UNITED24 - Make a charitable donation in support of Ukraine!


NIC Logo National Intelligence Council banner


Executive Summary



The Contradictions of Globalization

Rising Powers

New Challenges to Governance

Pervasive Insecurity

Policy Implications

Document Cover Image: Mapping the Global Future  

Report of the
National Intelligence Council's
2020 Project


We foresee a more pervasive sense of insecurity, which may be as much based on psychological perceptions as physical threats, by 2020.  The psychological aspects, which we have addressed earlier in this paper, include concerns over job security as well as fears revolving around migration among both host populations and migrants.  

Terrorism and internal conflicts could interrupt the process of globalization by significantly increasing the security costs associated with international commerce, encouraging restrictive border control policies, and adversely affecting trade patterns and financial markets.  Although far less likely than internal conflicts, conflict among great powers would create risks to world security.  The potential for the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) will add to the pervasive sense of insecurity.

Transmuting International Terrorism
The key factors that spawned international terrorism show no signs of abating over the next 15 years.  Experts assess that the majority of international terrorist groups will continue to identify with radical Islam.  The revival of Muslim identity will create a framework for the spread of radical Islamic ideology both inside and outside the Middle East, including Western Europe, Southeast Asia and Central Asia.

  • This revival has been accompanied by a deepening solidarity among Muslims caught up in national or regional separatist struggles, such as Palestine, Chechnya, Iraq, Kashmir, Mindanao, or southern Thailand and has emerged in response to government repression, corruption, and ineffectiveness.

  • A radical takeover in a Muslim country in the Middle East could spur the spread of terrorism in the region and give confidence to others that a new Caliphate is not just a dream.

  • Informal networks of charitable foundations, madrasas, hawalas, [12] and other mechanisms will continue to proliferate and be exploited by radical elements.

  • Alienation among unemployed youths will swell the ranks of those vulnerable to terrorist recruitment.
"Our greatest concern is that [terrorist groups] might acquire biological agents, or less likely, a nuclear device, either of which could cause mass casualties."

There are indications that the Islamic radicals' professed desire to create a transnational insurgency, that is, a drive by Muslim extremists to overthrow a number of allegedly apostate secular governments with predominately Muslim subjects, will have an appeal to many Muslims.

  • Anti-globalization and opposition to US policies could cement a greater body of terrorist sympathizers, financiers, and collaborators.
".We expect that by 2020 al-Qa'ida will have been superceded by similarly inspired but more diffuse Islamic extremist groups."

A Dispersed Set of Actors.  Pressure from the global counterterrorism effort, together with the impact of advances in information technology, will cause the terrorist threat to become increasingly decentralized, evolving into an eclectic array of groups, cells, and individuals.  While taking advantage of sanctuaries around the world to train, terrorists will not need a stationary headquarters to plan and carry out operations.  Training materials, targeting guidance, weapons know-how, and fund-raising will increasingly become virtual (i.e., online).  

The core al-Qa'ida membership probably will continue to dwindle, but other groups inspired by al-Qa'ida, regionally based groups, and individuals labeled simply as jihadists-united by a common hatred of moderate regimes and the West-are likely to conduct terrorist attacks.  The al-Qa'ida membership that was distinguished by having trained in Afghanistan will gradually dissipate, to be replaced in part by the dispersion of the experienced survivors of the conflict in Iraq.  We expect that by 2020 al-Qa'ida will have been superceded by similarly inspired but more diffuse Islamic extremist groups, all of which will oppose the spread of many aspects of globalization into traditional Islamic societies.

  • Iraq and other possible conflicts in the future could provide recruitment, training grounds, technical skills and language proficiency for a new class of terrorists who are "professionalized" and for whom political violence becomes an end in itself.

  • Foreign jihadists-individuals ready to fight anywhere they believe Muslim lands are under attack by what they see as "infidel invaders"-enjoy a growing sense of support from Muslims who are not necessarily supporters of terrorism.

Even if the number of extremists dwindles, however, the terrorist threat is likely to remain.  Through the Internet and other wireless communications technologies, individuals with ill intent will be able to rally adherents quickly on a broader, even global, scale and do so obscurely.  The rapid dispersion of bio- and other lethal forms of technology increases the potential for an individual not affiliated with any terrorist group to be able to inflict widespread loss of life.  

Weapons, Tactics, and Targets.
In the past, terrorist organizations relied on state sponsors for training, weapons, logistical support, travel documents, and money in support of their operations.  In a globalized world, groups such as Hizballah are increasingly self-sufficient in meeting these needs and may act in a state-like manner to preserve "plausible deniability" by supplying other groups, working through third parties to meet
their objectives, and even engaging governments diplomatically.

Most terrorist attacks will continue to employ primarily conventional weapons, incorporating new twists to keep counterterrorist planners off balance.  Terrorists probably will be most original not in the technologies or weapons they employ but rather in their operational concepts-i.e., the scope, design, or support arrangements for attacks.

  • One such concept that is likely to continue is a large number of simultaneous attacks, possibly in widely separated locations.

While vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices will remain popular as asymmetric weapons, terrorists are likely to move up the technology ladder to employ advanced explosives and unmanned aerial vehicles.  

"Terrorist use of biological agents is therefore likely, and the range of options will grow."

The religious zeal of extremist Muslim terrorists increases their desire to perpetrate attacks resulting in high casualties.  Historically, religiously inspired terrorism has been most destructive because such groups are bound by few constraints.  

The most worrisome trend has been an intensified search by some terrorist groups to obtain weapons of mass destruction.  Our greatest concern is that these groups might acquire biological agents or less likely, a nuclear device, either of which could cause mass casualties.

  • Bioterrorism appears particularly suited to the smaller, better-informed groups.  Indeed, the bioterrorist's laboratory could well be the size of a household kitchen, and the weapon built there could be smaller than a toaster.  Terrorist use of biological agents is therefore likely, and the range of options will grow.  Because the recognition of anthrax, smallpox or other diseases is typically delayed, under a "nightmare scenario" an attack could be well under way before authorities would be cognizant of it.

  • The use of radiological dispersal devices can be effective in creating panic because of the public's misconception of the capacity of such attacks to kill large numbers of people.

With advances in the design of simplified nuclear weapons, terrorists will continue to seek to acquire fissile material in order to construct a nuclear weapon.  Concurrently, they can be expected to continue attempting to purchase or steal a weapon, particularly in Russia or Pakistan.  Given the possibility that terrorists could acquire nuclear weapons, the use of such weapons by extremists before 2020 cannot be ruled out.

We expect that terrorists also will try to acquire and develop the capabilities to conduct cyber attacks to cause physical damage to computer systems and to disrupt critical information networks.

The United States and its interests abroad will remain prime terrorist targets, but more terrorist attacks might be aimed at Middle Eastern regimes and at Western Europe.

Organized Crime

Changing geostrategic patterns will shape global organized criminal activity over the next 15 years.  Organized crime is likely to thrive in resource-rich states undergoing significant political and economic transformation, such as India, China, Russia, Nigeria, and Brazil as well as Cuba, if it sees the end of its one-party system.  Some of the former states of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact also will remain vulnerable to high levels of organized crime.

  • States that transition to one-party systems-such as any new Islamic-run state-will be vulnerable to corruption and attendant organized crime, particularly if their ideology calls for substantial government involvement in the economy.

  • Changing patterns of migration may introduce some types of organized crime into countries that have not previously experienced it.  Ethnic-based organized crime groups typically prey on members of their own diasporas and use them to gain footholds in new regions.

Some organized crime syndicates will form loose alliances with one another.  They will attempt to corrupt leaders of unstable, economically fragile, or failing states, insinuate themselves into troubled banks and businesses, exploit information technologies, and cooperate with insurgent movements to control substantial geographic areas.  

Organized crime groups usually do not want to see governments toppled but thrive in countries where governments are weak, vulnerable to corruption, and unable or unwilling to consistently enforce the rule of law.

  • Criminal syndicates, particularly drug trafficking syndicates, may take virtual control of regions within failing states to which the central government cannot extend its writ.

If governments in countries with WMD capabilities lose control of their inventories, the risk of organized crime trafficking in nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons will increase between now and 2020.

We expect that the relationship between terrorists and organized criminals will remain primarily a matter of business, i.e., that terrorists will turn to criminals who can provide forged documents, smuggled weapons, or clandestine travel assistance when the terrorists cannot procure these goods and services on their own.  Organized criminal groups, however, are unlikely to form long-term strategic alliances with terrorists.  Organized crime is motivated by the desire to make money and tends to regard any activity beyond that required to effect profit as bad for business.  For their part, terrorist leaders are concerned that ties to non-ideological partners will increase the chance of successful police penetration or that profits will seduce the faithful.

Cyber Warfare?

Over the next 15 years, a growing range of actors, including terrorists, may acquire and develop capabilities to conduct both physical and cyber attacks against nodes of the world's information infrastructure, including the Internet, telecommunications networks, and computer systems that control critical industrial processes such as electricity grids, refineries, and flood control mechanisms.  Terrorists already have specified the US information infrastructure as a target and currently are capable of physical attacks that would cause at least brief, isolated disruptions.  The ability to respond to such attacks will require critical technology to close the gap between attacker and defender.

A key cyber battlefield of the future will be the information on computer systems themselves, which is far more valuable and vulnerable than physical systems.  New technologies on the horizon provide capabilities for accessing data, either through wireless intercept, intrusion into Internet-connected systems, or through direct access by insiders.

Intensifying Internal Conflicts
Lagging economies, ethnic affiliations, intense religious convictions, and youth bulges will align to create a "perfect storm," creating conditions likely to spawn internal conflict.  The governing capacity of states, however, will determine whether and to what extent conflicts actually occur.  Those states
unable both to satisfy the expectations of their peoples and to resolve or quell conflicting demands among them are likely to encounter the most severe and most frequent outbreaks of violence.   For the most part, those states most susceptible to violence are in a great arc of instability from Sub-Saharan Africa, through North Africa, into the Middle East, the Balkans, the Caucasus and South and Central Asia and through parts of Southeast Asia.  Countries in these regions are generally those "behind" the globalization curve.

  • The number of internal conflicts is down significantly since the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the breakup of the Soviet Union and Communist regimes in Central Europe allowed suppressed ethnic and nationalist strife to flare.  Although a leveling off point has been reached, the continued prevalence of troubled and institutionally weak states creates conditions for such conflicts to occur in the future.
"Lagging economies, ethnic affiliations, intense religious convictions, and youth bulges will align to create a 'perfect storm' [for] internal conflict."

Internal conflicts are often particularly vicious, long-lasting, and difficult to terminate.  Many of these conflicts generate internal displacements and external refugee flows, destabilizing neighboring countries.

  • Sub-Saharan Africa will continue to be particularly at risk for major new or worsening humanitarian emergencies stemming from conflict.  Genocidal conflicts aimed at annihilating all or part of a racial, religious, or ethnic group, and conflicts caused by other crimes against humanity-such as forced, large-scale expulsions of populations-are particularly likely to generate migration and massive, intractable humanitarian needs.
"Africa in 2020 . will increasingly resemble a patchwork quilt with significant differences in economic and political performance."

Some internal conflicts, particularly those that involve ethnic groups straddling national boundaries, risk escalating into regional conflicts.  At their most extreme, internal conflicts can produce a failing or failed state, with expanses of territory and populations devoid of effective governmental control.  In such instances, those territories can become sanctuaries for transnational terrorists (like al-Qa'ida in Afghanistan) or for criminals and drug cartels (such as in Colombia).

Rising Powers:  Tinder for Conflict?
The likelihood of great power conflict escalating into total war in the next 15 years is lower than at any time in the past century, unlike during previous centuries when local conflicts sparked world wars.  The rigidities of alliance systems before World War I and during the interwar period, as well as the two-bloc standoff during the Cold War, virtually assured that small conflicts would be quickly generalized.  Now, however, even if conflict would break out over Taiwan or between India and Pakistan, outside powers as well as the primary actors would want to limit its extent.  Additionally, the growing dependence on global financial and trade networks increasingly will act as a deterrent to conflict among the great powers-the US, Europe, China, India, Japan and Russia.

This does not eliminate the possibility of great power conflict, however.  The absence of effective conflict resolution mechanisms in some regions, the rise of nationalism in some states, and the raw emotions on both sides of key issues increase the chances for miscalculation.

  • Although a military confrontation between China and Taiwan would derail Beijing's efforts to gain acceptance as a regional and global power, we cannot discount such a possibility.  Events such as Taiwan's proclamation of independence could lead Beijing to take steps it otherwise might want to avoid, just as China's military buildup enabling it to bring overwhelming force against Taiwan increases the risk of military conflict.

  • India and Pakistan appear to understand the likely prices to be paid by triggering a conflict.  But nationalistic feelings run high and are not likely to abate.  Under plausible scenarios Pakistan might use nuclear weapons to counter success by the larger Indian conventional forces, particularly given Pakistan's lack of strategic depth.
"Advances in modern weaponry-longer ranges, precision delivery, and more destructive conventional munitions-create circumstances encouraging the preemptive use of military force."

Should conflict occur that involved one or more of the great powers, the consequences would be significant.  Advances in modern weaponry—longer ranges, precision delivery, and more destructive conventional munitions—create circumstances encouraging the preemptive use of military force.  The increased range of new missile and aircraft delivery systems provides sanctuary to their possessors.

How Can Sub-Saharan Africa Move Forward?

Most of the regional experts we consulted believe the most likely scenario for Africa in 2020 is that it will increasingly resemble a patchwork quilt with significant differences in economic and political performance.  

Africa's capacity to benefit from the positive elements of globalization will depend on the extent to which individual countries can bring an end to conflict, improve governance, rein in corruption, and establish the rule of law.  If progress is achieved in these areas, an expansion of foreign investment, which currently is mostly confined to the oil sector, is possible.  Our regional experts felt that if African leaders used such investment to help their economies grow-opening avenues to wealth other than through the power of the state-they might be able to mitigate the myriad other problems facing their countries, with the prospect of prosperity decreasing the level of conflict.

Expanded development of existing or new sources of wealth will remain key.  Although mineral and natural resources are not evenly distributed among its countries, Sub-Saharan Africa is well endowed with them and has the potential not only to be self-sufficient in food, but to become a major exporter of agricultural, animal, and fish products.  The lowering or elimination of tariff barriers and agricultural subsidies in the European Union and the United States, combined with the demand for raw materials from the burgeoning Chinese and Indian economies, could provide major stimulus to African economies and overcome decades of depressed commodity prices.

African experts have agreed that economic reform and good governance are essential for high economic growth and also have concluded that African countries must take the initiative in negotiating new aid and trade relationships that heretofore were essentially dictated by the international financial institutions and the developed world.  The New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD), with its peer review mechanism, provides one mechanism for bringing about this economic transformation, if its members individually and collectively honor their commitments.  

Over the next 15 years, democratic reform will remain slow and imperfect in many countries due to a host of social and economic problems, but it is highly unlikely that democracy will be challenged as the norm in Africa.  African leaders face alliances of international and domestic nongovernmental organizations that sometimes want to supplant certain state services, criminal networks that operate freely across borders, and Islamic groups bent on establishing safehavens.  Some states may fail but in others the overall quality of democracy probably will increase.  An emerging generation of leaders includes many from the private sector, who are more comfortable with democracy than their predecessors and who could provide a strong political dynamic for democracy in the future.  

Leadership will remain the ultimate wild card, which, even in the least promising circumstances, could make a huge, positive difference.  Although countries with poor leadership will find it harder not to fail, those with good leadership that promotes order, institutions, and conflict resolution will at least have a chance of progressing.

Until strategic defenses become as strong as strategic offenses, there will be great premiums associated with the ability to expand conflicts geographically in order to deny an attacker sanctuary.  Moreover, a number of recent high-technology conflicts have demonstrated that the outcomes of early battles of major conflicts most often determine the success of entire campaigns.  Under these circumstances, military experts believe preemption is likely to appear necessary for strategic success.

The WMD Factor
Nuclear Weapons.
  Over the next 15 years, a number of countries will continue to pursue their nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons programs and in some cases will enhance their capabilities.  Current nuclear weapons states will continue to improve the survivability of their deterrent forces and almost certainly will improve the reliability, accuracy, and lethality of their delivery systems as well as develop capabilities to penetrate missile defenses.  The open demonstration of nuclear capabilities by any state would further discredit the current nonproliferation regime, cause a possible shift in the balance of power, and increase the risk of conflicts escalating into nuclear ones.
  • Countries without nuclear weapons, especially in the Middle East and Northeast Asia, may decide to seek them as it becomes clear that their neighbors and regional rivals already are doing so.

  • The assistance of proliferators, including former private entrepreneurs such as the A.Q. Khan network, will reduce the time required for additional countries to develop nuclear weapons.
"Countries without nuclear weapons . may decide to seek them as it becomes clear that their neighbors and regional rivals are already doing so."

Chemical and Biological Weapons.  Developments in CW and BW agents and the proliferation of related expertise will pose a substantial threat, particularly from terrorists, as we have noted.

  • Given the goal of some terrorist groups to use weapons that can be employed surreptitiously and generate dramatic impact, we expect to see terrorist use of some readily available biological and chemical weapons.

Countries will continue to integrate both CW and BW production capabilities into apparently legitimate commercial infrastructures, further concealing them from scrutiny, and BW/CW programs will be less reliant on foreign suppliers.

  • Major advances in the biological sciences and information technology probably will accelerate the pace of BW agent development, increasing the potential for agents that are more difficult to detect or to defend against. Through 2020 some countries will continue to try to develop chemical agents designed to circumvent the Chemical Weapons Convention verification regime.
"Developments in CW and BW agents and the proliferation of related expertise will pose a substantial threat, particularly from terrorists..."

Global Trends in Internal Conflict, 1990-2003

Delivery Systems.  Security will remain at risk from increasingly advanced and lethal ballistic and cruise missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).  States almost certainly will continue to increase the range, reliability, and accuracy of the missile systems in their inventories.  By 2020 several countries of concern probably will have acquired Land-Attack Cruise Missiles (LACMs) capable of threatening the US Homeland if brought closer to US shores.  Both North Korea and Iran probably will have an ICBM capability well before 2020 and will be working on improvements to enhance such capabilities, although new regimes in either country could rethink these objectives.  Several other countries are likely to develop space launch vehicles (SLVs) by 2020 to put domestic satellites in orbit and to enhance national prestige.  An SLV is a key stepping-stone toward an ICBM:  it could be used as a booster in an ICBM development.  

International Institutions in Crisis

Increased pressures on international institutions will incapacitate many, unless and until they can be radically adapted to accommodate new actors and new priorities.  Regionally based institutions will be particularly challenged to meet the complex transnational threats posed by economic upheavals, terrorism, organized crime, and WMD proliferation.  Such post-World War II creations as the United Nations and international financial institutions risk sliding into obsolescence unless they take into consideration the growing power of the rising powers.  

  • Both supporters and opponents of multilateralism agree that Rwanda, Bosnia, and Somalia demonstrated the ineffectiveness, lack of preparation, and weaknesses of global and regional institutions to deal with what are likely to be the more common types of conflict in the future.

The problem of state failure-which is a source or incubator for a number of transnational threats-argues for better coordination between institutions, including the international financial ones and regional security bodies.  

Building a global consensus on how and when to intervene is likely to be the biggest hurdle to greater effectiveness but essential in many experts' eyes if multilateral institutions are to live up to their potential and promise.  Many states, especially the emerging powers, continue to worry about setting precedents for outside intervention that can be used against them.  Nevertheless, most problems, such as failing states, can only be effectively dealt with through early recognition and preventive measures.  

Other issues that are likely to emerge on the international agenda will add to the pressures on the collective international order as well as on individual countries.  These "new" issues could become the staples of international diplomacy much as human rights did in the 1970s and 1980s.  Ethical issues linked to biotechnological discoveries such as cloning, GMOs, and access to biomedicines could become the source of hot debates among countries and regions.  As technology increases the capabilities of states to track terrorists, concerns about privacy and extraterritoriality may increasingly surface among publics worldwide.  Similarly, debates over environmental issues connected with tempering climate change risk scrambling the international order, pitting the US against its traditional European allies, as well as developed countries against the developing world, unless more global cooperation is achieved.  Rising powers may see in the ethical and environmental debates an attempt by the rich countries to slow down their progress by imposing "Western" standards or values.  Institutional reform might increasingly surface as an issue.  Many in the developing world believe power in international bodies is too much a snapshot of the post-World War II world rather than the current one.

The Rules of War:  Entering "No Man's Land"

With most armed conflict taking unconventional or irregular forms-such as humanitarian interventions and operations designed to root out terrorist home bases-rather than conventional state-to-state warfare, the principles covering resort to, and use of, military force will increasingly be called into question.  Both the international law enshrining territorial sovereignty and the Geneva Conventions governing the conduct of war were developed before transnational security threats like those of the twenty-first century were envisioned.  

In the late 1990s, the outcry over former Serbian President Milosevic's treatment of Kosovars spurred greater acceptance of the principle of international humanitarian interventions, providing support to those in the "just war" tradition who have argued since the founding of the UN and before that the international community has a "duty to intervene" in order to prevent human rights atrocities.  This principle, however, continues to be vigorously contested by countries worried about harm to the principle of national sovereignty.

The legal status and rights of prisoners taken during military operations and suspected of involvement in terrorism will be a subject of controversy-as with many captured during Operation ENDURING FREEDOM in Afghanistan.  A debate over the degree to which religious leaders and others who are perceived as abetting or inciting violence should be considered international terrorists is also likely to come to the fore.

The Iraq war has raised questions about what kind of status, if any, to accord to the increasing number of contractors used by the US military to provide security, man POW detention centers, and interrogate POWs or detainees.

Protection for nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in conflict situations is another issue that has become more complicated as some charitable work-such as Wahabi missionaries funding terrorist causes-has received criticism and enforcement action at the same time that Western and other NGOs have become "soft targets" in conflict situations.

The role of the United States in trying to set norms is itself an issue and probably will complicate efforts by the global community to come to an agreement on a new set of rules.  Containing and limiting the scale and savagery of conflicts will be aggravated by the absence of clear rules.

"Such post-World War II creations as the UN and international financial institutions risk sliding into obsolescence unless they take into consideration the growing power of the developing world."

Post-Combat Environments Pose the Biggest Challenge

For the United States particularly, if the past decades are any guide waging and winning a conventional war is unlikely to be much of a challenge over the next 15 years in light of our overarching capabilities to conduct such a war.  However, the international community's efforts to prevent outbreaks and ensure that conflicts are not a prelude to new ones could remain elusive.

  • Nation-building is at best an imperfect concept, but more so with the growing importance of cultural, ethnic, and religious identities.

  • Africa's effort to build a regional peacekeeping force shows some promise, but Sub-Saharan Africa will struggle with attracting sufficient resources and political will.

  • The enormous costs in resources and time for meaningful nation-building or post-conflict/failed state stability operations are likely to be a serious constraint on such coalition or international commitments.

Fictional Scenario:  Cycle of Fear

This scenario explores what might happen if proliferation concerns increased to the point that large-scale intrusive security measures were taken.  In such a world, proliferators-such as illegal arms merchants-might find it increasingly hard to operate, but at the same time, with the spread of WMD, more countries might want to arm themselves for their own protection.  This scenario is depicted in a series of text-message exchanges between two arms dealers.  One is ideologically committed to leveling the playing field and ensuring the Muslim world has its share of WMD, while the other is strictly for hire.  Neither knows for sure who is at the end of his chain-a government client or terrorist front.  As the scenario progresses, the cycle of fear originating with WMD-laden terrorist attacks has gotten out of hand-to the benefit of the arms dealers, who appear to be engaged in lucrative deals.  However, fear begets fear.  The draconian measures increasingly implemented by governments to stem proliferation and guard against terrorism also have the arms dealers beginning to run scared.  In all of this, globalization may be the real victim.

(Click on any image below for scenario text.)

Fictional Scenario: Cycle of Fear, Image #1. Click image for full scenario text.

Click here for larger image of above figure.


Fictional Scenario: Cycle of Fear, Image #2. Click image for full scenario text.

Click here for larger image of above figure.


Fictional Scenario: Cycle of Fear, Image #3. Click image for full scenario text.

Click here for larger image of above figure.

[12]   Hawalas constitute an informal banking system.


Join the GlobalSecurity.org mailing list