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Research Digest

January 2019                                    Issue 5


Through its Research Digest, the Counter-Terrorism Executive Directorate (CTED) seeks to highlight evidence-based research - conducted by members of its Global Research Network (GRN) and other relevant researchers - on trends and thematic issues of relevance to the counter-terrorism policymaking community. 

What to expect in 2019

For the January Research Digest, six GRN members with expertise in key geographical regions shared their views on some of the key challenges and trends likely to emerge in 2019, under four headings:
  1. Key regional trends;
  2. Technology-driven trends in terrorism and counter-terrorism
  3. The potential release of imprisoned FTFs and the broader issue of the rehabilitation of reintegration of convicted terrorist offenders
  4. Other potential trends
CTED has synthesized their responses below, highlighting where their respective answers overlap or diverge. This synthesis does not represent the views or official positions of CTED, the Counter-Terrorism Committee or any of its members.

Key regional trends

Several researchers highlighted the risk that fragile States, political instability, and ongoing or unresolved conflicts would continue to create conditions conducive to terrorism. Conflict hotspots of the Middle East and North Africa were likely to see continued instability, which might spill over into sub-Saharan Africa, where regional branches of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as Da’esh) had already benefited from political instability and broader social unrest.
Researchers also noted a shift by terrorist groups towards more localized narratives, marked by a greater focus on local or national issues and attempts to embed themselves within the social fabric in which they were located. This trend, which was identified among terrorist groups in Africa, the Middle East and South Asia, is of particular concern in States or regions where Governments face challenges controlling territory and/or borders and could result in further attempts at governance or State-building by terrorist groups.
Despite its loss of territory in Iraq and the Syrian Arab Republic, the researchers assessed that ISIL will continue to pose a significant global challenge. Although the group has largely reverted to an insurgent organization, it retains a global outlook. This intent, combined with the strength of its affiliates, ensures that ISIL will remain a primary concern for many Member States in 2019. The eighth report of the United Nations Secretary-General on the threat posed by ISIL/Da’esh to international peace and security - which provides a comprehensive overview of Member States' responses to ISIL - will be published in early February 2019.  
Several researchers identified the Sahel as a region of concern, predicting that 2019 would see continued fighting and the targeting of security forces and civilians by terrorist groups. These groups, who continue to splinter, merge, and evolve, will also continue to operate across international borders, where they increasingly interact with criminal groups conducting smuggling and human trafficking activities. The researchers emphasized the importance of the support of international and regional organizations in countering terrorist groups operating in the region, as well as the need for renewed capacity-building efforts.
The geography of the terrorist threat is likely to swing to parts of the Maghreb and sub-Saharan Africa, as ISIL FTFs flee to neighbouring countries and reinforce existing terrorist networks – El Mostafa Rezrazi
Addressing the potential return or relocation of Foreign Terrorist Fighters (FTFs) will continue to be a significant priority for Member States in 2019. Specific challenges were identified in the Maghreb, due to its proximity to Iraq, Libya and the Syrian Arab Republic, and in Europe, where FTFs remain a critical issue. In 2019, European Member States will be faced with renewed policy challenges regarding the repatriation of those FTFs and any of their family members currently detained in Iraq and the Syrian Arab Republic.
There is an uneven legislative response to returning FTFs in Europe, with different European Union States having different laws and sentencing structures. Few have the found the calibrated balance between prevention and repressive measures – Magnus Ranstorp
In the Russian Federation and Central Asia, the researchers pointed to the potential challenges posed by the region’s proximity to Afghanistan, Iraq and the Syrian Arab Republic, the large number of FTFs that had flowed from the region to each of those locations and the potential for cross-regional travel by those FTFs or other radicalized individuals. With research suggesting that FTFs had returned to the region at a significantly lower rate than the global average, the remaining FTFs could conduct further attacks in third countries or relocate to strengthen existing terrorist networks (notably ISIL’s affiliate in Afghanistan).
The researchers also highlighted the potential risks posed by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, which was now considered the largest and strongest group operating in the Syrian Arab Republic. In South Asia, increasing polarization and targeting of minorities — often aided by misinformation — is a growing trend across the region. Ongoing violence in Kashmir also remains a concern.

Technology-driven trends in terrorism and counter-terrorism

The issue of how to effectively counter terrorist use of the Internet is likely to remain a significant focus for Member States in 2019. Several researchers anticipated further improvements in the detection and removal of terrorist content from large social media platforms, but noted that terrorist groups and individuals associated with them would seek to bypass those attempts to take advantage of a bigger potential audience. Simultaneously, terrorist groups will also exploit smaller platforms less capable of detecting and removing content, resulting in an increasingly decentralized but inter-connected online ecosystem.
In response, more Member States are expected to consider introducing legislation that requires technology companies to remove terrorist content from their systems. Those efforts, alongside Government measures to bypass encryption, are likely to heighten concerns regarding the protection of human rights, including freedom of expression and the right to privacy. Member States might also use counter-terrorism measures to restrict freedom of speech online, including attempts to ban or temporarily block access to certain applications. There are also growing concerns in South and South-East Asia regarding the use of WhatsApp to spread hate speech and misinformation against minority groups.
Technology, and its ability to spread, amplify and influence, needs to be leveraged more effectively by those engaged in counter-terrorism or countering violent extremism - Maya Mirchandani
Even though offline recruitment will remain significant in West Africa, terrorist groups are producing increasingly sophisticated propaganda videos, allied to a larger social media presence. That trend is likely to continue, as illustrated by the arrest of a Boko Haram commander in August 2018, which identified recruitment platforms on WhatsApp, SnapChat, Instagram and YouTube. Member States of the region are seeking to respond to this challenge, including through Nigeria’s recently established Cyber Warfare Command.
The Russian Federation’s approach to hosting the 2018 Football World Cup points to the increasingly central role played by technology in counter-terrorism in 2019 and beyond. The researchers highlighted two key elements of this approach: the use of facial-recognition technology at multiple sites across the country and the implementation of anti-unmanned aircraft system (UAS) measures, including flight bans around sensitive locations and the deployment of anti-UAS electronic warfare teams. As other Member States consider the introduction of similar measures in 2019, they will need to find an appropriate balance between security and privacy concerns.
Technology is most efficient as a force multiplier and decision-support tool, rather than as a substitute for security personnel. There is also a growing recognition of, and reliance on, public-private partnerships in developing and applying technology-based, counter-terrorism solutions - Ekaterina Stepanova
The researchers highlighted border management as an area where technology could play a critical role in 2019, in combination with greater cross-regional cooperation and inter-connectedness between national services. In many States, donor support will be needed to implement the relevant requirements of Security Council resolution 2396 (2017), including the introduction of advance passenger information (API) and biometric systems, as well as enhanced regional information-sharing in relation to terrorist watch lists.
Researchers identified several other potential technology-related challenges, including the “insider threat” posed by individuals working in critical infrastructures, the use of UAS to conduct terrorist attacks in urban environments, and the use of 3D printers to produce weapons.

The release of imprisoned FTFs, and the broader issue of rehabilitating and reintegration convicted terrorist offenders

Concerns regarding the imminent release of imprisoned FTFs – highlighted in CTED’s July Trends Alert – appears to vary from region to region.
In Europe, the imposition of short prison sentences for returning FTFs has increased the importance of effective rehabilitation and reintegration programmes. Research suggests that around 1,500 individuals convicted of terrorism-related offences in the European Union (including FTFs) will be released in the next few years and that around 450 offenders are due to be released in France alone, by 2020.
The repatriation and reintegration of family members of FTFs was highlighted as an issue where the Russian Federation and Central Asian States are taking a proactive approach. In 2019, the researchers anticipated that these States will continue their efforts to repatriate women and minors from detention facilities and internally displaced persons (IDP) camps located in conflict zones, The researchers emphasized the need for a tailored, gender sensitive approach when attempting to rehabilitate and reintegrate such individuals, as well as the key role to be played by families and civil society organizations in that regard.
Even though relatively few FTFs had travelled to other conflict zones from India, the potential relocation of FTFs from the Middle East to other parts of South Asia was identified as a significant concern, particularly given the risk posed by ISIL in Afghanistan.
The issue of FTFs, which is critical for many countries around the world, is less prominent in the region. West African groups’ lack of recruits from beyond the region sets them apart from other Al-Qaeda or ISIL affiliates in other parts of the world, where FTFs are a common feature – Virginia Comoli
The researchers agreed that the broader issue of prosecution, rehabilitation and reintegration (PRR) was likely to remain a high priority in their regions.
West Africa had seen an increase in related activities, which were expected to continue in 2019. Those activities included initiatives in Nigeria to deal with former Boko Haram fighters assessed to be low-risk or “repentant”, the creation of a regional stabilization centre in Nigeria for the reintegration of victims of Boko Haram, and a vocational training centre for former fighters in the far north of Cameroon. However, those programmes faced ongoing resistance from receiving communities, who were often suspicious of anyone associated with Boko Haram, including those abducted by the group.
With respect to Europe, the researchers emphasized the importance of funding rehabilitation programmes alongside larger-scale and longer-term prevention initiatives, highlighting the crossover between reintegration for returning FTFs and the broader issue of integration. Although such programmes were likely to be costly and attract public criticism, they were needed to resolve a complex and volatile problem.
In Iraq, the issue of simultaneously reintegrating internally displaced persons (IDPs) alongside fighters or those who remained in cities and towns captured by ISIL, will require real thought and special measures – Mubaraz Ahmed
In Central Asia, the researchers expected an increase in the incorporation of rehabilitation and reintegration elements within countering violent extremism (CVE) programmes, including through new initiatives to manage violent extremist prisoners, and initiatives to segregate imprisoned terrorist offenders.

The researchers emphasized that all Member States should respond to this issue in accordance with Security Council resolution 2396 (2017). They noted the need to develop national strategies, as well as a comprehensive disengagement and rehabilitation process that began in prisons, but continued post-release, with the support of civil society. Prevention efforts, alongside a greater focus on CVE efforts among youth at the community level, were also critical.
Several researchers noted, however, that there remained significant knowledge gaps in relation to the effectiveness of those programmes and stressed the dangers of applying tailor-made international solutions to local contexts. They called for greater monitoring and evaluation of such programmes, as well as the increased sharing of related best practices internationally.

Other potential trends

The six researchers highlighted several other trends of concern, including the growing challenge posed by extreme-right terrorism in Europe, which was expected to increase further in 2019.
Other key trends identified in the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change's new Global Extremism Monitor were expected to continue in 2019. These included: 
  • The concentration of the majority of terrorist attacks in a relatively small number of Member States;
  • The targeting of minority groups through sectarian attacks (typically against civilian targets);
  • The prevalence and relative effectiveness of suicide attacks carried out by women.
Concerns were also raised at the possibility that terrorist attacks would be perpetrated before and during election processes, in an attempt to undermine democratic processes and create instability. The researchers suggested that elections due to be held in Afghanistan, Indonesia, Nigeria and Tunisia could all be vulnerable to such tactics.


The Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate (CTED) launched its Global Counter-Terrorism Research Network (GRN) in February 2015. The GRN - which now brings together over 100 leading research institutions from across the globe - helps CTED keep abreast of emerging terrorism trends, and to identify and share good practices in the implementation of the relevant Security Council resolutions by Member States.

CTED wishes to thank the following GRN researchers for their contributions to this Digest: GRN members and other researchers are encouraged to provide feedback on the Digest, including on any terrorism or counter-terrorism related trends or challenges that they expect to emerge in 2019. Please contact us at 

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