The COVID-19 pandemic presents both challenges and opportunities for terrorists. On the one hand, terrorists are not immune to the coronavirus. Shutdowns, lockdowns and other social distancing measures, as well as the fear of infection, will tend to inhibit numerous aspects of terrorist operations, from the movement of operatives within and across borders, to the acquisition of vehicles, weapons and equipment. On the other hand, by their very nature as asymmetric adversaries, terrorists tend to adapt quickly and exploit conditions of uncertainty and instability to further their goals. The pandemic presents terrorists with several opportunities for expanding and adapting their activities.
In a new observational report, we have come up with a “Top 10” of the most significant potential impacts of COVID-19 on terrorism, in no particular order of relevance or likelihood.
Before we share our list, it is important to note that we believe that current terrorist efforts to radicalize, recruit and engage in pro-social activities are more likely to bear fruit in the years following the end of the pandemic, during what many project will be a lengthy economic stagnation and recovery period. So, while many of the short-term impacts of COVID-19 on terrorism will diminish once a viable vaccine is distributed widely, other effects are likely to be structural.
We also acknowledge that: a) we are still in the midst of the pandemic and additional consequences might yet emerge; and b) we are in uncharted territory with little to no relevant historical guidance to draw upon, forcing us to draw heavily on inference.
Here’s our Top 10:
1. Terrorists Engaging in Pro-Social Activities
Even if only temporarily or cynically, there are several examples of larger terrorist organizations exploiting the pandemic to gain positive publicity and demonstrate the inadequacies of local governments. This includes offers to provide essential healthcare services, calls to social distance, promising safe passage to healthcare workers, disinfecting public spaces and organizing food distribution. These groups clearly see the propaganda value of such efforts as an opportunity to broaden their support in the long term.
2. Increased Susceptibility to Radicalization
The extended disruption can cause uncertainties, stresses and psychological setbacks. Psychological research indicates that this can make a greater number of people more susceptible to radicalizing narratives and extremist propaganda that seek to scapegoat various “others” and promise simple solutions – just as more people are spending more time online. Several terrorist organizations, including ISIS, have exploited the pandemic to directly boost their recruitment efforts, while many others, from al-Qaeda to multiple groups on the far right, have used the anxieties caused by the pandemic in order to feed into and, they hope, broaden the appeal of their narratives. This has led to a marked increase in activity on online extremist platforms, for example, encrypted channels on Telegram associated with white supremacists.
3. A Rise in Anti-Government Attitudes
Dissatisfaction with government responses to the pandemic have already fueled pre-existing levels of frustration and anti-government attitudes. Extremists whose ideology is particularly hostile to the state have pounced on this sentiment to further exacerbate levels of popular frustration, by using a maelstrom of disinformation campaigns and conspiracy theories. This frustration is heightened by the expansion of the state into everyday life via lockdowns and other restrictive measures, as we see with recent protests, and will likely only intensify as the socio-economic repercussions of the pandemic linger on for years.
4. Inspiration for Apocalyptic-Millenarian Extremists
While some extremist groups with an apocalyptic or millenarian flavor to their ideologies may believe that they must passively prepare for the end with a non-actionable role, others seek to actively initiate their particular version of Armageddon in order to secure salvation. The pandemic, evocative of the prophesied end times or deity displeasure with humanity, might act as a catalyst to violent action for a wide range of groups, from stereotypical cults to larger jihadists groups like ISIS.
5. Terrorists Working from Home
Ongoing global disruption to normal social operations and stay-at-home orders also affect extremists, who have quickly adapted to reach the currently augmented population of Internet users. Beyond fevered dissemination of propaganda material, committed radicals might begin to use their time at home to engage in operational preparations. Possible preparations of this kind range from taking advantage of today’s data-saturated environment to collect ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) to improving their technical skills. Being limited to mostly online resources has also led to a marked escalation in cybercrime during the pandemic, with significant increases in ransomware attacks.
6. Establishing Bioterrorism as a Viable Tactic
The proven inability of even highly developed countries to stop the spread of the virus has exposed the many weaknesses present in global public health systems. These will not go unnoticed by terrorist groups when they consider new ways to achieve their goals. Since a key strategy of terrorists is to inflict psychological damage on populations as a means of violent coercion, the pandemic’s societal and economic consequences provide a perfect script for the theatre of terrorism. Despite previous unsuccessful efforts, the possibility of replicating the death and disruption of the pandemic may make bioterrorism a newly attractive option. Conversely, for terrorists with well-defined, vulnerable constituencies, the indiscriminate spread of the disease would likely give them pause, at least when it comes to utilizing contagious pathogens.
7. Weaponizing COVID-19
While most past attempts at bioterrorism have involved noncontagious agents, there have already been reports of extremists considering using the SARS-CoV-2 virus as a weapon. Weaponizing the current pandemic could follow three possible scenarios: a) low-level dissemination of the virus with little to no premeditation, such as the many observed cases in the U.S. and elsewhere of intentional spitting, coughing, or licking behavior in public, sometimes leading to domestic terrorism charges; b) a medium-level threat scenario using the virus as part of a planned attack on specific ideological targets (such as white nationalist and jihadist groups calling for the intentional spread of COVID-19 to specific populations); or c) a large-scale effort where perpetrators intentionally spread the virus in an indiscriminate manner in order to prolong or reignite the pandemic. The last of these threats becomes much more of a problem in the period from after the first wave of COVID-19 passes until a reliable vaccine is developed.
8. Conventional Attacks During the Pandemic
Aside from areas of high instability, where the pandemic might provide attack opportunities because it draws away security forces, many terrorists in more developed parts of the world will likely conclude that during a pandemic is not the optimal time to launch a major attack. Whether this is due to the noticeably decreased number of people frequenting soft targets such as transportation hubs or the difficulty in displacing news headlines about the pandemic, many terrorists might stick to planning until society returns to normal. The one glaring exception is healthcare facilities where COVID-19 patients are treated, since these provide both concentration of targets and would ensure widespread publicity.
9. Less-Secure Facilities
Aside from those such as government buildings, which tend to be well-guarded especially given the recent protests, coronavirus-related disruptions can negatively affect security at many facilities – whether from limited operations, personnel being quarantined or falling ill, a psychologically distracted workforce, or even, simply, reduced foot traffic by passersby. Consequences this could have on terrorist threats include increased likelihood of attacks on symbolic targets by those terrorists who specifically seek fewer or no casualties, lower risks for terrorists to acquire materials from either less-secure facilities or everyday stores where anxious workers are preoccupied by the pandemic, or even an opportunity to free followers in detention, as seen in recent ISIS endeavors.
10. CT Distractions
Like anyone, counterterrorism personnel might fall ill from the virus or experience its attendant psychological distresses. At the very least, the ongoing situation will reduce capabilities and introduce friction into the counterterrorism process (e.g., with analysts teleworking or suffering personal stresses), thus making it more likely that a crucial warning indicator or piece of intelligence could fall through the cracks. More detrimentally, we are already seeing potential ramifications internationally, as large terrorist networks seek to capitalize on the distractions caused by COVID-19. Multiple terrorist groups have explicitly called upon their followers to carry out attacks on vulnerable opponents whose forces are preoccupied with pandemic prevention and relief. Also, with the ongoing spread of the virus across the globe causing countries to focus inwards, national and international coordination on counterterrorism might only be weaken over time. The extent to which these strains on counterterrorism activities will persist or intensify will depend on the duration and extent of the progress of the disease, and the long-term economic damage brought about by the pandemic – but counterterrorism resources could be curtailed for years to come.