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A Look at Lone Wolf Terrorism in the 2020s

A Look at Lone Wolf Terrorism in the 2020s

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Interview with Dr. Matthew Crosston
Faculty Member, Doctoral Programs, School of Security and Global Studies, American Military University

In 10 years’ time, the “9/11 syndrome” will be over, according to Dr. Matthew Crosston. In this exclusive vlog, American Military University’s Dr. Crosston discusses terrorism in its current state and what the future of counterterrorism efforts will look like in the next decade.

Video Transcript:

Al-Qaeda did not intend for the Twin Towers to fall. The terror group just wanted to hit them; that would have been success. The fact that they actually achieved a much greater success than they ever anticipated created peer pressure on themselves. Anything they did next had to be of equal value or of equal impact as the Twin Towers collapse.

That made it difficult for al-Qaeda to do anything smaller. The unfortunate thing about the inter-terrorist rivalry that exists between al-Qaeda and the Islamic State is that the Islamic State has made a very important divergence from al-Qaeda strategy. The Islamic State does not suffer from al-Qaeda’s 9/11 syndrome. “We didn’t do 9/11,” they say. “So anything we do if it works to our cause and has a benefit to us is okay.”

As a result, counterterrorism efforts will be dealing with the inter-terrorist rivalry that exists between al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. In Europe and, unfortunately, in parts of the United States, vehicles are now being used to kill people. Individual shooters go into nightclubs or get on buses with bombs in their backpacks. These are things that al-Qaeda did not do throughout the 2000s. But the Islamic State’s biggest successes have come from “old school terrorism,” which is at the top of its agenda.

Countering Lone Wolf Terrorism in the 2020s Is Going to Get More Difficult

Countering lone wolf terrorism in the 2020s is going to get more difficult. We are going to have to deal with stopping these small-scale events, which may be less bloody and kill fewer people, but that are much harder to detect and therefore much harder to deter.

Space is going to become a new battleground for the U.S. and its Western allies. There’s a presumption that the next “space race” will involve drones. In that respect, the West has a clear technological advantage that will exist far into the future. Our main competition will come from China, Russia and even India, which we often think of as an ally.

Countries Are Going to Compete for the Many Beneficial Military Applications

Countries are going to compete for the many military applications that will benefit science, diplomacy, and political and economic development. As an emerging threat, the space race matters greatly because the United States and its Western allies are not going to be able to keep their advantage the way they will do with drones.

We’re going to see four or five competitors that are actually coequal when it comes to their technological abilities and capabilities. We won’t be able to just offset them or neutralize them automatically. That leaves a lot of interesting new work for us to do in the future. In North Korea’s case, it has the capability to acquire build, develop and ultimately launch nuclear weapons.

We don’t know if the Islamic State is ever going to be destroyed in the sense that it will be dead to us geopolitically, that it will weaken enough to make it irrelevant as a global entity. The Islamic State will probably continue to exist at the regional level.

The Islamic State is going to stay at least impactful across the greater Middle East, especially in Syria and Iraq. These kinds of terrorist groups don’t just disappear overnight. It may seem to us in America as if they’ve been around for a long time, but compared to other groups, they haven’t been here that long. The Islamic State will probably exist for another generation at least and we will be continuously working to defeat it.

In terms of what the future is going to bring, especially in global security and strategic intelligence, we’re going to see the United States move away from formal engagement in wars around the world. We’re going to see increased informal engagements at a localized or regional level and sometimes probably out of the public eye. We’ll find out about diplomats or military units being killed in skirmishes that we were not aware of our involvement in or what our aims were.

We have spent 15 years openly, explicitly involved in wars. We’ve had an entire industry of academics grow up complaining about that involvement. As the United States moves into the future, we need consider what would be even worse — to formally engage in wars that we think are ambiguous and not succeed in what we’re trying to accomplish?

Instead of a war that leads to peace, will we engage in more intelligence-oriented operations on a smaller scale to influence skirmishes in five, six, or seven spots on the globe with a lot of critical geopolitical and transnational implications for them?

About the Speaker

Matthew Crosston, Ph.D., serves as senior faculty for the doctoral programs in Strategic Intelligence and Global Security (DSI/DGS) for the School of Security and Global Studies at American Military University. He holds a doctoral degree in international relations and national security studies from Brown University. Other academic credentials include a post-doctoral fellowship in international relations and global security from the University of Toronto; a master’s degree in post-Soviet affairs, democratization and development from the University of London; and a bachelor’s degree in Russian, Central European, East European and Eurasian Studies from Colgate University.

Matthew is currently the Vice Chairman and Senior Editor for Modern Diplomacy. He is an author and international speaker on peace mediation, human rights conflicts, resource dilemmas, intelligence, change leadership, and education.

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