The propensity for terrorism is one of the most pressing global threats amid the COVID-19 (a.k.a. coronavirus) pandemic. Although countless pundits, politicians, and mainstream journalists have been mainly preoccupied with government policies, measures taken by healthcare specialists, and economic initiatives put in place to mitigate the problems resulting from this pathogen, few have provided a thorough assessment of how the outbreak might impact terrorism.
Before addressing the potential linkage between pandemics and terrorism, it is useful to frame the connections between health and security. With COVID-19, there is a sense of urgency given the potentially high rate of mortality, in addition to no satisfactory treatment or available vaccine for this infectious disease for the near future. Even prior to coronavirus, health and security had already become intertwined with the concept of human security.
Human security emphasizes the welfare of individuals or the people collectively. According to this framework, health and security are looked at as endemic issues, particularly in low-income countries, leading to millions living in poverty and many dying due to bad health, or what would be curable ailments in more economically developed societies.
A pandemic like COVID-19 and its associated quarantine and self-isolation policies can be detrimental to human security.
A pandemic like COVID-19 and its associated quarantine and self-isolation policies, together with low immunity among the elderly and economically underprivileged communities, can be detrimental to human security. It imposes heavy costs for hospitalizing the afflicted and keeping sick people from returning to work, thus halting them from securing the well-being and financial stability of their families. In the case of deaths, funeral expenses, legal costs, and medical bills can also be considered as negative consequences of the pandemic.[i]
Furthermore, several newly emerging infectious diseases threaten states’ national security. In this sense, security refers to the preservation of the state, its territorial integrity, political institutions, and national sovereignty. With the emergence of a major pandemic, healthcare provisions could be jeopardized, possibly hindering the reopening of the economy.
In line with this train of thought, there is an increased risk that an infectious disease could have a detrimental impact on armed forces and their operational efficiency. Additionally, the travel and tourism sector, upon which some states rely heavily, might be negatively affected, specifically in terms of substantial reduction in room bookings and airline seat reservations, in turn adversely affecting the economic viability of a country.[ii]
There are linkages between health and security within the context of international efforts to combat terrorism.
Finally, there are linkages between health and security within the context of international efforts to combat terrorism, especially regarding terrorist actors using disease-causing biological agents. Terrorist groups might attempt a mass casualty attack by deliberately releasing a disease-inducing biological agent. A biological agent may be employed because some agents are naturally occurring and can thus be more readily acquired and not visible to the human eye. This can be done by ways of aerosol or via food and water supply contamination with particular agents.
Weighing the Risks
Some of the allure of engaging in bioterrorism has to do with the relatively lower costs of the preparation of bioweapons compared to nuclear weapons for example. Because of the relatively low cost and amount of effort required in this genre of terrorism, some terrorist groups may direct their attacks more frequently toward agricultural production in the future. In addition, globalization—with increased importation of food, global food trading, and transportation of animals—has made modern societies more vulnerable to these kinds of terrorist attacks.
Globalization has made modern societies more vulnerable to bioterrorist attacks.
Furthermore, the use of infected humans to spread a contagious disease requires comparatively limited technical know-how. One expert remarked that such an attack “could… have a traumatic psychological shock value… undermine a country’s public health and medical infrastructure’s ability to respond and erode faith in the government’s ability to protect the public.”[iii]
There are concerns about terrorists turning to published material in order to weaponize infectious diseases. Information on science and technology required to build biological weapons is readily available online. There are also scientific articles published in journals that could be used for nefarious purposes.
The internet has enabled the rapid dissemination of scientific research on virulent pathogens, making information not only easier to acquire but also more readily available to the general public. National and international laboratories working on experiments with pathogens have also posed great security risks because in some cases they have shown to be inadequately secured.[iv]
The internet has enabled the rapid dissemination of scientific research on virulent pathogens.
However, terrorists themselves risk becoming infected by a respective virus. There are also significant technical difficulties involved in weaponizing these agents. Letters laced with anthrax sent to American lawmakers after the attacks of September 11, 2001 and the 1995 Aum Shinrikyo cult attacking the Tokyo subway with sarin gas are examples of bioterrorism being employed albeit with low impacts.[v], [vi]
COVID-19 and Terrorism
How do terrorism experts interpret and view the possible connection between COVID-19 and terrorism? What aspects and factors do they feel might be instrumental? We have called upon a number of internationally renowned terrorism researchers to render their opinion on the link between coronavirus and the potential for terrorism.
“A pandemic such as COVID-19 worsens the structural circumstances that lead to terrorism.”
According to Stanford University professor Dr. Martha Crenshaw, a pandemic such as COVID-19 worsens the structural circumstances that lead to terrorism, particularly in less economically developed and authoritarian states.
“My fear is for the long-term impact of both the virus and the response to it in the Global South,” Crenshaw explained. “The social, economic, and political conditions that give rise to terrorism and civil conflict will worsen—especially if weak governments are ineffectual and the international community does not step in to help. Already repressive governments in fragile states will be encouraged to become more repressive, thus sparking discontent and rebellion.”[vii]
In a similar vein, Dr. Bruce Hoffman at the Council on Foreign Relations believes that “the COVID-19 pandemic will lead to a global increase in terrorism [and] accentuate the inequities between North and South.”
“The polarization we see in many societies today will only be accentuated [because] terrorism . . . reflects societal tensions and fault lines.”
“The polarization we see in many societies today will only be accentuated [because] terrorism does not occur in a vacuum and reflects societal tensions and fault lines. It will be no different in a post-pandemic world,” Hoffman added. “Those who were already skeptical of existing systems of governance will become more skeptical and emboldened to engage in violence . . . [and] will now more fervently believe to embrace political change. We will see this among terrorist groups motivated by religion, by anarchist and far-left movements, and by violent, right-wing extremists. It will affect all societies – to varying degrees and with different violent actors or combinations thereof – [in] committing violence.”[viii]
Boston University’s Dr. Jessica Stern warns about the ways that the pandemic might be used by particular groups. But she also sees inherent limitations that the pandemic brings with it.
“We can imagine terrorists using the COVID-19 crisis in a number of ways,” Stern said. “Terrorists always seek to take advantage of the adversary’s weaknesses and limitations. Many extremist organizations have social welfare wings to facilitate recruitment in areas where the state is unwilling or unable to provide social services. This is especially true in refugee camps, a place that terrorists traditionally recruit. Violent extremists are [also] reacting to the pandemic.”
“An American neo-Nazi [for example] was killed before he was able to blow up a hospital that was crowded with patients receiving urgent care,” Stern continued. “A number of groups have [also] organized against government-mandated lockdowns. So far, these rallies have been non-violent.”[ix]
“Terrorist groups will justify their actions by convincing their followers that coronavirus is a signal from God and meant to exact retribution on the ‘other.’”
Dr. Rohan Gunaratna at Nanyang Technology University in Singapore warns that particular terrorist groups will justify their actions by convincing their followers that coronavirus is a signal from God and meant to exact retribution on the “other.” Islamic State loyalists spout propaganda about COVID-19 being a sign that “God is against non-Muslims” while these extremists use this narrative to “legitimize calamities and justify attacks,” according to Dr. Gunaratna.
“They believed that COVID19 is a ‘Soldier of Allah’ sent to kill disbelievers. In late January 2020, the story that the virus is God’s retribution for China’s ill-treatment of Uighurs gathered momentum. To support God’s punishment, the Indonesian terrorists and their supporters called for attacks against Chinese nationals and target China’s interests. When the virus reached Iran, the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda said God is punishing Shia Iran for fighting the Islamic caliphate and joining Bashar al-Assad respectively. When the virus started to kill Europeans and American’s, Islamic State said it is the retribution for the ‘Holocaust of Baghouz,’ the last territorial stronghold of the Islamic State.”
University of Michigan’s Dr. Scott Atran asserts that certain American groups, particularly those on the far right, and their widely espoused conspiracy theories about minorities are breeding ground for terrorist activities.
“Today the potential political, social, and economic disruption caused by COVID-19 . . . [provides] new and dangerous opportunities for extremist actions.”
“Today the potential political, social, and economic disruption caused by COVID-19, and the means employed to fight, to combat, and contain it, provide new and dangerous opportunities for extremist actions and for the ideas developed at the extremes to filter into the mainstream,” Atran said. “Consider [this]: ISIS newsletters argue that the health systems of countries are as corrupt as the countries themselves, protecting the elites and, in Europe, excluding Muslims from hospitals and intensive care.”[x]
“The greatest threat, by far, comes from far-right networks and white supremacist groups,” Atran added. “They are extremely active, inciting attacks against Asians – who [they accuse of having] carried the disease to the White Race; immigrants from all countries but especially darker people.”
“There are calls on the Darknet to bomb hospitals and synagogues, with details [of] how this might be done; to shoot, stab, or kill by any other means Asians, Jews, Muslims, and immigrants – with African-Americans thrown in for good measure – and run over police.”[xi]
“All terrorist incidents in the U.S. in the last two years stem from domestic sources.”
For these reasons, Atran believes the threat from far-right domestic terrorism is far more serious for U.S. national security than jihadi threats for the moment. “All terrorist incidents in the U.S. in the last two years stem from domestic sources – far-right, supremacist, rampage-like shooters,” he explained. “And now with COVID-19 to give an added ‘kernel of truth’ and impetus to anti-government conspiracy theories, there is growing hope, plans, coordination, and intention [by far-right terror groups] to bring about radical societal transformation through acts of violence.”[xii]
Terrorism is a complex and an ever-changing phenomenon. In terms of how governments address the threats of global and domestic terrorism, COVID-19 could be a game-changer, or paradigm shift. Already, the COVID-19 death toll in New York has far surpassed that of the 2001 terror attacks. With respect to counter-terrorism policies, officials in Washington and capitals worldwide must adjust their strategic priorities in light of this pandemic. The ability of extremists to exploit this pathogen to advance their own agendas is a reality which cannot be ignored. Amid this COVID-19 crisis, those in governments, media, academia, and the think tank world must come to terms with a new chapter in the book on terrorism.
The foresight of the aforementioned terrorism experts and projections might not necessarily all become reality. Yet they will prove valuable in educating, informing, and reflecting on strategic policies and the potential linkages between coronavirus and terrorism.
[i] Stefan Elbe (2013) ‘Health and Security’ in: Alan Collins, ed. Contemporary Security Studies. 3rd edition. Oxford University Press, pp.334-345
[ii] Stefan Elbe (2013) ‘Health and Security’ in: Alan Collins, ed. Contemporary Security Studies. 3rd edition. Oxford University Press, pp.334-345
[iii] Marie-Helen Maras (2015) Transnational Security. CRC Press (Taylor & Francis), pp. 209-235
[iv] Marie-Helen Maras (2015) Transnational Security. CRC Press (Taylor & Francis), pp. 209-235
[vii] Interview with Martha Crenshaw on April 25, 2020
[viii] Interview with Bruce Hoffman on April 25, 2020
[ix] Interview with Jessica Stern on May 1, 2020
[x] Interview with Scott Atran on April 24, 2020
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