COVID-19 has unquestionably changed our daily lives. The pandemic changed everything from how we learn and work to how we socialize and recreate. The pandemic wreaked havoc on our overall public health and economy and has thus left us increasingly vulnerable to attacks from terrorists/extremist groups. Terrorism and violent extremism has always been a threat to national security, with increasingly complex and diverse strategies. While the rest of the world has focused on fighting the pandemic, terror groups are looking to exploit it, using it as an opportunity to further their agenda. As a result, this has created unique challenges to subsequent counter-terrorism efforts. The United Nations Institute for Training and Research has identified some key pandemic-influenced trends in terrorism and violent extremism. By recognizing and understanding these key trends, we can better respond to the threats they pose.
Because terrorist groups have been subject to the same travel and gathering restrictions and quarantine measures as the rest of the world, one positive trend indicates largely diminished in-person recruitment, planning and operational activities, which makes it much more difficult (though not impossible) to conduct attacks.
Another positive trend is the decreased visibility for terrorism/violent extremism. One of the main tactics of terrorism isn’t necessarily an attack itself - It is the dissemination of fear and the looming threat of the attack. However, COVID-19 has dominated media coverage, resulting in much less media coverage for the terror groups. Because of a greater focus on COVID -19, extremist groups have garnered much less visibility, reducing a lot of their impact.
Like the rest of us though, terror groups adapted to the “new normal”. Most notably this manifested in a dramatic transition to online activity. With more of the general population spending increased time online (either because their jobs transitioned to online or because they had more free time due to closed work/school or shut down of other leisure activities) the general population became more susceptible to campaigns initiated by extremist or terrorist groups. The primary strategies used by these groups were the spread of disinformation, propaganda and conspiracy theories. The goal of these pervasive and far-reaching campaigns is to undermine trust in the government or other authorities to attract followers and recruit new members. Those who were already negatively impacted by the pandemic including those experiencing declining socioeconomic conditions are particularly vulnerable to radicalization.
As mentioned above, one of the positive trends was decreased in-person operations. This is true for traditional targets such as sporting events, places of worship or other public gatherings (since public gatherings have, in large part, been reduced or cancelled). The fear however, is that terrorists may move to target critical infrastructure instead. Attacks on hospitals or supermarkets would be particularly devastating.
And finally, in the same way that travel and other in person gatherings have been restricted, international security assistance missions and peacebuilding initiatives have been severely reduced or even temporarily eliminated. A lack of law enforcement training activities and humanitarian-sponsored community support leaves a significant gap in counter terrorism preparedness. Terrorist and extremist groups will exploit the gaps in protection by hitting vulnerable targets. At the same time, the terror groups can seek to undermine the credibility of legitimate authorities and organizations and attempt to gain favor and trust from “at-risk” population by stepping in to provide necessary supplies and services such as food, water or other basic needs.
What Can Be Done?
Recognizing these new trends is the first step in countering them. Once the intelligence is acquired it can be leveraged for preparedness. It is understandable that resources are stretched thin – many have to be diverted to address the health crisis and many assistance missions have been delayed due to travel, gathering, and quarantine restrictions. With that said, it is critically important to maintain readiness.
First, be aware of the potential for modified attack tactics and increase protection and hardening of critical infrastructure (i.e. hospitals, supermarkets, etc.).
Second, with reduced support from international groups, local authorities and security forces need to be empowered and capacities, including local training facilities, bolstered. They need to be equipped to handle both physical attacks as well as the spread of false information. Community policing will be critical in improving communication and understanding between the citizens and authorities, reducing the effects of extremist activity.
Third, create a comprehensive communication plan to counter the spread of disinformation. This plan should include strengthening the influence of key authorities and developing effective messaging to counter specific disinformation campaigns.
Finally, to combat increased online recruitment, the importance of reaching “at-risk” individuals cannot be overstated. Online recruitment efforts need to be addressed at the source with the appropriate counter narratives. It is also important to address what makes the at-risk individuals susceptible in the first place – loss of income, loss of freedoms, and loss of self-sufficiency. By empowering these individuals to get back on their feet, their dissatisfaction and mistrust of authorities should diminish.
Counter-terrorism in the current and post pandemic world will continue to evolve and remain challenging. Even in areas where COVID-19 is waning, the political and economic effects will be felt long-term. The urgent need is to recognize the evolution of the terrorist and extremist groups and remain continuously agile in developing counter-strategies and deploying response efforts.