Since the spread of COVID-19 in early 2020, public attention has been diverted from many contemporary global issues and this pattern is likely to continue for the foreseeable future. This pandemic crisis, while gaining attention from the globe, has created a space for terrorist organizations and groups to respond to it in an opportunistic way to strike back more forcefully on targets and countries weakened and distracted by the challenges posed by COVID-19.
The frequency of terror attacks during COVID-19 is not very different however a slight change in the trends of these attacks can be observed during the recent wave of violence. In this regard, one may argue that the attacks by terrorist organizations during the pandemic are more specific and target oriented. The recent attack on the Doctors Without Borders medical clinic on May 12, 2020 in the Afghan capital, which killed around 14 people including two infants, shows that terrorist organizations, while rearranging their corridors of violence, still want to be relevant on the international front. The challenges of non-traditional warfare are not over during this pandemic.
Social media channels circulated a long message from Al-Qaeda’s senior leadership titled, “The Way Forward: A Word of Advice on the Coronavirus Pandemic”. The letter quotes, “We invite you to reflect on the phenomenon that is COVID-19 and carefully consider its deeper causes. The truth remains, whether we like it or not, that this pandemic is a punishment from the Lord of the Worlds for the injustice and oppression committed against Muslims specifically and mankind generally by the governments you elect.”
Similarly, in a series of articles in ISIS’s weekly, Arabic Al-Naba newsletter, the former caliphate has called on its followers to plan new attacks, now that security services are distracted. ISIS wants its men to use this opportunity to conduct operations such as those carried out in Europe in the past.
How can it be determined that the terrorist organizations are out to maximize their success patterns during this wave of pandemic? Conceptualizing the matter, one may need to understand the phenomenon framing this wave of pandemic. Terrorist organizations are creating references that are effective in reinforcing the central ideological message delivered by such organizations. Also, these organizations are contextualizing the pandemic with their cause, which is to promote fear and chaos in society. Further narrowing down their agenda, terrorist organizations are appropriating the situation to create a sense of ownership over the narrative that this pandemic is a punishment from God for infidels.
The very next step in the process will be rationalizing their narrative. They may turn the grievances and oppression of their followers into actions and narratives by polluting their minds that this wave of pandemic is for those who will not follow the so-called right path defined by these organizations. Once achieved, these terrorists may re-visit their strategy to redefine their purposes by branding the effects of pandemic on the social and economic lives of the masses. The main aim can be to attain maximum attention on the individual level by increasing motivation, support, recruitment, and receptiveness to the cause.
It is pertinent to note here that because of the global lockdown, internet users across the globe have increased significantly. This rise in the presence of community over internet makes it vulnerable to terrorist recruitment. In addition to this, terrorist organizations may call supporters to conduct lone wolf attacks in order to broaden their following in the societies already damaged by the pandemic. Similarly, terrorist organizations may use COVID-19 infected followers to launch them as a weapon in societies that are resisting against the spread of this disease so that the maximum damage can be done. Far-right extremists are encouraging each other to seize the moment online, using platforms like Telegram to discuss how to purposely infect members of minority groups.
The risks and threats posed by terrorist organizations during the wave of pandemic can be reduced in multiple ways and by taking measure on ground like digital literacy programs for youth, deradicalization campaigns and launching counter disinformation initiatives. But the most important step in this regard will be to equip society with the importance of understanding their needs, narrative and networks. The need is the short-term survival goals of that particular society during the pandemic and to achieve that, they will have to build social resilience through cohesive networks present in the society.