s operations in November 2021. According to the number of operations announced by ISIS’s Amaq Agency on Telegram, there were 17 operations. Most targeted the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in northeastern Syria, while the portion of operations against Syrian army forces was only two.

2. Seeking to increase influence in the Syrian Desert: ISIS may continue to launch operations towards northeastern Syria in light of schemes to storm prisons and camps holding thousands of ISIS members and their families, giving the organization an opportunity for a greater presence on the Syrian scene. ISIS is expected to try to increase its influence in the Syrian Badia in 2022. This trend is supported by a study by the Middle East Institute in Washington on the debate related to the increase in the actual number of operations in central Syria compared to what ISIS announces. This disparity may be intended to cover up the establishment of a strategic center for ISIS in central Syria.

3. ISIS fueling sectarian strife in Iraq: In 2022, ISIS cells may follow the 2021 approach of trying to stoke sectarianism and targeting Shiites, especially since it resorted to this approach in the past few months during operations in Diyala province by attacking Shiite areas. ISIS may exploit the state of political conflict, in light of the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq, while it continues the same pattern of carrying out operations without seizing territorial control and may possibly expand its sphere of influence on the ground.  

4. Activating ISIS cells in Sudan and Tunisia: Given counterterrorism operations in some countries such as Tunisia, Sudan, Libya, and Egypt in 2021, and the repeated announcement of dismantling ISIS-linked terror cells, ISIS is expected to attempt to revive its cells in countries experiencing political crises and domestic turbulence. For example, Sudan headed the editorial of the latest issue of the Al-Naba newspaper, no. 315. ISIS is also trying to activate its Libya branch to carry out limited operations there, in addition to training new fighters. In Tunisia, it seeks to expand its sphere of attraction and to link its fugitive elements on the western border with Algeria with support cells in the central and southwestern areas of the country, as shown by an analysis of security services data. In Egypt, ISIS operations in the Sinai have declined due to Egyptian state efforts to counter terrorism and increase the number of forces in the Sinai Peninsula following the amendment of the Camp David Accords with Israel.

5. Al-Qaeda repositioning in southern and central Yemen: ISIS significantly declined in Yemen over the past year, and this situation is expected to continue through 2022. But it appears that the Al-Qaeda branch in Yemen is looking to reposition itself once more on the Yemeni scene and win over the tribes in southern and central Yemen again after a decline of support from the tribal bases over the past six years. Fears of Al-Qaeda’s ability to do so are reemerging given its history of resilience and strategic repositioning, despite successive security setbacks.

Counterterrorism Trends

Some counterterrorism trends expected to be adopted by many countries in 2022 can be identified as follows:

1. Following the path of negotiations and dismantling the relationship between terrorism and local insurgency: Negotiations between the US and the Taliban encouraged some countries to take the same approach. For example, the government of Pakistan entered into negotiations with the Pakistani Taliban and reached a preliminary ceasefire agreement in November 2021, and the transitional government in Mali is inclined to negotiate with some groups. The results of these attempts are expected to appear in 2022. This trend could reduce tension and the level of violence in some countries without completely ending situations of armed conflict. There may also be “exploratory” negotiations between parties. This is subject to several considerations: First, the nature of the relationship between global terror networks and the situations of local insurgencies in each country. Second, what the state can provide to these groups. Third, the ability of these movements to control interactions within the negotiations by lowering the ceiling of demands. This could lead to internal division and develop into splits, with some turning to violence. And fourth, the stance of the international community on some groups associated with terrorist organizations.

In this context, this path could be influential in terms of the potential disengagement of some local insurgent groups from global terrorist organizations such as Al-Qaeda. But it cannot be overlooked that this path encourages increased terrorist operations as well, considering it may lead in the end to control of the state, as happened with the Afghan Taliban.  

2. Continuing to target leaders and cadres of terrorist organizations: Given the US’s inclination to withdraw its forces from some countries such as Afghanistan, and preparation to withdraw from Iraq, the US role in confronting terrorism may continue at two levels: First, providing advice and logistical support to fight ISIS, as happened with the end of Operation Inherent Resolve in Iraq. Second, the continued targeting of the leaders and cadres of terrorist organizations. This is clear from the continued airstrikes of Al-Qaeda elements in Syria and Yemen in particular, beyond the targeting of first-line leaders in those organizations.

3. Increasing role of private security companies in Africa: The year 2022 may see increased reliance on private security companies to support some countries’ counterterrorism efforts, specifically in Africa. For example, Mali is in negotiations with the Russian Wagner Group following France’s decision to reduce the number of Barkhane forces in the African Sahel and Sahara.

4. Using artificial intelligence technologies to combat terrorism: International coordination to use artificial intelligence to combat terrorist groups may expand, especially after the United Nations Office of Counter-Terrorism issued a study on the use of artificial intelligence applications in the fight against terrorism, titled “Countering Terrorism Online with Artificial Intelligence.” There are concerns, however, that artificial intelligence could violate people’s privacy.

In conclusion, 2022 is expected to see the expansion of terrorist organizations in a number of new hubs, especially in South Asia and Afghanistan, the consolidation of influence and control in Africa, and the pursuit of repositioning and resuming activity in the Arab region, especially Syria, Iraq, and conflict areas in Sudan, Tunisia, and Libya. This requires that new, non-traditional strategies be sought to limit terrorist organizations’ activities and uproot the underlying causes of their presence in fragile spots around the world.


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