Counterterrorism in a time of COVID

Members of the NYPD Counterterrorism unit monitor a Blues Lives Matter rally in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, on July 11, 2020. (Photo by Gabriele Holtermann/Sipa USA)No Use UK. No Use Germany.

The global spread of COVID-19 is transforming politics, as are the wide-ranging responses from governments and communities worldwide. The implications will endure well after the pandemic is behind us. Both jihadi-linked terrorism and counterterrorism are likely to change as well. The pandemic, however, offers new opportunities for terrorists and poses distinct challenges for the governments that seek to combat them.

Budgets shrink, public health costs swell

The pandemic has triggered the deepest global recession in eight decades and the global economy is expected to lose $8.5 trillion in output over the next two years. The economic fallout will be especially devastating to countries in the developing world and those dependent on oil revenue — characteristics of many Western counterterrorism partners in Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia. Developing economies are already saddled with fiscal deficits and high levels of public debt, while oil-producing states have suffered a collapse of oil demand and prices.

Public health spending will almost certainly take up a larger portion of shrinking budgets among Western nations and regional counterterrorism partners. The direct medical costs of treating patients infected with COVID-19, as well as the costs associated with preventing its spread and distributing a vaccine, will probably reach hundreds of billions of dollars. Overall counterterrorism budgets may decline as a result, and drive a reduction in European and other allied assistance to local partners, many of whom are dependent on Western support for funds, training, and weapons to pursue terrorist groups operating inside their countries. Face-to-face military training is already declining as fears of COVID-19 limit interactions. A loss or drastic reduction in foreign support would erode those local allies’ counterterrorism capabilities and could allow terrorists to expand their operations and influence. An even bigger risk, as a recent U.N. report notes, may be the distraction of security forces, which might need to support a COVID-19 response or manage any unrest associated with the crisis.

Policy focus shifts

The public health and economic crises will also likely reorder national security priorities. That may accelerate existing trends identified by the Department of Defense away from jihadi-focused counterterrorism and quicken an overall desire to reduce commitments in the Middle East, South Asia, and Africa, where ISIS and al-Qaida and their affiliates have been traditionally most active. Along with reduced spending on foreign assistance, fewer demands and less attention from senior U.S. and Western leaders may mean partners in the developing world focus on other issues. The regionalization of many jihadi groups compounds this challenge. Reduced Western attention to managing counterterrorism coordination, compounded by reduced foreign aid, would greatly increase the need for local partners to manage regional multilateral cooperation, which has often been strained, if not absent, due to suspicion and regional rivalry.

The terrorist threat is likely to morph in both the short and long term. Well before the pandemic, the jihadi terrorist threat was localizing, with the energy — and much of the violence — concentrated in the Middle East, East and West Africa, and other parts of the world where groups like ISIS and al-Qaida had local affiliates or otherwise focused on the immediate conflict rather than spectacular international terrorist attacks. COVID-19 is likely to make this localization more pronounced. Terrorists, like everyone else, face both overall restrictions on travel and greater border security in the United States and in other countries. This makes action at home relatively easier and accelerates the pre-existing trend toward homegrown attacks.

Local allies under pressure

Making the threat more dangerous, at the local level at least, is that governments will be both over-stretched and discredited in many countries where terrorist groups are operating. In much of the Middle East and Africa, governments are weak and dysfunctional, and the pandemic has brought this to the fore. Many report low numbers of cases simply because they are not collecting data at all, even as the virus runs amok. Government resources are likely to focus on the pandemic and on quelling any unrest that stems from the poor government response. In the long term, the poor response to the pandemic will be another strike against these regimes, further delegitimizing them and bolstering militants’ claim that the governments should be overthrown. The contrast between good and bad governance, so clear with COVID-19, will also exacerbate the terrorism threat for those who fall short. Terrorist groups like al-Qaida and ISIS are attempting to take advantage of this weak governance to expand their operations. In addition, in some areas a group may try to provide services and, in so doing, bolster its own credibility as an alternative.

Another risk is more insidious: that governments will use the threat of terrorism to increase their efforts to crack down on legitimate dissent. This has long been the case in China, where the government played up a real but small threat of Uighur terrorism, using it as justification for a crackdown on millions of Chinese Muslims, including comprehensive surveillance and detention camps. China is trying to suppress the democratic movement in Hong Kong, using COVID-19 as a pretext. 

Terrorists face new burdens

The pandemic is also likely to disrupt terrorist group operations and fundraising. In part, this is due to travel restrictions. In addition, however, terrorists compete for recruits and resources with other causes. As world and local attention focuses on the pandemic, the ability of terrorist groups to publicize their causes is crowded out — the world is not more for them or more against them, it is simply ignoring them.

The shift online, which is particularly pronounced in the white supremacist world, is likely to grow as a result of the pandemic. Stuck at home, it is harder to get to a training camp or a conflict zone, but people have more time to spend in virtual cesspools where extremism dwells. So far, judging by the decline in flows of foreign fighters, terrorists have had little success exploiting the coronavirus in their propaganda, but they in general are good at exploiting conspiracy theories and otherwise taking advantage of dangerous and misguided ideas that others promulgate.

Silver linings for counterterrorism?

The challenges that COVID-19 poses for counterterrorism in the coming years are evident, if not entirely unique — yet some opportunities may also exist. For instance, information sharing and policy coordination among states on public health issues to help stem the pandemic may create more information, new means of sharing, and facilitate intra- and intergovernmental cooperation among regional and Western countries that could bolster counterterrorism efforts by improving travel monitoring and border control, for example. More broadly, the potential reduction in resources available for counterterrorism and shifting priorities will probably require reevaluating the efficacy and sustainability of various counterterrorism efforts, ranging from the use of military force to security-related foreign aid. Necessity may help drive regional cooperation and the development of sustainable, locally developed approaches to counterterrorism that are less dependent on the technical capabilities and sophisticated weapons systems provided by Western states.