Small Wars Journal

Terrorism and COVID-19: Are We Over-Estimating the Threat?

Thu, 06/25/2020 - 9:29am

Terrorism and COVID-19: Are We Over-Estimating the Threat?

By Sam Mullins

When British jihadist Abdel Majed Abdel Bary—one of Europe’s most wanted terrorists—was arrested recently in the south of Spain, it was reported that he had “used the coronavirus outbreak to sneak into the country” and had implemented “iron clad” security measures in order to evade detection—to wit, wearing a mask while out in public, in accordance with government guidelines. Yet it soon emerged that Spanish authorities had been expecting Abdel Bary for months and evidently had him under surveillance almost immediately after he set foot in the country. Any difficulty in identifying him was more likely a result of the fact that he had gained some eighty pounds in weight than because he covered his face in public. As this brief example illustrates, there is an established tendency to interpret everything that violent extremists and terrorists now do through the lens of the coronavirus pandemic. Almost invariably, this is done in such a way as to magnify our perception of the threat. But is this really an accurate assessment?

Granted, as the virus has spread, the bad guys—much like the rest of us—have been paying ever closer attention, and it wasn’t long before neo-Nazis, jihadists and left-wing extremists alike began encouraging their supporters to exploit the situation to carry out attacks, including calls to weaponize the virus. In response, there has been a relentless outpouring of reports, highlighting the numerous ways that terrorists stand to benefit from the ongoing crisis, including online recruitment, opportunities to gain public support through the provision of health services, and improved odds of success in planning and conducting attacks, thanks to the added strain that the pandemic has placed on security services. While there is some validity to much of this analysis, for the most part it has been remarkably one-sided, with a small number of notable exceptions. A more balanced assessment, taking into account terrorists’ many shortcomings and the myriad challenges that they face, suggests the sky may not be falling in after all.

One line of argument that emerged as governments began introducing mandatory social distancing measures is that more people will become bored and lonely. This, in turn, is thought to increase the chances that they will engage with questionable sources of information, to include terrorist propaganda, making easy prey for charismatic recruiters. As a result, more people will become radicalized and more people will turn to terrorism. Seeming to support this theory, Moonshot CVE, an organization which strives to counter terrorist propaganda online, reported a 13 per cent increase in searches for white supremacist content on Google across the United States at the beginning of April. In states where lockdowns had been in place for ten days or more, the average was 21 per cent. The number of right-wing extremist groups on social media has also grown, many seemingly fixated with the concept of imminent civil war.

However, as disturbing as this is, it is worth pondering both the short and long-term impact that such developments might have in terms of mobilization to terrorism. As it stands, there is limited evidence to suggest that active involvement in terrorism is dramatically increasing—whether in the United States or elsewhere—as a result of the spread of COVID-19. Six months since the World Health Organization declared a global public health emergency, and three months since it was officially declared a pandemic, there have been plenty of hate crimes, vandalism and physical assaults, but relatively few incidents that qualify as acts of terrorism, where the perpetrators radicalized in response to the virus. Indeed, closer inspection of cases that have arisen during this timeframe often reveals that the outbreak has played a limited role. For example, in the now infamous case of Timothy Wilson, who was planning to attack a hospital where coronavirus patients were being treated in Missouri (a plan he referred to as “operation boogaloo”), the FBI had placed him under surveillance as far back as September and he had been planning an attack for several months. In Wilson’s case, the pandemic impacted the timing of attack and choice of target, but it was not the reason he was driven to commit acts of terrorism. The documented uptick in online extremism by itself has thus yet to translate into a significant increase in the number of people actively involved in real-world terrorist attacks.

In light of the relatively short timeline, this is not especially surprising. In order to get a better sense of if and when we might see a surge in mobilization to terrorism in response to the pandemic, it is useful to compare the current situation with the conflict in Syria and Iraq, which resulted in a massive increase in terrorist activity worldwide. According to analysis conducted by German security services of 910 individuals who traveled to the warzone to join jihadist organizations from 2012 to mid-2016, the median duration from the start of radicalization to the point of departure was around two years. Close to a quarter (22%) departed within six months of the start of this process, and 46% did so within one year. Similar research has produced comparable results. Of course, the dynamics relating to the coronavirus are likely to be quite different, but this suggests that the journey from radicalization to action generally takes some time. A key question that arises from this, is how long will the pandemic continue to captivate our attention, and in particular that of extremists? The unprecedented number of foreign fighters that traveled to Syria and Iraq was made possible not only by the fact that the conflict lasted so long, but also continued to escalate over the course of several years. By comparison, as societies adjust to a “new normal” and improve their ability to contain the spread of infection, it is possible that the novelty of the coronavirus may wear off and lose some of its motivating appeal. At the same time, social media companies are already beginning to crack down on extremist accounts that have sprung up since the pandemic began, whereas jihadists were able to continue using mainstream platforms, largely unchecked, to promote their operations in Syria and Iraq from at least 2012 through 2014.

It is furthermore worth noting that the war in Syria, followed by ISIS’s declaration of the caliphate, gave people a much clearer and more compelling set of reasons—combined with easily accessible practical opportunities—for violent, collective action. In contrast to this, the need to take up arms in response to the pandemic is less obvious. As the war in Syria exemplifies, jihadists have been most successful at recruiting in response to outbreaks of conflict involving oppressed Muslim populations. Their argument now that God is responsible for the coronavirus means there is no personified enemy such as Assad to hold directly accountable, especially since Muslims—alongside “infidels”—are also blamed for having strayed from religion. The prescribed remedy—subscribing to jihadists’ interpretation of religion and joining them in violent jihad—is far from self-evident and is dependent on acceptance of them as credible ideologues. By comparison, fighting in Syria could be relatively easily justified on humanitarian grounds, independent of ideological beliefs.

Meanwhile, for right-wing extremists, although government enforcement of lockdowns does tie-in to their hostile stance toward government and law enforcement, their explanations for the virus are varied and often contradictory, which arguably weakens the mobilizing potential of their narrative. Furthermore, while the war in Syria gave new recruits a ready-made conflict they could join as “freedom fighters” (effectively lowering the threshold for collective action), right-wing terrorists in places like the United States are effectively being asked to make the first move, which is likely to widen the gap between online radicalization and real-world violent action. In addition, as lockdowns are lifted, this will effectively take away one of their primary sources of grievance and opportunities to instigate violence. Of course, in the meantime, a far more influential development has emerged in the form of the police killing of George Floyd, which has resulted in exactly the kind of chaos and instability that violent extremists have been clamoring for, and are now seeking to exploit. However, this was not directly related to the coronavirus outbreak and serves to highlight yet again the importance of a profoundly felt sense of political injustice for triggering mass mobilization. 

If the mobilizing potential for terrorism in response to the coronavirus is relatively weak in the short-term, what about the longer-term outlook? Because more people have been exposed to extremist narratives online, it stands to reason that over time this will result in more people becoming actively involved in terrorism, even if it is only a small percentage of those who become radicalized. Just how much of an increase this might be is anyone’s guess, but it seems likely to be relatively modest in comparison to Syria. That said, a bigger concern is that as the social and economic consequences of the pandemic take their toll, a far larger number of people will be thrust into desperate living conditions that are likely to make them vulnerable to recruitment and/or exploitation by terrorist organizations, particularly where governments are perceived to be inept. Logically, this makes sense and cannot be discounted. Nevertheless, it is worth noting that what we are now discussing is the pandemic’s impact on so-called “root causes” of terrorism, the actual effects of which have been notoriously difficult to establish in retrospect, let alone to predict. In particular, measures of poverty and unemployment are often found to have little to no statistical relationship to rates of terrorism. Looking at terrorist attacks worldwide, as recorded in the University of Maryland’s Global Terrorism Database, the recession caused by the global financial crisis of 2007–2008 was not followed by a significant increase in terrorism until 2012 (the year that the flow of foreign fighters to Syria began gaining momentum). If this experience is anything to go by (and research suggests that it may be), the biggest risk will occur if and when all-out war takes place—in particular, where jihadists are involved. Nevertheless, this is not an inevitable outcome. Precisely what the long-term impact of the coronavirus pandemic on terrorism will be, and when it might materialize, is far from clear.

Another concern that has arisen in the wake of the pandemic is that terrorist organizations around the globe are providing healthcare to the people unfortunate enough to live in territory under their control. In places where government services are inadequate, or indeed lacking altogether, this is seen as a golden opportunity to win legitimacy in the eyes of the people, and thereby grow their support base. While this is quite plausible and may well play out in some cases (at least in the short-term), what is often missing from this discussion is the fact that terrorists tend to have a hard time governing, even at the best of times. Now faced with the rampant spread of coronavirus in areas suffering from some of the weakest healthcare infrastructure in the world, it is difficult to imagine them doing a particularly good job. As respected terrorism scholars Kabir Taneja and Rafaello Pantucci recently pointed out, “public health as an idea and policy is arguably far too a heavy-lifting task even for the best organised and most equipped groups.” With this in mind, the International Crisis Group has noted that terrorist groups that govern could well face “a surge of public discontent if they cannot keep COVID-19 in check”.

By way of example, much has been made of the fact that Hezbollah mobilized some 25,000 volunteers to support the pandemic response in Lebanon. However, in a country already buckling under the strain of 1.5 million Syrian refugees, where the healthcare system is woefully inadequate and where dissatisfaction with the government (of which Hezbollah is a part) was nearing critical mass just before the pandemic hit, this seems unlikely to be enough to sway public opinion. Indeed, protests have already resumed and the group is now reportedly “hated on the streets.” On top of this, Hezbollah’s patron, Iran, is said to have cut funding to the organization by as much as 40 per cent due to its own coronavirus woes. Not only will this be severely debilitating in the short-term, but it will also take a significant amount of time to recover from. Thus (although each group is unique), it is by no means guaranteed that terrorists are going to come out of the pandemic smelling like roses. Even those that are able to provide better health services than incumbent governments—as the Taliban is said to be doing in Afghanistan—will inevitably undergo a drain on resources, while at the same time increasing their risk of exposure to the virus. Perhaps most importantly, they will almost certainly revert to excessive use of violence against the civilian population, thereby undermining whatever gains they may have made.

The third main argument to gain traction since the start of the pandemic is that we are now more vulnerable to terrorist attacks, including bioterrorism. This is based both on terrorist propaganda, as well as the perception (shared by terrorists) that security services are either distracted and/or under-resourced due to having to respond to the pandemic. According to ISIS, security forces are “stretched to the maximum”, which it sees as an ideal opportunity to launch mass-casualty attacks, such as in Paris, London or Brussels. Commenting on this, the International Crisis Group agreed that “it is almost certainly correct that COVID-19 will handicap domestic security efforts and international counter-ISIS cooperation, allowing the jihadists to better prepare spectacular terror attacks”. Meanwhile, right-wing terrorists in particular have seized upon the idea of deliberately spreading the virus, encouraging their supporters, if they get infected, to “visit your local mosque, visit your local synagogue, spend the day on public transport, spend time in your local diverse neighbourhood”. According to U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres, “Non-state groups could [even] gain access to virulent strains that could pose similar devastation [as the coronavirus pandemic has] to societies around the globe.”

As concerning as these statements are, we should not necessarily accept them at face value. To begin with, it is important to take a look more broadly at terrorists’ intent. Although there have indeed been calls across the ideological spectrum to capitalize on the perceived weakness of security services in order to launch attacks, not all terrorists necessarily agree on this. Numerous groups around the world have moved in the opposite direction, declaring ceasefires in accordance with the U.N. Secretary-General’s appeal for a global cessation of hostilities. Though tenuous in nature and open to cynical exploitation, the potential positive outcomes of such developments—including short-term reductions in violence—should not be written off. Even among the more virulent and aggressive strands of terrorism, there are more benign strains of thought. In Indonesia, for example, a popular line of reasoning among ISIS supporters is that the pandemic represents a great plague mentioned in the hadith or is a signal of the prophesized end of times and the coming of the Islamic Messiah. In either case, the prescribed course of action is to stay at home and prepare spiritually and/or physically—but not to conduct attacks. Similarly, despite all their talk, most right-wing extremists appear to be content to stay at home and let society destroy itself. As one white supremacist podcaster recently put it, “We don’t need to accelerate shit… It seems to be going plenty fast, thanks.”

            For those violent extremists and terrorists that are intent on doing harm, there is no guarantee they will have the requisite capability. When it comes to bioterrorism, terrorists’ track record is abysmal and there is nothing to suggest that there has been any change in their collective capabilities. Any attempt at weaponizing the coronavirus is likely to be extremely unsophisticated and could easily place additional group members at risk. In Tunisia, Islamist extremists recently planned to try and infect members of the security forces by coughing and spitting during mandatory check-ins at government buildings. However, as simple an idea as this was, they “had been unable to execute the plan because of the strict preventive measures” taken by the authorities. Right-wing extremist “plots” have been similarly rudimentary and even if they succeeded, would be no more than a drop in the ocean of the current wave of infections sweeping the globe.   

Even conventional terrorist attacks may be more difficult under current circumstances. Reduced cross-border traffic, combined with tighter border controls make it harder to move across international boundaries. Internal checkpoints likewise reduce mobility. Stay at home orders and curfews mean there are fewer people around, not only reducing the targets of opportunity but also making anyone conducting surveillance, making suspicious purchases or actually launching an attack easier to spot and potentially identify (and as we saw with Abdel Bary in Spain, wearing a mask is no foolproof solution to these problems). Lockdowns, generally portrayed as a drain on counter-terrorism resources, may inadvertently support it. Hamas has been less active in the Gaza Strip for precisely this reason. Meanwhile, in the Philippines, lockdowns have been described as “more draconian” than during the siege of Marawi. As a consequence, the flow of foreign terrorist fighters to the country has slowed “enormously.” As long as such measures are in place, more sophisticated acts of terrorism, in particular, are likely to be constrained.

            Of course, this does not negate the fact that security services are stretched thin and have been forced to prioritize force protection and healthcare at the expense of some aspects of counter-terrorism. Yet even where that is the case, the reality is often more complex than headlines would suggest. The suspension of multinational training missions and temporarily reduced operational support for Iraqi troops fighting against a resurgent ISIS, is an oft-cited example. While the pause in training, as well as an apparent reduction in the number of forward deployed Iraqi personnel, are indeed responses to the coronavirus outbreak, the drawdown of coalition forces had been in the works since late last year and, if anything, was hastened by escalating tensions with Iran. Similarly, ISIS was said to have been “regaining strength” in Iraq and Syria since long before the pandemic hit. Despite the setbacks, missions to disrupt and degrade the terror network have continued at an impressive pace. Since the beginning of the year, Iraqi Security Forces have conducted over a thousand counter-terrorism operations, capturing and killing dozens of fighters, while coalition jets fly daily armed reconnaissance missions. A series of deadly ground and airstrikes took place throughout April and May, including the first by British fighter pilots since September. According to Lt. Gen. Pat White, the commander of Operation Inherent Resolve, because curfews enacted to limit the contagion have also “constrained the ability of an adversary to move above ground,” ISIS has gained relatively little as a result of the pandemic.

Ultimately, it remains to be seen whether the coronavirus has adversely affected counter-terrorism operations sufficiently to grant terrorists anything more than limited reprieve at a time when they must also contend with new challenges and uncertainty posed by the virus. The real question will be whether counter-terrorism efforts can be sustained at a sufficient level in the months and years to come. And although public health is likely to be the new top priority, this is not necessarily incompatible with efforts to combat terrorism. As Pantucci has observed, the ever-more extensive powers of surveillance and detention that States are introducing as a way of containing the pandemic—though heavily criticized on human rights grounds—may also bolster more traditional forms of security. Moreover, out of sheer necessity, if not political expediency, frontline counter-terrorism operations are likely to be among the last areas where budgets are cut. At the same time, we should not forget that just as terrorists are not immune to the virus, nor will they be insulated from the looming global recession. Though they will always have access to ill-gotten gains, and attacks can be done on the cheap, the populations that they routinely extort will have less money to give, meaning that terrorists will also feel the pinch.  

As we all struggle to adapt to a rapidly changing world, it is vital—perhaps now more than ever—that we take the time to thoroughly reassess ongoing threats to our societies. It is true that violent extremists and terrorists may benefit from the pandemic in a variety of ways, particularly in the long-term, and we should certainly not ignore this. But they are also likely to experience many challenges, setbacks and limitations, which are equally deserving of our attention. Where they do succeed, it is not necessarily the result of the coronavirus. Terrorists are no more in command of the situation than anyone else. By endlessly trumpeting their latest propaganda, at the same time emphasizing their apparent advantages, while downplaying the numerous disadvantages, we do ourselves a disservice. Worse still, we do our adversaries a favor by giving them the attention that they crave and making them appear far more capable and savvy than they really are.

About the Author(s)

Sam Mullins is a professor at the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Hawaii, and an honorary principle fellow at the University of Wollongong, Australia. Views expressed are his own.