As events unfold with the coronavirus pandemic, the virus has revealed deep shortcomings in America’s emergency preparedness and national medical response systems. Following al Qaeda’s attacks on September 11, 2001, bolstering those systems was seen as a priority, given concerns with a range of possible vulnerabilities facing the nation.
Over the past two decades, efforts have been made to develop better bio-surveillance and detection methods; to stockpile key medical equipment, supplies, vaccines and therapeutics so that they can be mobilized on short notice; and to train and plan with public health and emergency response professionals.
While we still don’t know the full extent of the public health effects of the virus, with some officials suggesting there could be a dramatic escalation in cases, there has been little public discussion regarding the broader national security implications.
This is a critical moment for the country’s security at home and abroad, and adversaries could view this moment as an opportunity to conduct kinetic attacks against physical targets, undermine public confidence in government through disinformation and propaganda, disrupt ongoing medical and public health response efforts or create further economic uncertainty through commodity or currency manipulations.
While nations identified as the main U.S. security concerns – such as Russia, China, Iran and North Korea – are confronting serious challenges, this does not mean they will not advance anti-U.S. plans if they think the benefits outweigh the costs of doing so. Recently in Iraq, two U.S. service members and one British military personnel tragically died. It is unclear whether that operation was timed to coincide with a perceived moment of U.S. weakness based on domestic concerns with the virus or whether it was connected to the earlier chain of events in Iraq between the United States and Iran.
Similarly, less is known about the impact of the virus on various terrorist organizations or how it may affect their anti-U.S. goals. Al Qaeda and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) have faced significant setbacks and losses of territory, personnel and financial resources based on U.S.-led campaigns. But neither group is defeated, and both remain focused on the United States as a key target. Both groups could view attacks against U.S. interests abroad as opportune or encourage U.S.-based extremists to conduct attacks domestically via online propaganda and messaging.
Racially-motivated violent extremists in the United States could likewise perceive this as an opportunity to conduct attacks against segments of U.S. society they believe are vulnerable or under less protection. Some extremists in this camp already link environmental causes to their twisted beliefs, and a global pandemic of this scale may be interpreted as a self-fulfilling prophecy that justifies violent action in a further attempt to rebalance the natural order.
Even if there are no deliberate attempts to cause further harm to the United States over this period, now more than ever the country will rely on the dedicated group of national security professionals in law enforcement, border and transportation security and the military and intelligence communities to ensure our collective safety — similar to the roles their counterparts are playing on the medical and emergency response side. As they all take great risks to conduct this mission, these individuals will need to be assured that their personal safety will not be affected, and that their families will also be protected while they serve in their important roles.
The United States has withstood national crises of this magnitude before, and worse. The country will recover and bounce back to normalcy in due time. Until then, as the public health concerns surrounding the coronavirus pandemic are prioritized, it’s critical not to lose sight of the range of national security concerns that may arise.
Javed Ali is a Towsley Policymaker in Residence at the University of Michigan’s Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy and has over twenty years professional experience in Washington, DC on national security issues, to include senior roles at the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Office of the Director of National Intelligence, and National Security Council.