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This assessment was issued to clients of Dragonfly’s Security Intelligence & Analysis Service (SIAS) on 21 July 2023.
The terrorism threat in Hong Kong seems to have diminished. There has been only one reported terrorist event there since August 2021, which was a plot that does not seem to have progressed beyond incitement. There have also been fewer indications that violent activists are intent on using terrorist tactics against the state in the past two years. As a result, we have lowered our terrorism threat level for Hong Kong from moderate to low.
There has been a seeming decline in the intent of violent activists to mount attacks in the territory in the past two years. Our data shows that there have been 11 terrorist plots and attacks there in the past decade. These mainly took place either during or shortly after sustained pro-democracy protest campaigns in 2015 and 2019-2020. Most recently, the authorities arrested six people in May 2022 for planning to carry out violent acts. But there is little evidence to suggest that the plot progressed beyond calling for attacks. Indeed, unlike other plotters charged with terrorism offences, the suspects, in this case, were reportedly arrested and charged under incitement offences.
In our analysis, the absence of actual (and attempted) attacks is down to the overall decline in anti-government protest activity in the territory. This is probably a result of efforts by the local authorities to stifle any form of political dissent.
The police have arrested dozens of people for possession of weapons over the past two years. But there has been little public reporting or available evidence to suggest those arrested were actively planning to mount attacks. In our analysis, it is also in the interest of the Hong Kong authorities to exaggerate the terrorist threat as they seek to suppress political dissent. The 2020 National Security Law (NSL) introduced four main broadly-defined offences – including terrorism – with a wide scope of interpretation. Since then, the authorities have increasingly used the NSL to charge individuals with terrorism offences.
We have also seen little evidence to suggest there are organised groups operating in Hong Kong that are intent on mounting attacks there. Protest groups that the police have said were behind the most recent disrupted plots no longer seem to be active (for example ‘Returning Valiant’, a fringe group, was linked to the July 2021 plot). And no organised group has claimed any of the three attacks carried out in Hong Kong over the past decade. We have also seen no violent extremist messaging by protest groups in recent years and official statements by the authorities do not point towards the existence of organised terrorist groups operating in the territory.
The capabilities of terrorists to mount attacks in Hong Kong also seems to be limited. During the raids in 2021, the police said it confiscated large quantities of precursor chemicals and seized small explosive devices. But such raids seem to have decreased in frequency since then. And during these, officers have only reportedly seized crude weapons such as knives, axes and imitation guns. Reflecting the low capability of terrorists, the only attack in the territory over the past decade that resulted in casualties was the stabbing of a police officer in 2021.
The local authorities also seem capable of disrupting plots. Since the 2019-2020 protests, they seem to have ramped up the presence of police officers in Hong Kong and their efforts to neutralise any anti-state activity. There have been seven disrupted plots since 2019 compared with one plot in a four-year period prior to that, according to our data. A security manager for an international company based in the city also told us this week that there are more police on the streets than previously. The authorities have also implemented several laws in recent years that have enhanced their abilities to monitor and control both online and physical activity in the territory.
Reflecting these restricted capabilities, we assess that any terrorist attack in Hong Kong would most likely be crude, involving an individual assailant using a bladed or improvised weapon. They would most probably target the police or symbols of the state such as court buildings or judges. As well as their anti-state motivations this is based on the intended targets of those arrested for either plotting an attack or encouraging acts of violence, as described in press reports.
Image: Hong Kong Police stage a counter-terrorism drill during the Hong Kong Police College open day as part of the National Security Education Day in Hong Kong, China, on 15 April 2023. Photo by Anthony Kwan via Getty Images.