It is clear that the effects of the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19) are extensive. Daily life has come to a standstill, governments have found themselves in an awkward position, the world has experienced an unprecedented economic crisis, and feelings of fear, panic and phobia of the unknown and unseen have spread, especially in light of the death of tens of thousands of people around the world and congestion of hospitals with infected people. The absence of clear conclusions about the virus and the possibility of controlling it have created a state of confusion and panic among the population of all six continents.[i]
Accordingly, indications have emerged that coronavirus has led to the emergence of new patterns of extremism and terrorism. This raises questions about the implications of the coronavirus pandemic for this phenomenon and the extent of its effects on the agendas and nature of terrorist groups as well as the potential future trends after the end of this serious epidemic crisis.
Responses of terrorist groups to the coronavirus pandemic
Overall, the attitudes and responses of traditional terrorist groups to the spread of the coronavirus pandemic have so far passed through three stages:
First stage: prevalence of confusion over the responses of those groups where some of them, including ISIS, al-Qaeda and the Turkistan Islamic Party, considered that the spread of the epidemic was a divine retribution against non-Muslims. The Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) said that al-Qaeda’s senior leadership released a statement calling on civilians in Western countries to convert to Islam during the coronavirus pandemic.[ii]
Second stage: temporary freezing of terrorist activities and monitoring developments. The rapid spread of the epidemic in European countries has led some organizations, mainly ISIS, to urge their operatives to halt operations in Europe. Meanwhile, some organizations, including ISIS and Ahrar al-Sham group, released a list containing religious directives about how to avoid contagious diseases.
Third stage: resumption of terrorist operations with a different momentum, considering that the spread of coronavirus and preoccupation of governments with fighting it provide a precious opportunity for terrorist and extremist groups to launch innovative attacks in different areas and recruit new operatives. The call by ISIS on its operatives to spread the COVID-19 disease in western countries falls into this framework.[iii]
At the same time, the spread of the epidemic has provided some terrorist groups and criminal organizations with opportunities to gain political legitimacy and present themselves as an alternative to existing governments and authorities. Those groups were quick to offer advice on protection and treatment in areas where local authorities cannot provide care. For instance, Lebanon’s Hezbollah has strived to mobilize medical teams and medics to disinfect entire areas and has used its medical centres to provide care to people infected with the virus.[iv] Taliban Movement in Afghanistan has also offered a ceasefire in parts of the country destroyed by the disease spread; Ahrar al-Sham group in Syria has offered advice to citizens on how to protect themselves from the disease; and criminal organizations in Brazil have imposed a curfew on poorer neighbourhoods.[v]
Terrorist acts and violent practices under the crisis
While the attacks that could be considered a traditional terrorist act have been limited since the outbreak of the crisis, the spread of the virus in most countries of the world is seen to have contributed to the development of the typology of terrorist operations and the subsequent expansion of their execution.
First, traditional terrorist operations. In March, four operations were carried out that could be classified under global terrorism, while only two operations were carried out by jihadist organizations. However, operations have been on the increase since April.[vi] ISIS carried out attacks on various locations in Iraqi cities and on positions belonging to the Syrian and Egyptian governments. The organization’s operations continued until the beginning of May,[vii] including an operation that led to the killing of ten Egyptian soldiers upon the explosion of an improvised explosive device (IED) in north Sinai, in addition to individual operations, such as the knife attack in southeast France.[viii]
Second: emergence of some new patterns and behaviours fuelled by the crisis of the spread of coronavirus pandemic. The US aborted a terrorist attack to blow up Kansas City Hospital which was prepared to receive patients infected with coronavirus. Furthermore, an extremist threatened to kill the governor of New Mexico because of quarantine restrictions. Some violent acts were also carried out, fuelled by the conspiracy theory. Fear of linking 5G technology and the spread of coronavirus has led to burnings of cell-phone towers across Europe.[ix] Some racist extremists have discussed the possibility of using coronavirus to carry out large-scale biological attacks. Within this framework, some governments have tended to study the possibility of re-drafting their legal definitions of terrorism to prosecute people committing antisocial acts such as intentionally coughing on others or spitting on surfaces to contaminate them with contagious and lethal viruses as well as those who incite violence and carrying out internal conspiracies at times of epidemic.[x]
Potential future trends for the terrorism phenomenon in the post-coronavirus stage
There are several scenarios and expectations regarding the future of the terrorism phenomenon after the end of the epidemic crisis. Within this framework, four major future trends could be expected, as follows:
First trend: emergence of new forms of terrorism and violence targeting governments: distrust of many governments because of their awkward management of the coronavirus crisis, the sluggish performance in countering the health and economic implications of the epidemic and the resulting increase in unemployment rates due to the lockdowns and slowdown in economic growth are all factors that could lead to fissures that could be used by racist groups and extremists of different types and orientations to speak out against the failure of existing governments in countering this type of crises.[xi] These could later take the forms of violence and threats targeting state institutions. For instance, reports released by the US Department of Homeland Security have indicated that domestic extremists constitute the most serious threat facing the country pending the containment of the virus. They mobilize local residents against the authorities in response to the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.[xii]
Second trend: occurrence of a change in the nature and trends of traditional terrorist groups as a result of the virus crisis: the assumption by some of those groups of a role in fighting the virus has led some observers to expect a change in the nature of armed operations carried out by those groups in the post-crisis stage while taking into consideration that those groups normally take measures to gain legitimacy and popularity to obtain the support of civilians living under their rule and of potential supporters abroad. Therefore, the crisis of the coronavirus spread and failure by many countries to counter it may create opportunities that would enable those groups to play on contrasts and fill the gap, although this would not necessarily bring about a concrete change in their nature or targets as well as in their adoption of the armed violence option.[xiii]
Third trend: emergence of new violence and extremism patterns as a result of disenfranchisement and deprivation: decreasing rates of global economic growth are expected to lead to the deprivation of millions of people as a result of the crisis. Deprivation of rights could create new forms and patterns of political violence. With the implementation by a number of institutions of the mechanism of remote working and deployment of artificial intelligence to limit social contact, they may resort in the future to laying off a part of their labour force and replace physical work with smart work to reduce costs and increase revenue. This will spread a state of disappointment among affected workers that could mix with some radical trends paving the way for the emergence of new groups with radical orientations that may resort to violence.[xiv]
Fourth trend: expansion of the wave of hatred crimes all over the world: the racist nature that dominates the virus-related discourse, especially on the part of some senior officials, has created societies that blame one another, particularly with regard to accusing the Chinese (and Asians generally) of being responsible for the epidemic spread. With the creation of this type of hostile feelings, a wave of victimization and violence is likely to emerge against everything east Asian. Yet those angry sentiments could be utilized by others to inflame hatred ideologies against other groups, including immigrants and refugees.[xv] Within this framework, some extreme rightists in the West have accused migrant communities, especially Jews, of bringing the contagion to their countries. Thus, they called for imposing protectionist policies and restrictions on the movements of individuals to combat immigration.[xvi] Consequently, the wave of racially-motivated hatred crimes is likely to increase which will pave the way for creating a new terrorist wave.
While the materialization of those four trends, either simultaneously or consecutively, is possible, the first and fourth trends are more likely. Coronavirus has created waves of varying responses among citizens ranging between feelings of fury, deprivation and alienation. This threatens the creation of new forms of political and social terrorism. Allegations by some terrorist groups that the virus is a “divine retribution” could also lead to the emergence of more severe waves of violence by their members and supporters.[xvii]
Therefore, it is difficult to assert that the terrorism phenomenon will recede or end after the virus as some hope. Rather, it may develop and follow worse patterns than before, both in terms of domestic violence and cross-border international terrorism.[xviii]
[i] Steven Erlanger, "The coronavirus inflicts its own kind of terror, changing our idea of life, and security", The Economic Times, April 6, 2020. Available at https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/magazines/panache/the-coronavirus-inflicts-its-own-kind-of-terror-changing-our-idea-of-life-and-security/articleshow/75011609.cms
[ii] Mike Wagenheim, "The Deadly Combination of Coronavirus and Terrorism", The Media Line, April 9, 2020. Available at https://themedialine.org/top-stories/the-deadly-combination-of-coronavirus-and-terrorism/
[iii] Walid Abdulrahman, “Vocabulary of the discourse of terrorist organizations during coronavirus time”, Asharq Al-Awsat, 7 April 2020. Available at: https://aawsat.com/home/article/2220516
[iv] “Sayyed Safieddine announces Hezbollah’s plan to fight coronavirus”, Al-Manar channel, 25 March 2020. Available at: https://almanar.com.lb/6444187
[v] Colin P. Clarke, "Yesterday’s Terrorists Are Today’s Public Health Providers", Foreign Policy, April 8, 2020. Available at https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/04/08/terrorists-nonstate-ungoverned-health-providers-coronavirus-pandemic/
[vi] “Iraq: ten killed from the Popular Mobilization in an attack by ISIS north of Baghdad”, France24 channel, 2 May 2020. Available at: https://www.france24.com/ar/
[vii] Seth J. Frantzman, "ISIS is on track to double its attacks in Iraq and Syria", The Jerusalem Post, May 2, 2020. Available at, https://www.jpost.com/middle-east/isis-threat/isis-is-on-track-to-double-its-attacks-in-iraq-and-syria-626617
[viii] “A knife attack in France: investigation launched into attack and two Sudanese suspects arrested”, BBC Arabic, 5 April 2020. Available at: https://www.bbc.com/arabic/world-52173824
[ix] Raffaello Pantucci, "After the Coronavirus, Terrorism Won’t Be the Same", Foreign Policy, April 22, 2020. Available at https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/04/22/after-coronavirus-terrorism-isis-hezbollah-5g-wont-be-the-same/
[xii] Natasha Bertrand, "DHS warns of increase in violent extremism amid coronavirus lockdowns", Department of Homeland Security, April 23, 2020. Available at https://www.politico.com/news/2020/04/23/dhs-increase-in-coronavirus-inspired-violence-205221
[xiii] Clarke, "Yesterday’s Terrorists".
[xiv] Abdul Basit, "How terrorist and extremist groups are exploiting coronavirus cracks in society", South China Morning Post, May 1, 2020. Available at https://www.scmp.com/comment/opinion/article/3082368/how-terrorist-and-extremist-groups-are-exploiting-covid-19-cracks
[xv] Pantucci, "After the Coronavirus".
[xvi] Basit, "How terrorist and extremist groups".
[xvii] Wagenheim, "The Deadly Combination".
[xviii] "Contending with ISIS in the Time of Coronavirus", International Crisis Group, March 31, 2020. Available at https://d2071andvip0wj.cloudfront.net/contending-with-isis-31iii20.pdf
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