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How the pandemic has changed the threat of violent extremism

How the pandemic has changed the threat of violent extremism
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Among the many problems the COVID-19 pandemic has created are opportunities for non-state actors, including terrorists and organized crime, to undermine governments and the most vulnerable victims of this horrible disease. This poses a threat to the U.S. and other nations, now and in the future. It is, therefore, imperative that the U.S. government and its allies continue to work together to ensure that non-state actors do not get the upper hand while the world responds to, and rebuilds from, the pandemic.  

Kristalina Georgieva, managing director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), recently made clear that we are confronting an economic crisis like no other. World Bank President David Malpass believes that a shrinking global economy could push 60 million people into extreme poverty, defined as those making less than $1.90 per day. The United Nations estimates that, overall, half a billion people could become destitute because of the pandemic.  

Economies have been shut down in the developed and developing world. India has a burgeoning population of migrant workers who have no work. Hunger is an existential threat, particularly in Africa.  The World Food Program estimates that as many as 130 million could go hungry in 2020, in addition to the 135 million who are already confronted with hunger and food shortages.

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Migration has been nearly halted. This creates more and deeper problems for the world’s poor. The International Labour Organization believes close to half of the global workforce could lose their means of making a living. In addition, the cut off of remittances — literally a lifeline for the poor in places such as Mexico and Central America — as a result of the dramatic increase in unemployment, further exacerbates an untenable situation for the world’s poor.  

The terrorism threat

Terrorists continue to pose a threat to the U.S., its allies and other nations. The threat has changed considerably since 9/11 and the collapse of the caliphate of the Islamic State, but it remains a global problem — one that is exacerbated by the pandemic. In March, the UN issued a statement on the terrorist threat in Africa. In her briefing, Under Secretary General Rosemary DiCarlo noted, “The threat of terrorism is often a consequence of development, humanitarian, human rights and security challenges that terrorist groups continue to exploit.”  The pandemic has exacerbated these conditions, creating circumstances in which terrorist groups such as ISIS, Boko Haram, al Qaeda and its affiliates such as Al-Shabaab, can thrive.  

A United Nations Development Programme study points out that “55 percent of voluntary (terrorist) recruits express frustration over their economic condition; 83 percent believe that their government looks only after the interests of a few; more than 75 percent have zero trust in politicians and law enforcement institutions.” The pandemic has worsened these circumstances, making it easier for terrorists to operate and exploit desperate populations.  

More broadly, both ISIS and al Qaeda have used the pandemic as an operational tool. ISIS has called the pandemic “a soldier of Allah” and part of divine punishment for non-believers. Both groups encourage their followers to exploit the pandemic as part of the fight against the West and other infidels. The economic and political disarray caused by the public health crisis has opened up new pathways for these groups.  

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Unfortunately, it is not only religious extremists who try to take advantage; ultra-right-wing nationalists also are exploiting the crisis. As terrorism expert Bruce Hoffman writes, “Terrorism today is … also populated by individuals that are individually motivated.” These so-called lone wolves use social media to feed their extremism, spreading disinformation and conspiracy theories. The Department of Homeland Security warns that ultra right-wing extremists who may be infected with COVID-19 are being encouraged to infect law enforcement officials and minority communities.  

The Anti-Defamation League, which tracks such extremism, has raised alarm bells regarding anti-Semitic and anti-Islamic rhetoric connected to the pandemic. There has also been backlash against Chinese Americans because the pandemic originated in Wuhan, China.

Organized crime

Cartels in Mexico, gangs in Central America and even the Italian Mafia have begun to exploit the pandemic to their advantage. Mexico in particular has experienced escalating violence, with the highest monthly total of homicides in nearly a quarter-century in March. The pandemic also has created security vulnerability for national governments that must move resources to enforce lockdowns, giving organized crime networks an opening to undertake or step up non-drug related activity such as kidnapping, human smuggling and cyber crime. This has been a problem particularly along the Colombian and Venezuelan border, according to a Pares Foundation report. 

The exploitation of pandemic-related economic, political and security problems is not limited to Latin America. It also has hit Italy, southern Italy in particular, with the Mafia. The OECD estimates that 27 percent of all Italians are at risk of falling into poverty. The Mafia, cartels and even terrorist groups have stepped up to fill a void in providing resources where governments have failed. This gives these groups a further foothold as the world begins to recover from the pandemic.  

Potential solutions

The threat of non-state actors is only one problem facing the U.S. and its allies, but it is a real threat that cannot be ignored. Resources devoted to fighting terrorist groups and violent extremists internationally should not be cut. To make sure that money spent to combat these groups is used effectively, global cooperation is essential. This should include an increased use of international organizations. The World Bank Group has been using its resources to respond to the development crises caused by the pandemic. The IMF has stepped up its response. Both of these institutions, as well as regional development banks and the UN, can and should be relied upon to leverage increasingly scarce development financing. The G7 and G20 should make certain that the response to terrorists and organized crime is part of their pandemic response.

The exploitation of social media is a burgeoning problem, domestically and internationally, that has been made worse by the pandemic. U.S. government security and intelligence entities should be fully funded and empowered to push back against ultra-nationalism and violent extremism, respecting legitimate privacy laws and rights. 

There also should be increased outreach and cooperation with civil society as part of an effort to respond to the pandemic and rebuild societies once it has subsided. Failing economies and governments that don’t respond to this crisis create a void that terrorists and criminal elements can fill. These non-state actors can be stopped — but only if governments, international organizations and civil society work together to ensure they do not prevail.  

William C. Danvers has worked on national security and foreign policy issues for the executive branch, Congress, international organizations and the private sector.