Terrorism & Extremism

The Signal in the Noise: The 2023 Threats and Those on the Horizon

Austin Doctor
Friday, January 5, 2024, 2:45 PM
The U.S. faces a diverse array of enduring and emerging terrorist threats, some domestically focused, others stemming from international conflict.
The flag of Hezbollah. (upyernoz, http://tinyurl.com/bdf6z335; CC BY 2.0 DEED, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/)

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Last year began with relative quiet on the terrorism front. It ended with a violent crescendo, one that has been building since the Oct. 7 Hamas terrorist attack against Israel. In a fitting end to a dangerous year, on New Year’s Eve, U.S. Navy forces sank three boats operated by Iran-backed Houthi militants, which had attempted to hijack a merchant ship in the Red Sea.

In the weeks following the Hamas Operation Al-Aqsa Flood, Federal Bureau of Investigation Director Christopher Wray told Congress that terrorism remains an “elevated,” “persistent,” and “complex” threat to U.S. national and homeland security. Wray’s assessment has been echoed by other government leaders, including National Counterterrorism Center Director Christy Abizaid and Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas

The success of the Hamas operation should prompt U.S. officials, security analysts, and academic researchers to reflect upon and reassess the assumptions that undergird our understanding of the terrorism threat to the United States. With a news cycle chock-full of violence and threat advisories, it can be difficult to distinguish between material threats and noise. But finding clarity in this context remains critical to public safety: In the weeks and months ahead, which terrorism-related threats will prove most challenging to U.S. national and homeland security, and why?

A review of the past year suggests that America faces a varied array of credible terrorism threats on the horizon. We should enter 2024 on our toes.

2023 Wrapped (Terrorism Version)

A review of terrorist activity over the past year—focused on designated foreign terrorist organizations and U.S.-based violent extremists—reveals the foundations of a shifting terrorism landscape. Overseas and at home, the past year brought major terrorist attacks and notable counterterrorism operations. These, considered alongside what we know about thwarted and failed plots over the past year, offer holistic insight into the character, depth, and breadth of the morphing terrorism threat to U.S. security and interests.

The Middle East

Foreign terrorist organizations continued to operate throughout much of the Middle East. These include Islamist groups in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen as well as a network of Iran-backed militant organizations in Yemen, Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, Palestine, and elsewhere. The regional threat picture, as a result, continues to be multifaceted and dynamic. Iraq and Syria remain particularly active fronts.

That said, there was a notable decrease in claimed Islamic State-related activity in these countries. As reported by the British Broadcasting Corporation, in Iraq, the Islamic State claimed 141 attacks in 2023 (through November), compared to 401 during the same period in the year prior. In Syria, the group reportedly claimed 112 attacks during the first 11 months of the year, relative to 292 from January through November 2022. Despite this, the Islamic State retains highly lethal capabilities. And the large population of Islamic State-affiliated fighters, spouses, and children detained in northeastern Syria constitutes a major threat to regional and international security. 

An estimated 10,000 male foreign terrorist fighters (FTFs) remain in the detention facilities, including 2,000 boys and men from 60 countries outside Syria and Iraq. Local camps also hold close to 56,000 FTF-affiliated individuals, many of whom are family members of the fighters, including roughly 10,000 women and children from countries other than Iraq and Syria. In addition to clear humanitarian concerns, there is a significant security risk that the detainees serve as a groundswell of recruits for active Islamic State cells in the region. This remains a U.S. priority; as Secretary of State Antony Blinken expressed in June, “repatriation is the only durable solution.”

Iran-linked militants in Iraq, Syria, and neighboring countries—including Kata’ib Hezbollah, Hezbollah, and Hamas—continued to cause significant death and disruption across the region, evidenced in the Hamas attack on Israel as well as a steady string of direct attacks on U.S. forces and facilities located in the region. Houthi forces in Yemen, also sponsored by Iran, have ended the year with a brazen series of drone and missile attacks on merchant ships as well as U.S. warships in the Red Sea, effectively disrupting global supply chains and further thickening regional tensions. As reported by the Department of Defense Central Command, the Houthis have conducted more than 20 such attacks since Oct. 19. The situation continued to escalate even into the final hours of 2023. Responding to a distress signal on Dec. 31, U.S. forces were fired upon and subsequently sank three Houthi boats, killing the crews aboard. A day later, Iran deployed a destroyer to the Red Sea. 

Due to pressure from counterterrorism forces and opposing militant groups—and possibly also for other strategic reasons—al-Qaeda affiliates in the region were relatively quiet this year, though the group certainly retained a presence in the region. In April, the U.S. added Sami al-Uraydi, the leader of al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, Hurras al-Din, to the list of specially designated global terrorists. Hurras al-Din conducted few attacks last year, but it is estimated to maintain a rank-and-file of between 1,500 and 2,000 fighters. In Syria, Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS) reaffirmed its emphatic renouncement of al-Qaeda and projected an image of more moderate Islamic governance in the Idlib area. In Yemen, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) showed potential indications of resurgence and remains a local and regional threat. On Dec. 26, AQAP released a video trailer, which demonstrated the group’s continued resolve to conduct or inspire external operations. National Counterterrorism Center Director Christy Abizaid testified to Congress in October that AQAP remains al-Qaeda’s “most dedicated driver of external plotting.” It’s also worth noting that in February, the U.S. reinforced a United Nations assessment that al-Qaeda’s reported replacement for former leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, Saif al-Adel, was based in Iran.

On balance, counterterrorism initiatives in the Middle East over the past year kept many terrorist actors in the region on their heels. Islamic State operatives, in particular, took a series of significant hits. In August, the group formally acknowledged that its caliph, Abu Hussein al-Husseini al-Quraishi, had been killed earlier in the year. A slew of additional ranking group leaders and facilitators were also killed or captured in U.S.-led operations. In Yemen, during the first two months of the year, two senior leaders of AQAP were killed in a series of suspected U.S. drone strikes in Yemen. But despite their relative weakness, these terrorist groups persist—in large part because of their expansion outside of the Middle East

The Iranian proxy threat has been more difficult to contain. This problem, of course, well precedes the Hamas Oct. 7 attack. In March, for example, multiple attacks on U.S. forces in Syria by Iran-backed militants injured several service members and resulted in the death of a U.S. contractor. More broadly, since 2020, Iranian proxy forces have conducted a slew of attacks on U.S. installations and logistics convoys in Iraq and Syria. Nakissa Jahanbani and colleagues record in Lawfare that at least 67 of these attacks involved drones in 2023 compared to at least 25 in 2021 and 2022 combined. In addition, the authors find that from 2020 to 2022, Iran-backed militias conducted at least 56 improvised explosive device (IED) attacks on U.S. targets, with rockets and drones largely replacing IEDs in 2023.

More recently, the United States has responded to drone, rocket, and missile attacks from Iranian proxy forces by striking facilities used by Kata’ib Hezbollah and other groups in Iraq, shooting down Houthi drones, and establishing a multinational naval task force to protect ships traveling in the Red Sea. Notably, on Jan. 4, the U.S. killed Iran-backed militia leader Moshtaq Talib Al-Saadi in a “precision strike” in Baghdad. The U.S. and partner nations may engage in more extensive action against the Houthis in the months to come. The terrorism threat stemming from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and its network will warrant sustained resources and attention in the coming year. In late December, the Iraqi government announced that it would work to end the presence of foreign troops in the country, including the roughly 2,500 U.S. forces stationed there to combat Islamic State cells still active in the region. If that effort is successful, the prospects of an Islamic State resurgence in the region, likely starting in Syria, would increase significantly. 


Africa has emerged as the new global epicenter of lethal Salafi jihadist activity with marquee al-Qaeda and Islamic State affiliates firmly rooted across the region. Across the continent, the 12 months leading up to July 2023 saw an estimated 48 percent increase in fatalities linked to militant Islamist groups. West African countries, including in the Sahel and Lake Chad areas, experienced over 1,800 terrorist attacks in the first half of the year alone, resulting in more than 4,500 deaths. According to U.S. estimates, al-Qaeda’s local affiliate, Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM), controls 40 percent of Burkina Faso. Islamic State and al-Qaeda affiliates continue to encroach further into the littoral West. On the other side of the continent, Al-Shabaab remains highly lethal in Somalia, with a notable surge in operations this year along the Kenya-Somalia border this summer. In both Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Islamic State’s local affiliate ended the year with a spree of lethal attacks. Capitalizing on weak governance, poorly resourced security forces, local community grievances, and credible militant leaders, extremist organizations have been steadily expanding their operations into new territories and establishing stronger footholds in multiple areas on the continent. 

Political instability in the region—combined with the surge of urgent security demands in other parts of the world, such as Ukraine, Israel, and East Asia—over the past year have resulted in a shaky counterterrorism posture across much of Africa. Following the July coup in Niger, for example, the country’s junta leaders expelled the roughly 1,500 deployed French forces from the country (the U.S. will be permitted to keep its forces and operational bases in Niger). France’s withdrawal, which concluded in late December, comes as the jihadist threat continues to metastasize in the Sahel. 

Despite shrinking resources, the counterterrorism mission forces have managed some successes. The year began with a U.S. military operation in northern Somalia that resulted in the death of Bilal al-Sudani, a key operative and facilitator for the Islamic State in Africa and beyond. The planned withdrawal of African Union peacekeeping troops from the country risks handing a “battlefield and propaganda advantage” to al-Shabaab. Overall, while their influence is currently cabined in the region, if left unchecked, al-Qaeda and Islamic State operatives in Africa stand to present a more direct threat to the U.S. homeland.

Central and South Asia

In Central and South Asia, the terrorism threat picture has been highly active, though concentrated in key areas. For al-Qaeda's part, following the death of the organization’s leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in 2022, the organization has yet to publicly appoint a new boss (though reports surfaced that Saif al-Adl was expected to take over). In Afghanistan, a June 2023 United Nations report described the relationship between the de facto Taliban government and al-Qaeda as “close and symbiotic.” The beneficiaries of this relationship likely include the Taliban, al-Qaeda’s core leadership, as well as al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), which reportedly maintains a few hundred fighters in the country. Thus, al-Qaeda-related violent activity in Afghanistan was low this past year. 

The Islamic State Khorasan Province (IS-KP) also continued its downward trend in activity in 2023, claiming only 20 attacks in Afghanistan, compared to 145 in 2022 and 293 in the year prior. To be sure, IS-KP did conduct a handful of high-profile attacks, including the assassination of two Taliban governors. In a recent public assessment, senior analysts from the National Counterterrorism Center described IS-KP’s increased focus outside of the region—articulated clearly in its English-language magazine, Voice of Khorasan—as “probably the most concerning development.” While no reliable attribution determination has been made public at the time of this writing, the Islamic State claimed responsibility for two explosive attacks conducted on Jan. 3 in southern Iran, which killed 84 and injured an additional 284. These attacks occurred near the burial site of Gen. Qassem Soleimani, who was killed by U.S. forces four years to the day before these blasts. Overall, IS-KP likely presents the greatest near-term threat to U.S. and Western security and interests from the region. 

In Pakistan, the terrorism threat has been more overt and deadly than in neighboring Afghanistan over the past year. In particular, Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) has gained momentum by conducting more operations in that time frame. Following the Taliban’s 2021 takeover of neighboring Afghanistan, Pakistani leaders face a resurgent TTP, which is reportedly using Afghanistan as a base from which to relaunch its insurgency.

Since the U.S. transitioned to an “over-the-horizon” posture following its 2021 withdrawal from Afghanistan, U.S. intelligence capabilities in Central and South Asia have been degraded—a natural consequence of this strategic shift. Experts have warned recently that U.S. leaders face an increasingly complicated decision-making environment related to its counterterrorism approach in the region. While other national security priorities may necessitate relatively light U.S. defense and intelligence engagement in Afghanistan and Pakistan, special attention should be paid to shoring up critical intelligence gaps and regularly revisiting fundamental assessments about the capabilities and intentions of the terrorist groups based in the region. The Oct. 7 Hamas attack served as a painful reminder that faulty and overconfident assumptions are the wellspring of strategic surprise.


Europe experienced a steady stream of terrorism threats over the past year with “an upward curve in trends for jihadism and violent right-wing extremism.” The European Union’s 2023 Terrorism Situation and Trend Report assessed that terrorism continues “to pose a serious threat” to the region, a view echoed by other regional experts. In January, for example, a mechanical engineering doctoral student in the United Kingdom, who had reportedly applied to join the Islamic State, was arrested for constructing a drone to deliver a bomb. In the same month, the Italian government increased security at multiple diplomatic missions in response to a reported “crescendo of terroristic attacks” by an anarchist militant network. Italian law enforcement reportedly dismantled an anarchist militant cell later in the year, arresting four members on terror-related charges. The Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel, the Israel counteroffensive, and the combined ripple effects have also already spurred on additional terrorist activity in the region, including attacks in France and Germany. European authorities assessed that they would face a heightened threat over the winter holiday period due to the fallout from the war between Israel and Hamas. Subsequently, European law enforcement made several arrests in Spain, Austria, France, and Germany connected to suspected attack plots

As the year ended with a surge of terrorism threats, several European states are increasing their focus on counterterrorism. In July 2023, the United Kingdom released an updated CONTEST counterterrorism strategy, in which Home Secretary Suella Braverman stated that the terror threat is “increasingly unpredictable, making it harder to detect and investigate.” In this setting, robust intraregional collaboration through relevant information exchange remains a critical need. Given considerable overlap in the threats faced across the Atlantic, the United States actively collaborates with partner states in Europe on terrorism-related issues. As recently expressed by National Counterterrorism Center senior analysts, “Success in disrupting threats and degrading terrorist networks depends on international CT cooperation now more than ever. Deepening our relationships with longstanding [international] partners while developing new CT partnerships will give us insight in places that no single country can develop on its own.”

The United States

The United States homeland and U.S. forces faced a steady and diverse set of terrorism threats in 2023. The international terrorism threat to U.S. homeland security was mixed, severe along some dimensions—attacks on U.S. military assets abroad and attempts to inspire U.S.-based homegrown violent extremist attacks—and less so on others—large-scale attacks on the U.S. homeland with direct planning and coordination from abroad. As described above, U.S. forces and assets abroad were attacked by terrorist actors throughout the year. In publicly available media and government reporting, there was little indication of an imminent external attack, such as the one thwarted in 2019. However, much of the terrorism threat in 2023 maintained a distinct international character—one that should not be overlooked. Aspiring foreign terrorist fighters in the U.S., many of whom are U.S. citizens, are still attempting to join the Islamic State and al-Qaeda, though many fewer than attempted to do so between 2013 and 2019. Many foreign terrorist networks and designated organizations also seek to inspire U.S.-based individuals to attack at home. A May 2023 Department of Homeland Security threat advisory bulletin warned that “foreign terrorists continue to use media to call for lone offender attacks in the West, condemn US foreign policy, and attempt to expand their reach and grow global support networks.” And this threat ramped up in the aftermath of the Oct. 7 attack. The international terrorism threat, of course, is not limited to jihadist violent extremism. Domestic violent extremists, including racially and ethnically motivated extremists, for example, are also increasingly connected with transnational networks of like-minded extremists, such as the Russian Imperial Movement

Domestically, threats emerged from different corners of the violent extremist landscape, including from racially and ethnically motivated violent extremists, anti-government and anti-authority violent extremists, and homegrown violent extremists. In February 2023, two American white supremacist violent extremists were charged with conspiring to destroy an energy facility in the Baltimore, Maryland, area—with an aim to jump-start a broader cycle of violent instability. In August, authorities arrested a 17-year-old resident of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, alleging that “he was preparing to build bombs and select targets after being in touch with an al-Qaida affiliate in Syria.” As the war in Gaza continues, and as known terrorists around the world call for violent action in support of Hamas, American officials recently issued a warning that the spillover threat to the U.S. remains significant. 

In the United States, violent extremists faced considerable pressure in 2023. The lack of a major, high-casualty terrorist incident in the United States last year is a testament to a diligent and dogged counterterrorism workforce. As of September, the FBI was conducting approximately 2,700 domestic terrorism program investigations—a number that has reportedly more than doubled since spring 2020. In that same period, the FBI was also conducting approximately 4,000 investigations related to international terrorism. Proud Boys leader Enrique Tarrio and Oath Keepers head Stewart Rhodes were sentenced to prison, 22 years and 18 years, respectively, for terrorism-related crimes associated with the Jan. 6, 2021, assault on the U.S. Capitol. In addition, U.S. law enforcement and intelligence efforts prevented a number of terrorist plots, two of which are described above. 

Still, there is need for improved organization of the counterterrorism effort and for tools suited to the present threat. In June 2023, for example, the Office of the Inspector General completed an audit of the Department of Justice’s approach to the domestic violent extremism (DVE) threat while safeguarding civil rights and civil liberties, finding that the Justice Department has faced challenges in establishing a cohesive DVE strategy, limiting the domestic counterterrorism mission community’s capacity for necessary intragovernmental coordination. A major point of debate over the past year in the counterterrorism policy and law space has been the reauthorization of Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), a critical intelligence collection authority that enables the intelligence community to collect, analyze, and share foreign intelligence information about national security threats. It is both a highly valuable and controversial tool. In mid-December, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to include a four-month extension of Section 702 with the National Defense Authorization Act it passed on to President Biden's desk to be signed. This also extends the debate on Section 702’s reauthorization into the coming months. Matthew Olsen, assistant attorney general for the Justice Department National Security Division, said recently, “[A]llowing Section 702 to lapse even temporarily would be catastrophic to U.S. national security and the safety of the American people. We cannot afford to be blinded to the many threats we face from foreign adversaries … like Hamas and ISIS” 

These regional and domestic threat summaries offer crucial clues as to where vigilance will be especially critical as we enter a new year. Where should attention be focused? And where should the increasingly limited resources of the U.S. counterterrorism workforce be directed?

Four Terrorist Threats to Watch in 2024

A review of 2023 reveals a dynamic, diverse, and diffuse terrorism threat landscape. In the coming year (and beyond), U.S. national and homeland security is likely to be challenged by an assortment of terrorism threats. Some will be similar to those that have persisted for years. Others will be newly emerging. By design, threats in this latter category tend to reveal or exploit latent knowledge or capability gaps in a state’s security apparatus, allowing for a window of outsized impact. 

The risk of an external, coordinated attack on the U.S. homeland—a Sept. 11 repeat—remains credible; however, the most probable violent terrorist threat to the U.S. comes from within. That said, the line separating international and domestic threats is becoming increasingly thin, meaning that much of the locally sourced terrorism threat in the U.S. in the coming year may stem from individuals or groups connected with cross-border extremist networks or may be inspired by terrorist activity abroad. While neither exhaustive nor ordered by their relative urgency, the following four cross-cutting categories of threats reflect some of the more notable anticipated dangers that are likely to drive the terrorism-related threat to the United States in 2024.

Inspired (and Increasingly Young) U.S.-Based Violent Extremists 

In light of the thwarted attacks in the U.S. over the past year, it is clear that lone attackers—individual extremist offenders based in the U.S. who act outside the explicit direction of a known terrorist organization—present a daily challenge to intelligence and law enforcement practitioners. This threat is exacerbated by the lack of a clear profile. While many lone offenders in the recent past have espoused a racially and ethnically motivated violent extremist ideology, this violent motley crew also consists of Salafi-jihadist inspired extremists, anti-government radicals, and others. They tend to radicalize in isolation, a process often supercharged online, and plan their attacks quietly. And they are hard to identify. 

Within this threat vector, there also appears to be a quiet but steady upward trend in young terrorist offenders. In October 2023, FBI Director Wray told the International Association of Chiefs of Police that “hardly a week goes by when I’m not briefed on a juvenile here in the United States motivated to commit violence by some foreign terrorist organization or other ideology.” Juvenile offenders can be inspired by foreign or domestic terrorist organizations, in addition to other violent extremist ideologies.

Nation-State Involvement in Terrorism

The current intensity of global great power competition incentivizes states to pursue coercive influence through a variety of tools—including empowering militant groups to commit violent acts. It’s cheap, sufficiently effective, and offers sponsoring states some degree of plausible deniability. Historically, this is a well-established practice, but the recent surge of activity by Iran-backed militias against American forces, assets, and global partners indicates that this threat has reached new levels of maturity and complexity. Iran has cultivated an especially robust network of aligned militant proxies, but other U.S. adversaries, such as Russia, have also demonstrated their ability to leverage non-state groups and paramilitary organizations to threaten American security and interests. U.S. state adversaries may also try to manipulate or provoke attacks by U.S.-based extremists through information campaigns.

The Democratization of Technology

The increasing sophistication and rapid democratization of emerging commercial technologies raise new concerns for the future of terrorism, in both the near and long terms. Most terrorist incidents involve creative and not-so-creative uses of rudimentary tech, such as radio transmitters. This issue warrants continued and resourced attention. But counterterrorism officials must also monitor the use of emerging technologies—which have the potential to be used as force-multiplying instruments in various terrorist activities. These include radicalization and recruitment, planning and conducting an attack, and financial operations, among others. And some emerging technologies have been key elements of recent terror plots and attacks. As emerging technologies become more affordable, reliable, and available, the threat they present will become more pervasive. Responding to these threats effectively will require continued exploration of how emerging technologies—such as unmanned systems, extended reality and related platforms, artificial intelligence, advanced telecommunication networks and the Internet of Things, and additive manufacturing—may be exploited to facilitate terrorist activities.

A Critical Mass of the “Resistance Against the Oppressor” Narrative

Over the past year, this sentiment and slogan have been reflected widely across the violent ideological spectrum. While each element gives the accused oppressor a slightly different face—whether it be the Biden administration and public officials, federal law enforcement, corporate America, some combination of these elements, or others—there seems to be a convergence around this narrative. In the coming year, with public trust in the U.S. government near historic lows, we may see this narrative manifest in various parts of the violent extremist landscape. 

First, there is an enduring threat posed by sovereign citizen and militia violent extremists who view the U.S. government as unfair, unfit, corrupt, overreaching, or as some combination of these descriptors. These beliefs about the government have recently been connected to a marked increase in violent threats against public officials, including federal law enforcement and elected representatives. 

Second, environmental violent extremists seem to exhibit a growing appetite for destructive action. To be sure, in the coming year, the greatest volume of lethal terrorist activity in the United States will likely be driven by other segments of the violent extremist ecosystem. But escalating concerns about the deteriorating natural environment is galvanizing a growing coalition of activists who may be willing to use violence to incite fear to attempt to compel change in environmental policy or corporate activities. The energy, transportation, and agriculture sectors would be especially symbolic targets. A year ago, for example, environmental activist Joseph Dibee pleaded guilty for his role in two arson conspiracies seeking to destroy private and government animal processing sites in Oregon and California. 

Anarchist violent extremists may pursue more active violent resistance against perceived government abuse or harmful corporate activities. The ongoing tensions regarding the $90 million “Cop City” construction project in Atlanta, for example, has brought hostile direct action back to the top of the news cycle. And amplified by local and international protests in support of Gazan civilians facing a lethal Israeli counteroffensive, open support for violence as a solution is gaining support in large cities and among younger Americans generally. There is a risk that this narrative will continue to seep from the fringe into the mainstream.

These four anticipated terrorism threat vectors highlighted above suggest that certain events may be gravitational centers for violent extremism in the coming year. 

The first and most fluid is the ongoing war between Israel and Hamas. Not only have Hamas and other violent Islamist organizations intentionally aimed to inspire sympathetic attacks in the U.S., but divided domestic public opinion on the war has also led to mobilized protests and isolated acts of violence on opposing sides of the Israel-Palestine issue. As a result, the related terrorism threat to the United States may come from foreign terrorist organizations, homegrown violent extremists, or domestic violent extremists. There is an especially high risk that U.S.-based homegrown extremists will be mobilized by violent Islamist foreign terrorist organizations’ ongoing calls for attacks. Karrem Nasr, a U.S. citizen from New Jersey, was charged in December for attempting to materially support al-Shabaab, explicitly motivated by the Oct. 7 Hamas attack. Racially and ethnically motivated violent extremists may also work to target minorities, including American Muslims and Jews

At home, the 2024 U.S. presidential election may also prompt a surge of related terrorist threats in the coming year. The risks are conditioned on a number of factors such as the perceived competitiveness of the race, candidates’ rhetoric, and the perceived fairness of the election by American violent extremists. The risk of open violence between extremist collectives, such as anarchists and white supremacists, will be heightened during this season. Likely scapegoats and targets of violence are marginalized communities, such as LGBTQ+ persons as well as ethnic and religious minorities. With primaries running through July and August, the threat of election-related terrorist violence will likely be highest in the months leading up to the November election and those immediately following. 

Anticipating Threats in Context

We enter the new year with “blinking lights everywhere.” The success of the Hamas terrorist operation on Oct. 7 reflected, in part, a failure by Israeli authorities to see the signal through the noise. From a U.S. homeland security perspective, the terrorism threat in 2023 can be summarized as diverse, diffuse, and active. In 2024, we are likely to continue to see signs of continuing shifts in the terrorism landscape—such as the threats posed by lone juvenile offenders, the malign use of democratized technologies, and “violent resistance” narratives adopted across the extremist ecosystem. These changes should prompt a proactive reassessment of the assumptions that underlie conclusions—as well as how to move from assumptions to conclusions—regarding the anticipated nature of the near-term terrorism threat. With a series of catalyzing events in the coming year—most prominently, the continued war in Gaza and the U.S. presidential election cycle—it will be especially important to carefully consider which terrorist threats we should expect to endure and maintain an open mind to those that may begin to emerge.

Austin C. Doctor is a political scientist at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and the Head of Counterterrorism Research Initiatives at the National Counterterrorism Innovation, Technology, and Education (NCITE) Center, a Department of Homeland Security Center of Excellence. He has served as a non-resident fellow with the Modern War Institute at the United States Military Academy at West Point as well as the National Strategic Research Institute, a Department of Defense University Affiliated Research Center. His research focuses on militant actors, terrorism and political violence, irregular warfare, and emerging threats. He earned his PhD from the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Georgia.

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