When it comes to the future of terrorism, there's good news and there's bad news. And it's mostly bad.
Here's the good news: Many security experts—the kind of people who throw around terms like "creative foresight" and "horizon-scanning methodologies"—say that formal al Qaeda–esque groups as we know them are not likely to last very long into the future.
Even if they do, these experts predict, they probably won't succeed in launching significant mass-casualty attacks like 9/11, much less some kind of WMD-driven Armageddon.
Ten years from now, conventional terror networks—those that are sophisticated and vertically integrated—will likely have been marginalized by aggressive military, intelligence-gathering, and law enforcement efforts. Or at least that's what an informal survey of counterterrorism sages who get paid to see into the future and predict what is on the threat horizon tell me.
Now for the bad news: Acts of terrorism both large and small will be coming at us from almost every other direction, and in creative ways we can't yet imagine.
To be sure, homegrown, lone-wolf terrorists will still exist. It also seems likely that well-trained jihadis with grievances will return to their home countries from Syria and other conflict zones to kill, kidnap, and cause other forms of mayhem. Meanwhile, the Islamic State and al Qaeda networks in the Islamic Maghreb and the Arabian Peninsula will continue to have a successful and deadly run. As the slaughter at Charlie Hebdo shows, their power and brutality and ability to recruit and inspire followers can't be underestimated.
But such attacks are a reflection of terrorism we're familiar with. In the future, we will have to come to terms with a new type of terrorist, the computer-savvy individuals who know how to exploit rapid technological advances and the ubiquity of the internet.
"We're entering an era of the democratization of destructive capability," says Paul Rosenzweig, a former senior US Department of Homeland Security official who wrote a book in 2013 on cyberwar. "Things that only governments could do are now being done by individuals."
Security analyst Peter Singer agrees, and says there is far more to worry about than just internet-based cyberterrorism.
"We will see the 'barriers to entry' to terror continue to lower," says Singer, co-author of a recent book, Cybersecurity and Cyberwar: What Everyone Needs to Know , that was named on both the US Army and navy professional reading lists, according to his website bio. "Whether it is the advancement of and availability of cheap drones to the ease of carrying out a cyberattack, future terrorists will find it easier to gain ever more dangerous tools for their attacks."
The critical front line in the counterterror battle will most certainly be cyberspace. It will also be the most volatile one. That's why the National Security Agency, the Department of Defense, the CIA, FBI, and other key players say they are rapidly ramping up their cyberterrorism portfolios, including in some cases offensive strike capabilities.
Some of these attacks can be devastatingly destructive, or at least profoundly embarrassing, as Sony Pictures recently learned. Whether or not the Pyongyang government was actually responsible for the Sony hack, experts worry that regular computer geeks are now able to mount similarly intrusive attacks. And that poses a near-infinite range of potentially serious threats to governments, commercial entities, and individuals, they say.
According to experts, the iPhone 6 has the same computing power as the Cray XMP-1 supercomputer, a machine the size of a large minivan that was used by US scientists in the early 1990s to do top-secret modeling of nuclear-bomb capabilities. And just a few years ago, a computer virus like the one that sabotaged Iran's suspected nuclear weapons program— known as Stuxnet—could only be created in the government labs of the United States or a small handful of other countries.
"Now anyone can do it," says Rosenzweig, the author of Cyber Warfare: How Conflicts in Cyberspace Are Challenging America and Changing the World . "They're teaching Stuxnet in grad school now; they're teaching SCADA attacks. They build little wastewater treatment plants and shut them down [via the internet]".
SCADA is short for supervisory control and data acquisition, the automated computer programs that run so many government and private sector systems, including dams, oil refineries, the power grid, utility companies and even steelmills like the one in Germany that reportedly was recently hacked. Other juicy targets for cyberterrorists include the global provider of secure financial messaging services known as SWIFT, and the space-based satellite navigation system known as GPS that provides location and time information for just about everything these days.
That could cause all hell to break loose in potentially hundreds of ways, according to Rosenzweig. It would make US (and Russian and Chinese) missiles less accurate and would put and airborne commercial airliners at risk of crashing into each other—all at the same time. Planes could soon be hijacked by hacking into their "fly-by-wire" computerized aviation systems. And once the self-driving car kicks off, experts expect that to raise the stakes significantly.
"If you think irrational people are a threat with guns, imagine if they had access to your car," Rosenzweig tells me. "We are getting to a point of pervasive vulnerability."
Essentially, as the world becomes more globalized, interconnected, and automated in the coming years, everyone living in it will be at greater risk.
"Many, many aspects of the modern world have vulnerabilities because they weren't designed to be invulnerable. They were designed to be open and accessible and easily linked, and that means one or a few people have the potential to be highly disruptive and very destructive," says Thomas Fingar, the longtime chief of global trends forecasting for the US intelligence community's National Intelligence Council (NIC).
According to Fingar, that also means that there are an impossible number of these so-called soft targets for terrorists, including computerized traffic systems and electronic banking.
"The big bang isn't how many people do you kill but how badly can you tie the system into knots," he says. "And when you change a few ones and zeros, you can paralyze rush hour in a bunch of cities by messing with the traffic lights or potentially disrupt the functioning of the whole global financial system."
On a more personal scale, the rapid proliferation of the Internet of Things will create all kinds of vulnerabilities. Also known as the Internet of Everything, this is a catch-all phrase to describe the use of internet-connected computer chips for everything from heart pacemakers to smart thermostats and security systems to cars with built-in sensors. Experts say that by 2020, there will be more than 30 billion of these wirelessly connected devices, and that all of them could be easily hacked.
"The growth of the Internet of Things raises the stakes of what can be done in a cyberattack," Singer explains. "It changes it from the kind of Sony hack, which, let's get real, was mostly embarrassing to the victim, to something where there could be actual physical damage."
Fingar, now a professor at Stanford University, was a key author of the NIC's Global Trends 2030 report, part of an ongoing effort by the CIA and other US intel agencies to identify future threats.
The report, issued in 2012, posited that tempting new targets included rapidly expanding cloud-computing infrastructures and mobile devices, especially those that use increasingly powerful sensors. Also at risk, according to the NIC report: bots, or the ubiquitous programs that run many automated tasks, and robotics, which are fast taking over the operations of much of the industrial world.
"This new environment of widespread and enabled IT use also will benefit illicit networks involved in crime, terrorism, human, and drug trafficking, and the theft of intellectual property," the report read.
Such devices could someday help fight terrorism, crime, and corruption. But according to the report, "at least for the moment, such illicit activities are outstripping the capacities of most countries and multilateral institutions to contain them."
The report also warned of hired-gun computer experts whose skills will be enormously valuable to the criminal underworld.
"With more widespread access to lethal and disruptive technologies, individuals who are experts in such niche areas as cyber systems might sell their services to the highest bidder, including terrorists who would focus less on causing mass casualties and more on creating widespread economic and financial disruptions."
The future looks even scarier a bit farther out on the terrorism horizon.
With globalization increasing so rapidly, multinational corporations will become as rich and powerful as nation-states, and thus the primary target of terrorists.
In response, some mega-corporations are dropping huge sums of money to prepare, and quietly developing their own private armies with fairly astonishing power, lethality and enhanced cyber capabilities. Imagine the Exxon Mobil defense force deploying SEAL Team 6-like strike teams to protect its oilfields, executives—and, of course, its computers and data centers.
As the planet gets hotter, hungrier, and more crowded, experts predict that loosely aligned terror cells will exploit demographic trends like rising youth unemployment, dissatisfaction with governing regimes, and the mismanagement of natural resources. They'll also use the problems caused by climate change, especially drought and food scarcity, as recruiting tools.
Experts also warn of a host of potentially cataclysmic emerging threats, including a bunch that they lump together as environmental warfare.
Here's just one: Terrorists may be able to wreak havoc by creating new and potentially unstoppable diseases and viruses, some that spread through insects or human contact. Experts say these could easily kill tens of millions of people, and all of the plants and animals that we depend on to survive.
And this isn't just flaky forecasting by fear-mongering futurists. In July, the UK Ministry of Defence issued a report through its Strategic Trends Programme titled, " Global Strategic Trends - Out to 2045" that sounds like something right out of a Tom Clancy novel.
One scenario that the British spooks predicted could happen fairly soon is this: "Technological advances could allow a rogue regime, terrorists or criminal groups to synthesize highly contagious, fatal viruses with long incubation periods that would make early detection and quarantine very difficult. The promise of an anti-virus could be used to extort money, goods, or used for political leverage. It is even possible that viruses could, in future, be engineered to target specific individuals or groups, making them a more viable weapon."
Rosenzweig doesn't think that's far-fetched at all, although he did point out that Clancy wrote a book in 1996— Executive Orders—in which terrorists attack the United States using a strain of Ebola virus that is transmissible through the air.
New advances in science, Rosenzweig says, make it possible for someone to buy a DNA Biobrick manufacturer and build a weaponized form of disease that could be sprayed on Amtrak trains at the Union Station train depot just next to the US Capitol. Within hours, the trains and their passengers would spread it up and down the Eastern Seaboard.
So yes, the world changes, but terrorism persists—mutating for its age. In the 19th century, it was anarchists throwing firebombs, while in the 21st it may be hackers hurling self-driving cars across the freeway.
Josh Meyer is an award-winning journalist and author specializing in national security and terrorism issues. A former staff writer at the Los Angeles Times, he works at the Medill National Security Journalism Initiative in Washington, DC, and is co-author of the 2012 book The Hunt For KSM: Inside the Pursuit and Takedown of the Real 9/11 Mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. Follow him on Twitter.