The international security zeitgeist is moving away from the war on terror and shifting more towards great power competition between China, the US and Russia, and the gaze of the media and the public it informs is keenly focused on the coronavirus pandemic. What does this mean for the state of terrorism both within the crisis now and in the near future?
Firstly, we will look at the effects of the shift in strategic focus away from global terrorism towards great power competition. The rest of this text will be focused on the effects of COVID-19 on the state of the terrorism landscape at this time.
Shift away from global terrorism as top priority
The current US administration is seeking a vast shift away from its endless wars in the Middle East and secret wars in the African continent and looking to realign its capabilities toward competition against the likes of a rising China and the ever present Russia.
The National Security Strategy of the United States of America 2017 outlines this shift in focus, stating, “China and Russia challenge American power, influence and interests, attempting to erode American security and prosperity. They are determined to make economies less free and less fair, to grow their militaries, and to control information and data to repress their societies and expand their influence.”
The US is now focused on preparing the US military and diplomatic corps to confront Russia and China in the long term, and this may become a distraction or a resource drain to increasingly unpopular wars in the Middle East, is more present in Africa as operations such as Flintlock are scaled back, which focuses on assisting West African countries to deal with their internal terrorism problems.
These operations in Africa, as well as moves away from involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq after the suppression of ISIS, is clearly a signal of what this administration sees as its major priorities. However, what does this mean for terrorism in these areas?
In Afghanistan, the Taliban has agreed to prevent the country becoming a safe haven for international terrorist organisations, this can be believed in regards to groups like ISIS who have been fighting the Taliban themselves, but when it comes to Al Qaeda who have a more entrenched support base, this promise should be held with doubt especially once US presence becomes even more limited. The issue also lies that this promise is useless if groups are able to operate out of the northern regions of Pakistan with relative impunity.
In Iraq and the Levant, although ISIS has been territorially defeated, they remain cancer under the surface waiting its time throughout the entire region. While they have been suppressed to a major extent, they still remain with a strong supporter base and will maintain relevance for the foreseeable future with an ability to take advantage of any changes in the power structure in the region that creates any kind of security vacuum.
With the global success against Salafist extremism comes new developments by terrorist organisations and attempts to regain footholds and relevance on a global scale. This is where the threat would lie for Australian security and defence if the US were to shift its policies and actions in regard to its current and future operation on the African continent, especially in the Sahel and Islamic Maghreb.
As the military defeat of ISIS has occurred in Iraq and Syria, there may be a push by its leadership and affiliate organisations to step up operations in other areas of limited law enforcement and internal destabilisation. By doing this, they would attempt to tap into new populations for recruitment and exploit existing power vacuums to create pockets of control and safe havens to plan attacks against the west, including Australia, once more. This will become increasingly difficult to prevent as countries such as Libya, Mali and Nigeria continue to face instability.
Along with a wounded ISIS seeking new pastures to build its caliphate, al-Qaeda has become deeply entrenched in Africa through its affiliate organisation AQIM, which has been able to create deep ties with local communities in ways not seen in other locations through unique exploitation of tribal groups and power structures of the sparsely populated Saharan desert and fringes. This has allowed them to perpetuate constant acts of extremist violence within the region against local military forces, civilians and international targets. If this was allowed to develop further by a reduction of US involvement, it could grow to include much more spectacular events across the globe.
The ability for a terrorist organisation such as ISIS or al-Qaeda or their affiliates to exploit any decreased pressure in the region could allow a new haven to be created in the Sahel. When this was the case in Afghanistan, and Iraq and Syria, the number of terrorist attacks around the globe, as well as their severity, greatly increased through both direct attacks planned by the organisational core as well as through indirect inspiration of lone-wolf actors such as those perpetrated in Australia over the years.
COVID-19 threat to terrorist or opportunity
The effects of the pandemic could pose two opposing outcomes that could possibly be coexistent. Firstly, they could face a threat to their own existence, this could present through physical means by bringing illness to their ranks but also effects to their links with their supporter or tolerator base.
Secondly, the global crisis could pose an opportunity for terrorist groups to act while the focus is elsewhere, to weaponize an illness in the search of their aims, or most likely through the propagandising of the crisis to suit their political needs and grow their support base. The weaponisation outcome, however, is highly unlikely despite some alarmist reports. These outcomes can be applied to a majority of terrorist groups be they extremist right-wing groups or those within the global jihadist movement.
We will first discuss how the virus could pose an existential threat to terrorist groups. Viruses do not discriminate and this could pose a real threat to the most prolific groups around the world, most notably ISIS and Al-Qaeda who are most exposed to this pandemic. These jihadist groups are far more at risk of the spread of the virus than, for instance, western right-wing extremist groups. This is because they are operating in regions that offer far less effective medical services and, in most instances, these have been further gutted by conflict and ongoing wars.
The Middle East, aside from Iran, is yet to feel the heaviest of these effects, but it has begun to be recognised by some groups in the region. For instance, Hezbollah has had come out to downplay the effects on the organisation as the virus has spread through Lebanon, and although the designation of a terrorist group may fit less with the Houthi movement, Ansar Allah has actively responded by closing schools and making changes to their recruiting and training processes to ensure there is a limited effect on their movement even going so far as spreading information from the American CDC. If the virus is allowed to spread within these regions, it will not only be regular citizens who become ill and die, directly threatening terrorist groups themselves physically.
For Al-Qaeda, and now to a lesser extent for ISIS after their loss of territory, the secondary threat to their existence is within their support bases in territories they hold and administer or at least hold strong influence. Al-Qaeda has been able to gain footholds in Syria and Yemen through a change in focus to support grass route community groups and limiting public violence in order to build their credibility, respect and support amongst the wider public.
This now creates a responsibility for these groups to prevent the spread of illness in these areas to preserve their influence and credibility as administrators and leader supposedly working with these communities. If the disease is allowed to spread, support for these groups may wane both due to loss of population or key figures but also through the loss of the minds of the community. This would also be greatly compounded if rhetoric surrounding the use of the virus as an offensive vehicle backfires and they are blamed for introducing the virus into communities either on purpose or as a side effect of other actions.
Researchers and analysts have also highlighted that now may also become a time opportunistic actions by terrorist groups in order to gain traction in recruitment but also in the proliferation of violent actions. Clive Williams writes in an article from the Australian Security Policy institute’s the strategist.
“French counterterrorism police are investigating a stabbing attack in southeast France in which two people were killed and five injured. The attack was a reminder that while the media focus is mainly on COVID-19, terrorism remains an enduring threat.
“While Islamic State and Al-Qaeda recognise that the COVID-19 pandemic is a danger to their followers, they also see it as an opportunity to win over more supporters and strike their Western enemies while they are weakened and distracted.
“In its al-Naba newsletter on 19 March, Islamic State announced a new strategic plan under the title ‘Crusaders’ biggest nightmare’ urging lone actors to capitalise on the paralysis and fear overtaking ‘crusader’ countries amid the pandemic, to show no mercy and to launch attacks in this time of crisis.”
In an Australian context, he highlights a recent attempt by a terrorist actor to plan an attack whilst the focus of the world is elsewhere. Williams writes:
“Meanwhile, the International Crisis Group warned that the pandemic threatens global solidarity in fighting extremists – ‘allowing the jihadists to better prepare spectacular terror attacks’.
“The most recent terrorism-related incident in Australia was the arrest in March of a 21-year-old with neo-Nazi interests from Sanctuary Point in New South Wales. He was allegedly planning to disrupt an electrical substation and obtain material to construct an explosive device. A second man was later also charged.
“While that alleged plot was interdicted at an early stage, police in all states and territories are now distracted and weakened by COVID-19-related policing demands. This could allow extremist community-based activities that would normally attract police attention to go undetected – such as early indications of preparation for an attack.
“This, in turn, will put more pressure on Australia’s intelligence agencies, which are probably also operating under resource constraints due to COVID-19.”
There are also fears of the weaponisation of the virus for terrorist means. This I believe is a highly dubious outcome both due to the indiscriminate nature of disease as well as the possible side effects to major support groups for terrorists and their continued support if the virus is to spread at the hands of terrorists. Some groups have provided material advising followers to spread the disease among outsider groups; for example, jihadists in Europe or White supremacist groups advising followers to spread the virus amongst minority groups, including suggestions to spit on doorknobs. A major barrier to these actions in that the perpetrators of violence may also be mindful that spreading the disease could also affect their own health and that of their families.
The most likely scenario and the most effective way terrorist groups will benefit from the virus is through propaganda. Groups have already been using this in their communications. Williams writes:
“Both [ISIS and Al-Qaeda] organisations have observed that arch-enemy America is being punished by Allah for its actions against Muslims. In recent propaganda communiqués, Islamic State and Al-Qaeda have both claimed that the coronavirus is Allah’s wrath upon the West, and the virus is a ‘soldier of Allah’.
“The ‘Allah’s revenge’ narrative has been reinforced by the relatively small number of victims so far in regions where Islamist extremist groups are well established – such as in Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Arabian Peninsula and the Sahel region of northern Africa.”
This Allah’s revenge narrative is not only pointed to the West but also to hard-hit Shiite Iran as well as through the use of the narrative towards China for its repression of the Uighur community.
This method is also being used by right-wing groups in the West to spread xenophobia and create splits in society but also as an argument to spread the virus to speed up the disintegration of society.
“But it’s not only Sunni extremists that pose an existential terrorism threat to the West. The extreme right also sees it as an opportunity to advance its agendas.
“Joshua Fisher-Birch, a researcher for the Counter Extremism Project, says that groups like the ‘Nordic Resistance’ and ‘Hundred Handers’ have sought to increase their membership by capitalising on the pandemic, and ‘Generation Identity’ has used the crisis to promote European ethnonationalism.
In the Australian context, extreme right-wing groups in Australia are well positioned to use fake news to drive a wedge between ethnic communities, such as by demonising Asians for spreading the COVID-19 virus from China.
The coronavirus has made drastic changes to our society, and terrorism and terrorists are not blind to the effects and the opportunities it presents or the coronavirus itself. Whether it is to their advantage or detriment is yet to truly play out.