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Terrorism During a Pandemic: Assessing the Threat and Balancing the Hype
Originally published in Just Security
This post was originally published in Just Security on 28 April 2020, just as the global pandemic was getting underway. Preliminary information suggests that global terrorism has decreased in areas where strict lockdowns were enforced, while levels of terrorism in areas without lockdowns appears largely unaffected. Data on the effects of the pandemic on global terrorism will likely emerge in the next year or so.
During this time of heightened uncertainty and fear brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, the fear of terrorism has not gone away, and terrorists are integrating the virus into their propaganda, and to a lesser extent, their attack plans. Many terrorist groups have not hesitated to release propaganda stating their interest in using the virus to perpetrate terrorist attacks. Unsurprisingly, terrorists are looking at new tactics and techniques inspired by the virus, and they’re also incorporating COVID-19 (and reactions to it) into their recruitment messages and radicalization activities. Since the onset of the pandemic, the terrorist threat may have changed – but that change has not been an unmitigated increase, despite reports suggesting the contrary.
To understand the potential threat that terrorists pose, and how that threat has changed since the onset of the pandemic, we must consider a balance of information. Analysis of the threat needs to consider derogatory information suggesting an increase in the threat level, as well as exculpatory information that may point to decreasing danger posed by terrorists. We need to consider not only how terrorists may use the virus, but also how the virus may reduce terrorists’ ability (and willingness) to act. The virus could even be playing a role in mitigating the terrorist threat in the short term, an element that media reports (and undoubtedly some classified threat assessments) largely fail to mention.
COVID-19’s impact on terrorist attack planning
The most sensational reporting about COVID-19 and terrorism argues that terrorists will seek to weaponize the virus and could use it in terrorist attacks. In this scenario, terrorists would identify an individual infected by the virus and then use that person to infect others. A number of logistical hurdles exist in the infected individual threat scenario, namely correctly identifying someone infected, and then successfully infecting other people — at a time when most people are staying at home. A less likely scenario involves the actual weaponization of the virus (and the ability to deploy it, such as in an aerosol spray) capable of infecting other people. While the former scenario is plausible (if improbable), the second scenario is largely the stuff of fiction. Terrorists have attempted to develop biological weapons for decades with limited success.
The virus does present new targets for terrorists, using either conventional attack methods or the infected individual scenario. Hospitals, one of the only remaining places where people are still allowed to congregate during strict social distancing measures, are potential targets, as recent events have demonstrated. First responders and police, of course, remain targets of terrorists, regardless of the pandemic or attack method. Terrorists may also cite the virus as the catalyst for their action. However, in many cases, attack plans may have already been under way for months, or even years. We should be wary of attributing too much to the virus as motivation in any future attacks, and balance our assessment of those attacks that do occur and are attributable (in whole, or in part) to the virus with an understanding that some planned attacks may not be taking place.
The COVID-19 pandemic also creates mitigating conditions for the terrorist threat in much of the world. Around the globe, people are implementing physical distancing measures and, therefore, removing a significant terrorist target: crowds. Physical distancing measures make tactics such as vehicle rammings, stabbings, and bombings far less effective. Without the crowds that usually allow these relatively simple attacks to generate casualties, terrorists may determine that their plans are best perpetrated once physical distancing measures are no longer in place.
While it may be convenient to think of terrorists as relatively omnipotent, my work in counter-terrorism has demonstrated that this is far from the case. Terrorists, like everybody else, can and do get sick, as do their family and friends, creating a burden on care. At the same time, the economic devastation caused by the virus has likely left many would-be terrorists without a source of income. They may be struggling with daily subsistence, meaning devoting additional resources (both in time and money) to attack planning and weapons/component procurements may take a back seat to more immediate needs.
The intense media focus on COVID-19 may also dissuade some would-be terrorists from engaging in attacks during the pandemic. Most terrorists seek recognition for their attacks, with the ultimate goal of sowing fear in a population. This is difficult to do if no one is paying attention to you. A recent attack in France demonstrates how little media attention some attacks are generating. Even for a COVID-19 attack (involving an infected individual), this tactic also does not guarantee media attention. The reality is that anyone we come into contact with could be a virus carrier – determining responsibility would be difficult and far from instantaneous, minimizing one of terrorism’s objectives: instilling fear. This fear would also likely be mitigated by the current environment, which is one where fear is already pervasive due to the global pandemic.
Radicalization and recruitment
Terrorists have an ongoing need to insert themselves into current events and remain relevant, so will undoubtedly incorporate the virus into their radicalization and recruitment efforts, whether their Islamic extremists or white nationalists. Beyond this, security responses, including any missteps by security services and/or over-zealous enforcement of quarantine laws, as well as the reduction in civil liberties, are all likely to feature prominently in terrorist propaganda across the ideological spectrum.
However, when considering terrorist propaganda and their radicalization and recruitment efforts, it remains critical to remember that talk is not action. Terrorist chatter will undoubtedly include much speculation about weaponizing the virus, and some may go so far as to speculate on possible actions. Very few will actually take action on their ideas and cross the threshold from extremist to terrorist, and even fewer will succeed in any kind of attack. Of course, this is relatively cold comfort for law enforcement and security services tasked with monitoring this chatter – the uptick in extremist interest in the virus is undoubtedly making their job more difficult.
Much has been made in media reporting (and in government threat assessments) about the evolving terrorist threat and COVID-19. But it is critical to remember that the key word here is evolving – we won’t know for months (or years) after the pandemic what actual effect the virus has had on the base rate of terrorism around the world. We do know that terrorists are seeking to incorporate and exploit the virus into their terrorist agenda. In seeking to understand the threat, it is critical that we consider both exacerbating factors as well as mitigating factors, and keep our assessment of the threat grounded in reality of terrorist capability. Of course, law enforcement and security services will remain alert for the unlikely possibility of terrorists weaponizing the virus, or even attempting to do so through lower-capability style attacks like an infected individual. It’s also critical to remember that terrorists may have put their plans on hold but not abandoned them entirely, and that those plans may resume once physical distancing measures are eased.
Finally, the terrorist threat most likely to increase in the short term is in conflict zones – where terrorists will seek to take advantage of any security vacuum and decline in international counterterrorism cooperation created by the virus. Some countries may have to scale back their counterterrorism operations because of the pandemic due to reduced budgets, health risks to military personnel, and shifting priorities. Terrorists will seek to exploit this gap, and they are the ones most likely to be successful.