Coping with Coronavirus
Terrorism in the Time of Coronavirus
by Nikola Zukalová
From the extreme right to the extreme left, religious fundamentalists to apocalyptical movements coronavirus is generating an effect. With national resources and public attention largely directed at efforts to contain COVID-19, the current situation of panic and fear is prone to exploitation by malicious non-state actors that seek to advance their own agendas and undermine the system even further. Against this backdrop, the Euro-Gulf Information Centre organised its second e-Roundtable from the ‘Coping with Coronavirus’ series, which seeks to examine different aspects and impacts of COVID-19 from various perspectives. The second webinar titled: ‘Terrorism in the Time of Coronavirus,’ was held via Zoom platform on Tuesday, 31 March 2020 (11:00-12:30 CET), and focused on the short- and long-term impacts of coronavirus on terrorist actors and their behaviour.
The panel consisted of:
Caroline Varin — Senior Lecturer in Security and International Organisations at Regent's University London, Director and Co-founder of Professors Without Borders (Prowibo)
Peter R. Neumann — Professor of Security Studies, King's College London, Senior Fellow and Founder, International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence (ICSR)
Yan St-Pierre — CEO and Counter-Terrorism Advisor, Modern Security Consulting Group (MOSECON), Berlin, Germany
Mitchell Belfer — President, Euro-Gulf Information Centre (EGIC), Rome, Italy
Moderated by Sofia Barbarani — Freelance Journalist, Conflict and Humanitarian Reporting in the Middle East
The following is an overview of the discussion and main points raised by the speakers.
Yan St-Pierre: COVID-19 as Validation and Opportunity—discussed how the COVID-19 crisis represents both a validation and an opportunity for various extremist and terrorist groups. In terms of validation, religious-based extremist organisations, such as Al Qaeda and ISIS or various Christian organisations, especially in the United States, view the current coronavirus as the ‘wrath of God’ punishing people for their sinful lives or testing them. Far-left groups see the spread of the COVID-19 as ‘a vindication of the abuses and inequalities of globalisation, of neo-liberalism, of capitalism.’ Far-right groups enjoy the narrative of COVID-19 as a ‘foreign virus’ because it confirms their point ‘that threats always come from outside’ and that restricting movement in and out of the country will protect the nation. Many of the resurgent conspiracy theories, that include the involvement of the deep state or some Jewish organisations using the virus to destabilise the society, also play into that sentiment. However, responding to Sofia Barbarani’s (moderator) question whether there is a correlation between COVID-19 and increasing anti-semitism, according to St-Pierre, it is too early to tell. What is clear, however is that regardless of the ideology, ‘extremist groups find a way to see what they want to see and this virus is essentially a confirmation of their positions.’ The validation aspect is complemented by an opportunity to advance the groups’ objectives. For instance, ‘far-left groups are calling for plundering to exacerbate and bring awareness to populations that the system is unjust and unequal’ and perhaps bring about a new system. Similarly, right-wing groups see it as an opportunity to provoke change of the dysfunctional system by disruption. St-Pierre pointed out that ‘what’s interesting with the far-right is that there’s more talk about the weaponisation of that virus than in any of the circles,’ many of the far-right members have been ‘deliberately coughing on individuals or certain groups to try to infect them.’ All in all, ‘the opportunity is there for a lot of these groups and they’re trying to use it.’ St-Pierre concluded: ‘what we’re seeing is really a convergence, or coalescence, of both the justification morally for them, their positions, as well as an opportunity to strike.’
Caroline Varin: COVID-19’s Impact on Violent Non-State Actors is Africa—highlighted that the impact of COVID-19 on terrorism will vary in different regions. Varin focused specifically on the impact of coronavirus on African terrorist groups. She supported the vindication aspect discussed earlier by St-Pierre: ‘For a lot of people and not just for terrorist groups, there is a feeling that this is the West and the globalised world getting its just desserts for all the inequality and environmental damage and excesses that we have seen over the last century.’ However, she pointed out that the effect of the situation on individuals will vary—while some might be provoked to take action, others will just watch and enjoy. Crucially, ‘there is also the fear of contagion. Not every terrorist is a suicide terrorist. They don’t want to get sick, they don’t want their families to get sick and they realise the weakness of their health systems.’ The natural instinct to protect the community was exemplified by ISIS’ statement that warned its members before travelling to the affected regions due to the fear of getting sick and infecting other members. Varin highlighted that violent non-state actors in those regions also have a high degree of respect for doctors and medical workers, such as Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), who have had continuous access to those non-state actors because they realise the need.
In terms of the global impact, she said that the travel bans and increased controls have reduced trafficking of most things for the organised crime, which also affected finances of organised criminals who have links to terrorist groups. Regarding the opportunity aspect, Varin was not so convinced, pointing out that terrorist groups’ capacity were reduced with the increased controls. However, if they would strike, they would probably target critical infrastructure for high impact, thus it should be properly guarded to prevent such scenario. Nevertheless, Varin’s main concern was about the post-pandemic situation, marked by economic crisis and increasing levels of — already high — levels of especially youth unemployment, which will feed resentment. Young people ‘are going to face a future which is beyond their control, which is being created by politicians and is creating a very significant generational divide.’ This divide ‘could lead to more radicalisation and more empowerment of individuals and violent non-state actors at the end of this crisis.’ Varin concluded that opportunity for recruitment will increase with the economic crisis: ‘the longer the lockdown lasts, the longer the epidemic lasts, the more likely we are to see severe economic consequences and opportunities for radicalisation among the younger generations.’
Peter Neumann: The Biggest Concern Is the Long-Term Impact—understands the situation around COVID-19 as an unfavourable moment for the existing terrorist and extremist organisations because it creates a distraction: ‘If you think that terrorism is about creating terror, it is about generating attention. It is about manipulating our minds through fear. It is about having an audience. Right now terrorist groups do not have an audience, no one is paying attention and there is no fear of terrorism because there’s fear of something else.’ He continued by stressing that Coronavirus ‘is generating far more fear, far more effectively than any terrorist could at this moment [and therefore] it is a bad time for terrorists who rely on terror and attention to achieve their objectives.’ It remains to be seen whether the current low levels of attention will prevail and lead to a decrease in terrorism. Neumann suggested that there is currently very little terrorist activity but the current experience ‘will lead inevitably in the future at some point to more experimentation with biological weapons and viruses by terrorists.’ Like Varin, Neumann voiced concern about the long term political and economic consequences of the COVID-19 crisis. The forthcoming economic crisis will cause turmoil, especially in countries outside Europe that already were struggling prior to the COVID-19 outbreak in terms of quelling their populations’ discontent, which will create a fertile ground for terrorist groups to exploit, especially in countries in North Africa or the Gulf. Over the next few years ‘we will struggle with the economic and political consequences generated by the period of standstill that we are currently experiencing and that in a sense will be a fertile ground for terrorists of all stripes, whether jihadists, right-wing terrorists or other kinds of terrorism will find opportunities to exploit in years to come.’ Answering Barbarani’s question about the possible resurgence of ISIS in Iraq or Syria as a result of the current situation, Neumann said that other countries might miss the signs of deteriorating situation in Iraq and Syria because they will be too preoccupied with fixing their own economic and political consequences of COVID-19, which will indeed create an opportunity for groups such as ISIS to come back.
Mitchell Belfer: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Hezbollah, the Houthis and the IRGC—looked at the impact of COVID-19 on Hezbollah in Lebanon, Houthis in Yemen, and Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)—‘good’ represents the image they’re trying to produce, the ‘bad’ is what they’re doing in the meantime and the ‘ugly’ is what the residue is going to look like afterwards. Belfer said there is a temporary reform taking place within those groups, trying to (re)gain legitimacy — ‘they are now struggling to gain through their behaviour related to the coronavirus what they could not do through their acts of violence in the lead up to it.’ Hezbollah is trying to rehabilitate its image in the eyes of the Lebanese, presenting themselves again as a social movement, taking care of the community. The Houthis are following the rules set out by the WHO, showing that they can be in a government. And Iran is looking for sanctions relief, released prisoners and seeks to be part the global system to combat coronavirus. But Belfer pointed out that those pictures that they are trying to convey are not necessarily the truth.
At the same time, Hezbollah is strengthening its position in the government, going after some activists domestically and ‘using coronavirus as a way of [quietly] redeploying out of Syria.’ The Houthis have mastered double-speak: ‘just as they follow the WHO recommendations, they launched ballistic missiles at Saudi Arabia this week, they’re trying to further consolidate their position in Yemen. In the last two months they’ve had two major operations to gain lost territory. So on the ground words and actions do not match,’ highlighted Belfer. Regarding Iran, Belfer said that the regime is branding themselves as a victim of the virus, which they are, but the regime also has not tried to restrict the virus from spreading—it left shrines open and did not stamp passports of people coming in and out of Iran during the outbreak particularly people from the Arab Gulf (Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait etc). Coupled with the Iranian regime’s rhetoric of its enemies getting their just reward, it raised concerns in the region about the extent that the virus might be used by Tehran to destabilise its rivals, given that large part of the infected people in the region can be tracked back to Iran. Regarding sanctions relief, Belfer noted that most medical supplies are not sanctioned and highlighted that even in the pre-COVID-19, indeed during the phase of sanctions relief, money was not reaching the Iranian people and went to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ pockets. Iran’s government’s mismanagement should not be blamed on coronavirus, it is persistent. Looking into the future, Belfer highlighted that there is now even deeper distrust among the regional countries: ‘this was an opportunity for some countries to have shown their responsibility to one another and those opportunities are in some ways being skirted,’ said Belfer and stressed the need to put out an action plan for the period after coronavirus.
Question and Answer Session
The following topic areas were raised by the audience with the speakers’ answers summarised.
Impact of COVID-19 on Specific Terrorist Groups in Africa
Varin said that the specific impact depends on the groups’ modus operandi. For groups such as Islamic State’s West Africa Province (ISWAP) or Al Shabaab which are trying to safeguard and tax the community, seeking legitimisation and replace the government, a possible COVID-19 outbreak would have much more disruptive impact in the long term. In contrast, for the Abubakar Shekau faction, which operates very differently, an outbreak would not change their capabilities, goals or strategy. She remarked that Africa’s long experience with epidemics and Ebola has not stopped violence or wars, so COVID-19 will not either.
Left-Wing vs Right-Wing Groups’ Activity
Reacting to Neumann’s point about the importance of publicity, St-Pierre said that while that is true for the larger groups, highly polarised campaigns also created ‘an environment where a lot of overseen single actors that are not directly linked to larger organisations feel somehow compelled to act,’ which we will now see more. Back to the question, St-Pierre said there is now more far-left activity in Europe and far-right in the United States: ‘Based on the current momentum, the far right is much more active [however] in the long-run, especially once the economic pressures are more felt, we will definitely see more of the far left reacting.’
Weaponisation of Food Chains
According to Belfer, the Houthis have long plundered food deliveries intended for the Yemeni population, which has not changed with the COVID-19 crisis. He also pointed to the intensified focus of the Gulf states — which rely on food imports — on taking precautions to preserve their food supply chains. Neumann added that ‘as a result of this current crisis, we will see more situations of state breakdown’ across the Middle East and Africa, which will create ‘an opportunity for radical groups, for extremist groups, for organised crime groups to actually prove that they can fulfil some of the functions that the state used to provide. If the state does not deliver those services and basic necessities, other groups and other entities will fill in that vacuum.’
Opportunity for Peace Negotiations
Varin is pessimistic about the COVID-19 crisis creating an opportunity for peace negotiations with violent non-state actors because there is now too much distraction. Varin stressed her concern about food chains, specifically because of the combination of the locust plague and COVID-19 in the Middle East and Africa will cause ‘food shortages, increase in prices, lack of economic opportunities, and much more hunger.’ Access to food and financing of international organisations is correlated and even traffickers and criminal actors are not going to be able to fulfil the needs. According to Varin, peace negotiations will be correlated with food access; perhaps an opportunity for a positive outcomes could start there.
Coronavirus’ impact on international organisations’ missions around the world
St-Pierre said that the shift in focus on domestic policy, will translate into less willingness to invest finances to various operations around the world and cuts in the foreign missions could be expected. However, since many international organisations already interact with violent non-state actors in those areas, ‘we are going to see a lesser formal international involvement from governments but also going to see an increase in international cooperation on site from organisations that are not necessarily linked to government.’
COVID-19 and weakening of Iran’s support for its proxies
According to Belfer, Iran will probably face the most acute crisis and more protests as a result of the COVID-19 mismanagement. The regime will now have to invest a lot of money inside the country to rehabilitate its economy, which will likely affect the financing of its proxies. It does not have the resources for both and will have to choose between its own people or Hezbollah, its own people or the Houthi.
Possibility of triggering internal conflicts such as Arab Spring 2011
Neumann believes that there is a high chance of such a scenario: ‘in many countries the convulsions that are resulting in both economic and political terms from this virus will be very severe and that different types of actors will use the situation in order to capitalise on it.’ This will particularly affect countries with already existing sectarian and ethnic divisions, or those that struggled with protests even before the COVID-19, notably Iraq and the countries in North Africa. Accordingly, ‘the next few years, even long after the virus is contained, will be very unstable years where various actors will take advantage of instability and turmoil and will try to position themselves in a way that they are ready to take power.’ Neumann foresees ‘an extended period of instability like the Arab Spring but without the optimism of the Arab Spring.’
Violent non-state actors using the opportunity to gain legitimacy as health and governance providers in the Sahel
According to Varin, non-state actors are enacting curfews and quarantine not to build legitimacy but ‘to safeguard their operations.’ However she pointed out, ‘there is a high risk that they would lose legitimacy if they did not operate as such. So rather than build legitimacy, it’s the opposite — if they do not respond then they are no better than the government. Where they do respond I am not sure that it will make a very big difference in terms of governance because they are responding in places where the state is already absent.’
Gender impact of COVID-19 on recruitment
St Pierre said that ‘it depends on the groups’ ideology or mentality but also on the region […] the needs and the circumstances will dictate what type of recruitment is necessary but as long it is possible the gender issues will stay within the current frameworks.’ Barbarani added that it is important to keep in mind the vulnerability of women in an already very vulnerable situation, sharing a story from Iraq’s more traditional, rural areas, where some families have ‘allegedly refused to allow doctors to visit their female relatives,’ when ‘they were showing signs of COVID-19.’
Lessons learnt for governments’ preparedness for future biological attacks
Neumann said that health security will now be considered a hard security issue, just as terrorism: ‘it will, actually, in the long-term, help us because as a result of mainstreaming health as a security issue, the capabilities of security agencies to deal with issues like chemical, biological or radiological materials will increase. This will be front and centre of all security agendas in every country in the world for years to come.’ Belfer highlighted the negative impact of reduced spending on public healthcare and lack of governments’ contingency plans, which might inspire some other actors: ‘Half of Europe is running around the world trying to buy, taking tenders from anybody who’s selling masks and that’s only creating atmosphere of profiteering, organised crime groups […] We’re ill-prepared.’ Belfer went on to suggest that a serious contingency plan review for a health crisis or a biological weapons attack should follow this pandemic.
This event was concluded by the last reflections by Barbarani.
The COVID-19 outbreak may forever change international political life—its effects are profound. By continuing to reflect on the impacts can analysts and policy makers work at understanding the how and the what of this crisis. This Coping with Coronavirus series seeks to contribute to such public discussions and EGIC looks forward to welcoming you to our upcoming events. For details visit our website at: www.egic.info.
06 April 2020