Coronavirus and the increase in terrorism
From the moment COVID-19 started spreading across the world, extremist groups wasted no time in encouraging their supporters who tested positive for the virus to spread it amongst authorities and the police force. Neo Nazis and other white supremacist organisations urged their followers to transmit it specifically to Jews. They were directed to go into police stations, political offices, centres of worship, and to cough or lick a door handle.
It’s now more than a year-and-a-half since the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic, but we still don’t know the full effect it’s had on all of us. One area in which more research is needed is on its impact on terrorism. Initial studies, most notably carried out by the United Nations (UN), have found that there is as yet limited evidence of any clear correlation between the pandemic and a change in the nature or intensity of extremist violence. But the suggestions are there, most likely because in many parts of the world, COVID-19 has increased the underlying drivers that are often conducive to terrorism.
The virus has caused unprecedented anxiety and uncertainty. Grievances people had before, and the untenable conditions in which many communities live, have intensified. This is true not only for camps housing refugees and internally displaced persons across Europe and the Middle East, but also in those places where the international community has been forced to redirect funds from pre-existing humanitarian priorities to COVID-19 responses. Experts agree that the impact on already vulnerable populations has made them the ideal breeding ground for radicalisation.
The good news is that border-control measures, such as restrictions on international travel, have curtailed the physical movement of terrorists. But the downside is that because radicalised individuals have been forced to remain in their home states instead of travelling to conflict zones, the risk of increased local terrorist activity has risen. There’s also some evidence to suggest that the reduction in passenger travel has led to a rise in illicit activities using parcel services and maritime cargo.
As international commercial aviation slowly returns to pre-pandemic levels, experts anticipate a potential increase in both terrorist travel and other illicit activities such as smuggling. But what has most people worried is what extremist organisations have been doing online during the COVID-19 lockdowns. The answer is clear. Many have used this time to plan, fundraise, and advance their agenda in cyberspace. Through virtual platforms, terrorist and violent extremist groups have sought to expose an increasingly online global population to their propaganda.
Many of these terror groups have also been forced to adjust their operational methods. There was already a trend pre-COVID-19 for the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL also known as Daesh) to develop more decentralised, strategic, and tactical operation online. This has since intensified.
So far, efforts by large media platforms to prevent this have mostly failed, especially amongst those with less stringent content-moderation policies. They’ve struggled to handle the recent growth in traffic and in some instances their efforts have proven to be counterproductive. Often, after de-platforming (banning/removing) a group or individual, the culprit has simply moved to smaller platforms that are less capable of monitoring their activities. They’ve also been left feeling socially excluded, potentially making them more ripe to terrorist rhetoric and propaganda. Counter terrrorism measures have also often encouraged individuals to shift to the dark web, creating additional monitoring challenges.
Economic hardship like rising unemployment, poverty, growing inequality, and food insecurity in the wake of COVID-19 have left vulnerable communities more susceptible to online misinformation and disinformation. Terrorist groups (including ISIL and Al-Qaida) and extreme right-wing groups are using conspiracy theories to target such communities and exploit pre-existing social and communal tensions. Especially with regards to children, the pandemic has severely restricted access to education worldwide, aiding in the recruitment of youngsters by terrorist organisations. By using charities, providing food or monetary resources, groups have managed to cultivate authority and legitimacy, while expanding their recruitment and radicalisation tactics.
The rise in general online financial activities and transactions has also given more opportunities for terror groups to grow their fundraising capabilities. Financial institutions are struggling to conduct customer due diligence and detect potential financial anomalies because such a huge number of people have suddenly moved all their operations online. There’s also a shortage of funds to deal with the problem. In some cases, countries have had to redirect funds from counter-terrorism projects to help their economies deal with the COVID-19 fallout.
Fuelling the situation has been attempts by various governments to lockdown their populations to stop the virus’ growth. Often this has spurred violent protests that in many countries have brought together citizens who might be anti-government for other reasons. The most recent UN research shows that lockdowns diminished trust in authorities, especially amongst vulnerable populations, and created anger and fear.
Some violent extremist groups have sought to develop ties with anti-vaccination communities. In Somalia, for example, the Al-Shabaab terrorist group has issued statements warning local populations against the use of the vaccine, and blamed Somalia’s enemies for distributing a harmful substance among the population.
Without equal access to vaccines, local and regional outbreaks of the virus will continue, perpetuating the threat posed by the pandemic. And even as long-heralded vaccines are rolled out around the world, persistent questions from the very beginning continue on the backburner. Was COVID-19 the fruit of a Chinese bioweapons programme developed in the Wuhan Institute of Virology? Whether yes or no, its devastating impact across the world is likely to inspire some terror groups to consider developing biological weapons for hostile purposes in the future. The pandemic has illustrated biology’s potential to cause harm on a global scale and this, possibly more than anything else, has experts most worried.