Terrorism is one of the most salient problems facing Western civilization today. And it doesn’t appear to be going anywhere soon. As the director of the FBI James Comey recently stated (echoing claims by terrorism scholars), as the Islamic State’s territory shrinks, we should expect a “terrorist diaspora” into the West. We’ve already seen evidence of the Islamic State shifting its strategy from building a robust caliphate (according to a prophetic hadith) in Iraq and Syria to attacking the West.
But what about the long-term future of terrorism? In a recent Skeptic article, I offer a number of reasons for anticipating the size and frequency of apocalyptic terrorist groups to nontrivially increase in the coming decades. For example, history shows that apocalyptic movements tend to arise, when they do, during periods of great societal stress and reorganization. To paraphrase the terrorism scholar Mark Juergensmeyer, extreme religion breeds extreme religious ideologies. Such stress and upheaval could be caused by natural disasters, wars, and even technological revolutions.
Peering into the future, more natural disasters, wars, and world-changing technological revolutions are precisely what we should expect this century. In brief: climate change will result in widespread environmental disasters, and these in turn will lower the “conflict thresholds” that keep state and nonstate actors at peace. Thus, climate change has been described as a “conflict multiplier” and “threat multiplier”: it will exacerbate existing geopolitical tensions and foment entirely new struggles.
Even more, humanity stands at the precipice of perhaps the most disruptive technological revolution ever, one in which world-transforming and person-transforming innovations will not only radically alter the human condition, but will challenge our very notion of what it means to be human. Call this the genetics, nanotech, and robotics (GNR) revolution.
Together and alone, these phenomena will fuel apocalypticism — which is already pervasive within Christian and Muslim communities — and along with it apocalyptic terrorism. This is worthy of existential anxiety because (a) apocalyptic terrorism is the most dangerous form of religious terrorism, which itself is more lethal and indiscriminate than past forms of politically motivated terrorism, and (b) advanced technologies like biotechnology, synthetic biology, and nanotechnology are not only becoming exponentially more powerful, but increasingly accessible to groups and individuals.
In other words, these technologies are placing unprecedented destructive power in the hands of more and more people. As I’ve written elsewhere, the malicious agent of the future will have a bulldozer rather than a shovel to dig mass graves for their victims.
(Even bracketing religion, this situation is terrifying if only because there are roughly 70 million psychopaths in the world today, and this number will probably increase to 90 million by 2050. I discuss this fact in a separate paper!)
Tying this all together, there's a dangerous confluence of factors that could make humanity more vulnerable to an anthropogenic existential catastrophe than ever before. Not only is the number of token actors capable of destroying the world growing, but the number of token actors who might actually wish to do this will almost certainly increase as well.
Perhaps there is infinite hope, as Franz Kafka once said. But maybe not for us, as Kafka also remarked.
For a more in-depth look at this issue, see “Apocalypse Soon? How Emerging Technologies, Population Growth, and Global Warming Will Fuel Apocalyptic Terrorism in the Future.” See also the X-Risks Institute, whose research focuses on strategies for mitigating current and future “agential risks.”