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By Rohan Gunaratna and Katalin Pethő-Kiss

The global pandemic has offered extraordinary opportunities for extremists and terrorists to mobilize themselves and revive as more powerful actors in the security landscape. But could these threat groups actually capitalize on the coronavirus crisis and advance their malevolent agendas?

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Coronavirus, known officially as SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19), is an evolving threat. Threat entities have explored and exploited the pandemic to advance their agenda. Although lockdowns inhibited virus attacks in government-controlled areas, terrorist attacks continued unabated in the conflict areas. While government entities and military forces abided by lockdown measures, postponing training and scaling down operations, insurgent and terrorist groups operated relatively freely and mounted attacks. Both on the battlefields and off the battlefields, threat groups have invested in digital acceleration, maintaining strength and ideological influence during COVID-19.

From disseminating propaganda to raising funds, these threat groups foment racial and religious tension and violence. By engaging in such support activity, terrorist and extremist groups fuel the recruiting momentum. They link up online with like-minded groups and build communities of supporters and sympathizers. Some Islamic violent fanatics argue that COVID-19 is a “Soldier of God”, “a divine retribution”, and waging “Corona jihad” to infect opponents. While Muslim fanatics have advocated infecting Muslim officials and non-Muslims, far right groups have urged direct action of deliberately spreading the virus to “non-whites”—mainly minorities and immigrants. Right-wing extremists have mounted cyberattacks on anti-pandemic and health institutions, seeking to accelerate the crisis (UN CTED 2020).

With COVID-19 having developed into a global pandemic, terrorist ideologies and extremist thinking influence the human terrain. Ideologies of violent groups also fuse with the thinking of political parties, bolstering each other. The far right influences a segment of the general population against migrants and immigration as well as people of color and minorities. Muslim threat entities politicize, radicalize and mobilize a tiny segment of communities to use the virus to their advantage and target their adversaries. Muslim threat groups and Islamist parties feed off each other, affirming the terrorism-political nexus.

“SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19) is easily accessible and relatively low-risk, and it can be rapidly transmitted and inconspicuously spread. Will threat groups as yet weaponize it? Considering that younger and less susceptible assailants can be used to infect older and vulnerable populations, will they deliberately spread coronavirus in target communities and countries? Considering recent developments, concerns of the security and intelligence community are real. Governments and community partners need to monitor evolving ideologies and operational capabilities of a spectrum of threat groups and personalities to mitigate the possibility of COVID-19 attacks.” (Page 2)

The COVID-19 pandemic has significantly transformed a plethora of circumstances in the threat environment. This changing threat landscape determines the thinking and actions of terrorist and extremist groups, networks, and cells. We have summarized our findings on these changes in accordance with two spectrums, namely conflict and in nonconflict zones.

The pandemic’s impact on terrorism is highly complex and multifaceted. Its medium and long-term effects are yet to be seen. Nonetheless, the immediate operational changes it has induced can already be tracked. Restrictive epidemiological measures have introduced novel challenges in extremists’ and terrorists’ operational circumstances. Off-the-battlefield lockdowns have resulted in challenges to mounting an attack but also hindered well-established supply chains. Resorting to armed assault instead of deploying improvised explosive devices may suppose that the movement of goods was restricted and terrorists’ access to operational resources was perhaps limited during lockdowns. These findings could be of great importance for counterterrorism agencies to map and better understand extremists’ supply systems.

“In conflict zones, the crisis offered radical Islamist fighters highly advantageous novelties. Without the support of international troops, local security forces have been struggling to counter terrorist operations. The heightened level of military presence, as well as the symbolic value of security forces during a crisis, have made military personnel and facilities their number one targets. Although, we need to mention here the exception of Mozambique. While Islamic State operatives previously ambushed government institutions and military compounds, supposedly taking advantage of the pandemic crisis situation since March 2020, radical Islamist groups have attacked cities, towns, and critical infrastructure (Meir Amit Intelligence 2020). In line with this, the Mozambique port Mocimboa da Praia was also captured by the Islamic State (Bowker 2020).” (Page 6)

The elevated level of digital presence inherently requires special attention from authorities. Building upon these novel operational circumstances, effective mechanisms and collaborations are to be developed. Detecting and moderating or removing radicalized online content is only one side of the problem. Governments and publicly trusted voices shall explicitly and publicly communicate that these posts are harmful for young people. At the same time, the younger generation should be taught to think critically when encountering potentially radicalized ideologies. Over-politicized online narratives as well as misinformation campaigns have significantly diminished the credibility of government communications. In order to restore the trust in governments, effective strategic campaigns should be implemented to diminish the power of extremist narratives.

The pandemic has introduced novel responsibilities for both law enforcement and military agencies. The enforcement of newly adopted epidemiological restrictions has resulted in a shift of security agencies’ priorities. This reallocation of tasks has redirected scarce resources from counterterrorism efforts. COVID-19 has exacerbated state-level considerations, and this may undermine the success of global and transnational achievements. All in all, we cannot let the pandemic ruin already established international counterterrorism instruments and partnerships. Efforts should be fortified to maintain previous achievements in the field.

The crisis situation drew attention to new types of security threats. Given the increased significance of medical facilities and grocery stores, their value as potential terrorist targets have also increased remarkably. In line with this, security arrangements of these types of facilities should be re-evaluated. It is also feared that the devastating consequences of COVID-19 may encourage individuals to seek innovative ways to carry out acts of bioterrorism. More specifically, there is a pressing need to develop capacities to counter deliberate attempts to infect others. One noteworthy example here may be an alert from the Federal Bureau of Investigation back in April 2020. The FBI issued the report to inform local police agencies about extremist groups’ recommendations from their Telegram channels on how to spread coronavirus to law enforcement and minority communities (Middle East Transparent, 28 April 2020).

The global pandemic has offered extraordinary opportunities for extremists and terrorists to mobilize themselves and revive as more powerful actors in the security landscape. But could these threat groups actually capitalize on the coronavirus crisis and advance their malevolent agendas? To answer these questions, it should be assessed whether Islamist terrorists as well as far right entities have been able to exploit novel vulnerabilities COVID-19 has established. It may be yet too early to identify the pandemic’s medium and long-term effects on terrorism, there is, however, a significant number of information available to draw implications on detected changes in terrorists’ operational circumstances.

The largest COVID-19-related terrorism database provides the basis for the research. The analysis is built upon a quantitative and qualitative comparison between the nature of both the jihadist and the far-right-related threat in 2018 and 2020. The ultimate goal is to provide a true picture of novel trends since the outbreak. This established snapshot view could serve as the basis for amendments to be made in countering terrorism strategies both in the conflict and in the non-conflict zones.

ROHAN GUNARATNA is Professor of Security Studies at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technology University, Singapore. He is the author of 20 books including The Three Pillars of Radicalization: Needs, Narratives and Networks (2019, Oxford University Press, co-authored with Arie W. Kruglanski and Jocelyn J. Bélanger).

KATALIN PETHO-KISS is a CBRNE specialist with expertise on counter terrorism. She is a Senior Fellow at the Global Peace Institute and a Senior Analyst at the Counter Terrorism Information and Criminal Analysis Centre in Hungary.

Terrorism and the Pandemic

Weaponizing of COVID-19

254 pages, 18 illus.; February 2023

Hardback 9781800738010 

Open Access digital 9781800737730

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