Terrorist threats rise amid coronavirus pandemic

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Government officials and researchers are warning world leaders not to lose focus on global security threats as extremist groups and terrorist organizations exploit the coronavirus pandemic to increase their operations.

Top lawmakers on both sides of the Atlantic and the European Union’s anti-terrorism chief have issued warnings in recent days that bad actors are threatening global security and growing their influence as countries address the impacts of the pandemic.

The increased warnings come as governments, including the U.S., will have to balance their national security budgets as they pour resources into reviving their economies and into public health.

“The massive amount of money that will be spent to address the economic, social and healthcare consequences of the virus risks being at the expense of security,” Gilles de Kerchove, the counterterrorism coordinator for the European Union told Reuters on Wednesday. “We must prevent the one crisis ending up producing another.”

Lawmakers are pushing for increased global cooperation even as world powers collide, including the clash between the U.S. and China, over which countries and international organizations hold responsibility for the pandemic’s rapid spread and fatal toll on the world.

“We must resist the urge to look only inward and instead support one another through the COVID epidemic just as we have done in the past,” the four chairmen of legislative foreign committees from the U.S., the U.K., Germany and the EU wrote in a joint statement on Friday.

Security agencies and researchers are monitoring an uptick in racially motivated hate crimes pushed by extremists online. The threat is more pronounced as whole populations are under stay-at-home orders and spending more time online.

And violent attacks by terrorist groups and armed conflicts across Africa and the Middle East are ongoing, using COVID-19 to to enforce their narrative of the evils of the West and the danger of foreigners as they exploit public frustrations against fragile governments struggling to address the virus.

“We’re seeing an acceleration, a deepening, an amplifying of existing dynamics, most of which were already very bad,” Mona Yacoubian, an expert on conflict in the Middle East and Africa with the U.S. Institute of Peace, told The Hill. 

“It’s very hard to wall the United States off from instability far away,” she added. “We are all deeply interconnected. … There are effects of things happening elsewhere in the world that will reverberate here in the U.S.,” she added.

Yacoubian points out that while the fighters and members of these groups are at the same risk of contracting COVID-19, they are also seeing opportunities in the face of strained security forces as they look to shape the narrative around the coronavirus to support their own causes. 
“Terrorist groups and the like are best poised to exploit opportunities and advantages that come out of the disruption that necessarily flows from a global pandemic,” Yacoubian said.

COVID-19 “is a leveler,” she added. “It’s putting all of us on the back heel. And that creates an opportunity for those that have less power to take advantage.”

This includes the threat of a resurgence of ISIS in Iraq and Syria and the increasing power of Iranian-backed Shiite groups in Iraq — groups that have traded attacks with U.S. forces in the region.

In Africa, Salafi jihadi groups are exploiting weaknesses of struggling governments on the continent to reinforce their doctrine of Islamic law and against democratic or secularist governments.  

The U.S. and international partners have not signaled they are ending key military operations in the Middle East and Africa, but they nonetheless have had to adjust in light of the coronavirus and have drawn down operations.

In Iraq, the global coalition to defeat ISIS announced in March it was withdrawing some troops. Though it was partly executing long-held plans, the drawdown was also a response to the threat of coronavirus as the coalition suspended training exercises with Iraqi security forces.

A similar story is playing out in hot spots on the African continent.

Emily Estelle, research manager at the American Enterprise Institute’s Critical Threats Project, said African Union soldiers combatting the al-Shabaab terror group in Somalia had to quarantine on their base for a time and that European deployments to assist French troops in Mali are delayed.

“Security forces are being strained by the need to manage the crisis caused by coronavirus while also sustaining counterterrorism operations,” she said in an interview with The Hill.

These instances haven’t had a large impact yet but are part of a worrying trend, Estelle warned.

“We’re at a real risk of emerging from the COVID bubble … and seeing a world that looks a lot worse than it does right now, in terms of all of these different conflict zones,” she added.

Eric Rosand, nonresident senior fellow with the Brookings Institution, said strategy planners focused on counterterrorism operations globally are looking to create new ways to address threats in a world consumed by the coronavirus.

“There’s a lot of thinking going on how to retool counterterrorism approaches or countering violent extremism approaches so they can withstand the changed environment,” he told The Hill but added that no conclusive plans or strategies have developed yet.

One opportunity, Rosand points out, is a refocusing on prevention efforts, shifting away from the militarization of the past 20 years after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Such efforts would include putting greater support behind interfaith dialogues, training and education, employment schemes, and focusing on empowering women and youth, as Rosand highlighted in an article for Brookings.

These efforts could be conducted online given the spread of the coronavirus, and proponents of this approach argue they could be geared to building trust within the community by contributing to the coronavirus response, raising awareness about protective measures against the disease and helping secure personal protective equipment. Those actions would help fight both violent extremism and the pandemic.

But Rosand and his Brookings colleagues argue that more sustainable, long-term funding solutions are necessary to ensure these efforts can succeed.

“If you’re going to end the endless wars and refocus away from counterterrorism, there needs to be a greater appreciation for investing in prevention,” said Rosand, a former senior State Department official in the Obama administration.

“More investments in prevention means it’s less likely that extremist violence spikes, less likely that troops have to be deployed, less likely that you get into endless wars,” he added. “This all has to be thought of on a continuum.”


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