The global pandemic has had a significant impact on safety, protection and health across societies and organisations across the world. Whilst measures have been taken to safeguard against a potential threat, risk, and corruption, it cannot be denied the level of vulnerability governments are facing. COVID-19 and the strategies implemented to control the disease, as well as the secondary impacts of economic and political instability, have led to a “perfect storm” environment for extremism, exploitation, and terror activity to grow.

We’ve investigated the facts, trends, and impacts of COVID-19 on Counter-Terrorism:

Positive trends in the fight against terror:

  • Nationwide and localised lockdowns have closed any spaces for mass gatherings and many buildings. This decreases the opportunity for publicly staged attacks.
  • Restrictions also prevent extremist groups from recruiting new active members and supporters in public spaces, which is a common tactic.
  • The main objective of terror groups is to spread fear. Restricted gatherings, movement and overseas travel have decreased this visibility and traditional operational activities.
  • Similarly, the restrictions on movement and travel further impact the distribution of physical resources, which was more easily done before the pandemic.

Negative trends, creating challenges in the fight against terror:

  • One of the biggest negative impacts is the increase in the spread of disinformation. Due to an increase in online activities and digital dependence, there is a captive audience to view extremist messages. In an era of “fake news” and digital propaganda, it is now easier and faster than ever to spread conspiracy theories, tout fallacies as truth, stir up hate within closed online groups and recruit new followers. One such example is the astronomic growth of QAnon, which Facebook has already banned on their platform.
  • The rise in propaganda and misinformation has paved the way for COVID-19 itself to use in manipulative narratives to stir hate, fear, and distrust in government/law enforcement.
  • The restrictions on freedoms, especially when not fairly enforced, can cause frustration within communities. Under the “pressure cooker” the pandemic has created, these frustrations can lead to heightened emotional reactions and provocation of tension easily bubbling over into extremist disenfranchised behaviour – as seen in many countries with anti-lockdown, anti-vaccine and anti-mask protests.
  • Across the globe, mass numbers of the population are in hospitals. Not only does this put extreme pressure on public health services, but it creates an opportunity to hit a nation when it’s already vulnerable.

Negative trends, presenting new risks within Counter Terrorism activities:

  • The rapid increase in online recruiting allows for extremist leaders to source better quality recruits and higher levels of financial funding. The longer lockdowns go on and frustrations rise, there is a chance for more people to seek leadership, certainty, and validation in other places, making them susceptible to this style of recruiting.
  • With the heavy restriction of movement, travel, and gatherings, plotting physical attacks has decreased. However, in its place, there is a rise in the potential for alternative methods, e.g. biological warfare, cyber-attacks, digital crime, fraud. In August 2020, Interpol released a report detailing an alarming amount of cyberattack development.
  • One such form of biological warfare is the potential to use the spreading of the virus as a means of grassroots terrorism. Already there are court cases prosecuting people for “reckless and intentional” spread of COVID-19, could it be used en-masse if coordinated by a terror organisation?

Short-term impacts of COVID-19 on Counter-Terrorism:

  • Presently, and since the start of the pandemic, society and government focuses have been on public health. This could act as a widespread distraction, taking attention away from potential activity.
  • Many governments are making politics policy shifts, causing unstable environments with public distrust and disruption e.g. anti-lockdown protests. Rebellious activities such as protests take attention and resources away from criminal activity.
  • Reallocation of resources (e.g. funding and officers) towards COVID-19 task-forces, away from their normal Counter-Terrorism duties.
  • The restrictions being put into place by governments to control the spread of the virus are being challenged by many. The measures are seen as an infringement of rights and freedoms, creating a tribal ‘us vs them’ atmosphere, adding fuel to establishment distrust.
  • Restricted humanitarian movement in areas where there are significant social and economic challenges e.g. Syrian refuges at the Arab borders are being exploited for cheap work, with no valid work permits and many without health cover, as they cannot travel.

Long-term impacts of COVID-19 on Counter-Terrorism:

  • Social-economic imbalance creating a financial downturn, heading towards a global recession. This creates further grievances and drivers for civil unrest. Whilst the grievances may be experienced over the short-term, most of the effects will be felt long term.
  • An increase in reliance on private protection services, who don’t have to rely on limited government funding. This takes away a central control of our country’s risk and leaves us open to exploitation.
  • One of the knock-on effects of the recession will be a lack of funding to protective services, including Counter-Terrorism. This could leave us vulnerable to potential threats in the future.

What now?

Reading our above findings might feel a bit bleak and overwhelming. But there are steps we can take as individuals and organisations to protect our future:

  • Not resist or rage at restrictions being enforced. Whilst they may be inconvenient and nothing anyone would choose; cooperation is what’s needed most now.
  • Be wary of things read or seen online. Unfortunately, it is far too easy for things to be manipulated or fabricated to reinforce a bias for a purpose.
  • Apply critical thinking and caution, something easy to overlook in the heat of the moment.
  • Be vigilant and aware. If you’re unsure or suspicious, report.
  • Educate yourself. Moving into the uncertain future, Counter-Terrorism training should be perceived in a similar way to Health & Safety or First Aid; a necessity we hope to never have to use, but best to be prepared. ACT training is available online for free for anyone to take. Senior National Coordinator for Protective Security, Deputy Assistant Commissioner Lucy D’Orsi comments:

I know these are difficult and unprecedented times. During COVID-19 CT Policing continues and we would ask that you help us by being a CT Citizen and undertaking this training.”

This is our “Expeditious” overview of the impact of Coronavirus on Counter-Terrorism. Over the coming months, we’ll be exploring different risk and threat areas and give our best practise advice to stay safe.

 

Sources:

Interpol; report showing an alarming rate of cyberattacks during COVID-19

UN; The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Counter-Terrorism and countering violent extremism

Euronews; QAnon in Europe – the meteoric rise of a dangerous conspiracy theory boosted by the pandemic

UKGov; Access to online counter-terrorism training made easier for home users

Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe; Counter-Terrorism in the COVID era

United Nations Institute for Training And Research; COVID-19 and its impact on violent extremism and terrorism

Worldbank; COVID-19 to plunge global economy into worst recession since World War II

International Labour Organisation; Impact of COVID-19 on Syrian refugees and host communities in Jordan and Lebanon

New Law Journal; COVID-19 reckless transmission

The Verge; Facebook bans QAnon

ACT Counter-Terrorism e-learning