Why the new coronavirus is an asset for terrorists

Article by Joana Lopes | Illustration by Tommaso Bisagni

Let’s consider the following argument:

The coronavirus crisis has put the world in lockdown.

Terrorists want to provoke mass causalities.

Therefore, terrorist activity will decrease.

This reasoning is a fallacy, for many reasons. For example, there are multiple types of terrorism, hence different objectives, and the context may also change the conclusion. Nevertheless, our main point is: If you think terrorist activity will decrease due to the current crisis, you might want to think again. This article argues that terrorist activity is likely not to decrease because coronavirus crisis is a potential asset for terrorists. We discuss seven reasons why is it an asset.

1. It is a delight for right-wing terrorists.

In the words of Robert Pape, a political scientist from the University of Chicago, expert on international security, right-wing terrorists are “looking to ‘weaponize’ the crisis”.In fact, they are already celebrating the emergence of the virus and exploiting it.

These, aligned with extremists, “see the pandemic as an opportunity” to push further their xenophobic, racist and anti-Semitic agendas: various groups, including Nazis from Ukraine to Germany, are doing so by creating chaos and promoting fear through the dissemination of conspiracy theories about the virus, or by blaming foreigners and ethnic minorities. Others, named “accelerationists” – violent neo-Nazis who want the society to crumble – see the pandemic as a “necessary step”.

2. Instrument of propaganda for jihadist terrorism.

Coronavirus can be an instrument of propaganda for jihadists, however used differently from the ring-wing. One of the Islamic State’ coronavirus channels has published a message calling for fear, not from the virus, but from Allah.

This was justified with a supposed quote from the Sahih al-Bukhari – one of the six major Hadith collections of Sunni Islam (sayings and teachings of the Prophet Muhammad): the believer should know “nothing will befall him but what Allah has decreed” and those who are aware of such “will be given the reward of a martyr”.

In our view, this is relevant because “fearing Allah” and “martyrdom” are two essential pieces of Daesh’ propaganda and recruitment strategy. This plea contrasts with other supposed sayings on plagues, which call for separation between sick patients and healthy people.

Paradoxically, Daesh has also adopted a safety-first approach by issuing a list of rules to its militants and supporters on how to protect themselves from the virus and to avoid infected areas as Europe. Nonetheless, the group emphasizes the importance of “putting trust in God”.This might be a cover for planned actions, while diverting authorities.

3. Fertile ground for cyberterrorism.

According to The Economist Intelligence Unit (2020), the coronavirus crisis “will be a catalyst for changes” and “will exacerbate existing geopolitical trends”, namely the “disinformation war”. The report only stresses the conflict between China and the US yet, due to the reasons previously explained, we think it is similarly important to highlight the role of non-state actors in this domain.

Progressive developments on information technologies and in the field of digitalization – accelerated by globalisation – are powerful weapons, helping to facilitate terrorists’ objectives, as recruitment or propaganda

4. State terrorism and conflict between foreign powers.

Terrorism is also perpetrated by sovereign entities and coronavirus might be an enable of such. Though not consensual, “state terrorism” is generally defined as acts of violence carried by the state against their own population, through the abusive use of armed forces and intelligence agencies.

States can also subsidize terrorist cells (taking the form of “state-sponsored terrorism”). Discourse is a key aspect of the state strategy, which might radicalise certain groups and trigger diplomatic conflicts with other powers. For instance, the President of Venezuela, Nicolas Maduro, has stated that the virus is possible a biological weapon aimed at China.

5. Lessons learned to perpetrate CBRN attacks

Terrorists groups take lessons from their predecessors. This can be illustrated by the attacks of al-Qaeda (inspired in Irgun) or the attacks of Daesh in Paris, 2013 (which combined different techniques from previous attacks as the siege in Moscow of 2002).

Although there are several doubts on the origin of the new coronavirus, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has stated it is likely to come from an animal source, dismissing the idea of human engineering. Taking into account the management of the crisis and its current consequences, particularly on the psychological level, terrorists might want to take some notes to plan CBRN attacks (chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear), especially of biological nature.

Such possibility is still controversial amongst the specialists yet shouldn’t be ignored from the analysis. For instance, in 2018, European authorities dismantled three biological attacks (namely in France, Germany and Italy) and there are evidences – reports EUROPOL – of propaganda calls for the use of CBRN substances. The outbreak of Covid-19 has already prompted the Council of Europe Committee on Counter-terrorism to warn against the risk of bioterrorism. 

6. Enduring conflicts can be exploited, being further aggravated.

The wars in the Middle East (e.g. Syria, Yemen), Africa (e.g. Nigeria, Mozambique) and conflicts in Asia (e.g. Indonesia), might be exploited by non-state actors to cause further violence and chaos. There are already multiple threats about this possibility, coming from the Islamic State, al-Qaeda or right-wing groups.

As pointed out by the UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, the new coronavirus is more than a health crisis, it is also a human rights concern and a threat to global peace and security. In his words, terrorists groups could see “a window of opportunity to strike”, especially in the Sahel region. Humanitarian emergencies will thrive and be aggravated causing pressing security dilemmas to national states.

7.Might falter ongoing or planned counter-terrorism operations.

State of emergencies, social distancing and lockdowns measures, decreed due to the pandemic, difficult terrorist activity, making harder to provoke an attack of mass casualties. However, the coronavirus crisis could also falter ongoing or planned counter-terrorism operations.

At the moment (May, 2020), perhaps due to the necessary secrecy, there are no evidences of such but, in the longer term, as security recourses are stretched to combat the virus, disruptions of that nature might help terrorists in achieving their purposes.

 

Terrorists want to provoke mass casualties but are also keen to exploit fear and chaos (terrorist activity goes beyond its physical dimension). So, in times of closure, the new coronavirus is their trump card.

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