Why the new coronavirus is an asset for terrorists

Let us consider the following argument: The coronavirus crisis has put the world in lockdown. Terrorists want to provoke mass casualties. Therefore, terrorist activity will decrease.

This reasoning is a fallacy, for many reasons. For example, there are multiple types of terrorism, hence different objectives, and the context may also change the conclusion. Nevertheless, my main point is: If you think terrorist activity will decrease due to the current crisis, you might want to think again. This piece argues that terrorist activity is likely not to decrease because the coronavirus crisis is a potential asset for terrorists. I discuss seven reasons why is it an asset.

1. It is a delight for right-wing terrorists

In the words of Robert Pape, a political scientist from the University of Chicago, expert on international security, right-wing terrorists are “looking to ‘weaponize’ the crisis.” In fact, they are already celebrating the emergence of the virus and exploiting it. These groups, aligned with extremists, “see the pandemic as an opportunity” to push further their xenophobic, racist and anti-Semitic agenda. Various groups, including neo-Nazis from Ukraine to Germany, are doing so by creating chaos and promoting fear through the dissemination of conspiracy theories about the virus, or by blaming foreigners and ethnic minorities. Others, named “accelerationists” – violent neo-Nazis who want society to crumble – see the pandemic as a “necessary step”.

2. It is an instrument of propaganda for jihadist terrorism

The coronavirus pandemic can be used as an instrument of propaganda for jihadists, however used differently from the ring-wing movements. One of Daesh’s coronavirus channels has published a message calling for fear, not from the virus, but from Allah. This was justified with a supposed quote from the Sahih al-Bukhari – one of the six major Hadith collections of Sunni Islam (sayings and teachings of the Prophet Muhammad): the believer should know “nothing will befall him but what Allah has decreed” and those who are aware of such “will be given the reward of a martyr.” In my view, this is relevant because “fearing Allah” and “martyrdom” are two essential pieces of Daesh’s propaganda and recruitment strategy. This plea contrasts with other supposed sayings on plagues, which call for separation between sick patients and healthy people.

Paradoxically, Daesh has also adopted a safety-first approach by issuing a list of rules to its militants and supporters on how to protect themselves from the virus and to avoid infected areas such as Europe. Nonetheless, the group emphasizes the importance of “putting trust in God.” This might be a cover for planned actions, while diverting authorities.

3. Fertile ground for cyberterrorism

According to The Economist Intelligence Unit (2020), the coronavirus crisis “will be a catalyst for changes” and “will exacerbate existing geopolitical trends,” namely the “disinformation war.” The report only stresses the conflict between China and the US; yet, due to the reasons previously explained, I think it is similarly important to highlight the role of non-state actors in this domain. Progressive developments on information technologies and in the field of digitalization – accelerated by globalisation – are powerful weapons, helping to facilitate terrorists’ objectives, as recruitment or propaganda.

4. State terrorism and conflict between foreign powers

Terrorism is also perpetrated by sovereign entities and the coronavirus might be an enabler of such practices. Though not consensual, “state terrorism” is generally defined as acts of violence carried by the state against their own population, through the abusive use of armed forces and intelligence agencies. States can also subsidize terrorist cells (taking the form of “state-sponsored terrorism”). Discourse is a key aspect of the state strategy, which might radicalise certain groups and trigger diplomatic conflicts with other powers. For instance, the President of Venezuela, Nicolas Maduro, has stated that the virus is possibly a biological weapon aimed at China.

5. Lessons learned by terrorists to perpetrate CBRN attacks

Terrorist groups take lessons from their predecessors. This can be illustrated by al-Qaeda’s attacks (inspired by Irgun) or Daesh’s attacks in Paris, 2013 (which combined different techniques from previous attacks, such as the 2002 siege in Moscow).

Although there are several doubts regarding the origin of the new coronavirus, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has stated that it is likely to come from an animal source, dismissing the idea of human engineering. Taking into account the management of the crisis and its current consequences, particularly at the psychological level, terrorists might want to take some notes to plan CBRN attacks (chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear), especially of biological nature. This possibility is still controversial amongst the specialists yet should not be ignored from the analysis. For instance, in 2018, European authorities dismantled three biological attacks (namely in France, Germany, and Italy) and there is evidence – according to EUROPOL – of propaganda calls for the use of CBRN substances. The outbreak of Covid-19 has already prompted the Council of Europe Committee on Counter-terrorism to warn against the risk of bioterrorism.

6. Enduring conflicts can be exploited and further aggravated

Conflicts, such as the ones in the Middle East (e.g. Syria, Yemen), Africa (e.g. Nigeria, Mozambique), or Asia (e.g. Indonesia), might be exploited by non-state actors to cause further violence and chaos. There are already multiple threats about this possibility, coming from Daesh, al-Qaeda, or right-wing groups. As pointed out by UN Secretary-General António Guterres, the new coronavirus is more than a health crisis; it is also a human rights concern and a threat to global peace and security. In his words, terrorist groups could see “a window of opportunity to strike,” especially in the Sahel region. Humanitarian emergencies will thrive and be aggravated, causing pressing security dilemmas to states.

7. Ongoing or planned counter-terrorism operations might falter

States of emergency, social distancing, and lockdowns measures, decreed due to the pandemic, are making terrorist activity harder by preventing the perpetration of attacks with mass casualties. However, the coronavirus crisis could also cause ongoing or planned counter-terrorism operations to falter. At the moment of the writing of this text (May 2020), perhaps due to the necessary secrecy, there is no evidence of such difficulties; however, in the longer term, as security resources are stretched to combat the virus, disruptions of that nature might help terrorists in achieving their purposes.

Terrorists want to provoke mass casualties but are also keen to exploit fear and chaos (terrorist activity goes beyond its physical dimension). So, in times of closure, the new coronavirus is their trump card.

This text was previously published here.

The opinions expressed in this text are solely the author’s point of view and do not bind the Center for International Studies, its Director or any other researcher.
2017 terrorist attack in Las Ramblas, Barcelona, Spain / foto by jikatu [cropped] / CC BY-SA 2.0

CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Joana Araújo Lopes

Researcher at CEI. MA in Political Science and International Relations (NOVA). PhD Candidate in History, Security Studies and Defence (Iscte). Research interests: international security, terrorism, violent extremism, radicalization, and diplomacy.

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