What will terrorism look like post-COVID?

Terrorists like to have large audiences for their acts – what if we keep ‘social distancing’?

As we continue to live through the COVID-19 novel coronavirus there is certainly a lot to worry about. Will I get the illness? Will someone in my family? Will one of them die? What about my job? Will I be able to pay the rent/mortgage? When will life return to normal? What will the new normal even be?

One thing I would imagine most Canadians are not so concerned about during this difficult time is terrorism. After all, we are relatively immune from this scourge, even if it does cross our news feeds a fair bit. At least when it does transpire it does so ‘over there’ (Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Nigeria, etc.).

Suffice to say that we average Canadians do not have to obsess about terrorism as this is what we have agencies like CSIS (my former employer) and the RCMP for. Counter terrorism is a big part of both organisations’ mandates and they do a very good job at identifying and neutralising the infrequent plots that do develop in our land.

But what about elsewhere? How is terrorism faring right now, in the midst of the pandemic? The answer to that question depends a lot on how you see terrorism (i.e. as a crime like many others or as an existential threat). There is currently unfolding a debate on whether it is indeed on the upswing, especially in the aforementioned countries.

Truth be told it is far too early to say that terrorists are ‘taking advantage’ of COVID-19 to up their tempo. I am aware of no study that has gathered enough data over the last three months to state unequivocally that this is actually happening, let alone any effort to compare the number of recent attacks in comparison to a similar period last year or the year before. Good analysis requires facts, not conjectures, and we will simply have to be patient.

As social distancing continues and major events and gatherings are suspended, terrorists do not have the same oportunities to kill masses of people.
Good reasons to expect a downturn

Counterintuitively perhaps, there are good reasons to expect a downturn, if even only temporary, in terrorist activity. Here are some of those reasons:

  • terrorists are human after all and they too can contract the disease. Early on groups like Islamic State (ISIS) were actually passing on health tips to their members and wannabes;
  • as noted above by US terrorism scholar Brian Jenkins, terrorists ‘do not want a lot of people dead; they want a lot of people watching’. In an era of everything COVID, who is paying attention?;
  • linked to the previous point, as social distancing continues and major events and gatherings are suspended, terrorists do not have the same oportunities to kill masses of people. This may propel them to put off their plans;
  • declines in air travel and other ways of getting around mean that terrorists cannot get from A to B as easily as they once did. This also has implications for supply chains (such as weapons).

Note that I am not saying we will see NO terrorism here in the coming months. Terrorist cells have been and can continue to be local, as we have seen here in Canada. Physical distancing may ease off soon leading some terrorists to carry out plans. In addition, COVID-19 has affected everyone, including security intelligence and law enforcement agencies. This implies that there are fewer protectors to keep us safe. The hit to our economy may have longer term effects as we may not be in a fiscal position to pay for those who disrupt terrorism.

Far right extremism

Another important aspect of this is the problem of what we call far right extremism. The pandemic is bringing out the worst in anti-immigrant, racist and fascist groups which seem to be keen to both blame the Other for the disease as well as the government for the shutdown. Many countries are seeing demonstrations demanding a re-opening of the economy and these events are infiltrated by the far right.

And yet we cannot equate terrorist ‘chatter’ (online messaging) with terrorist action. In my experience there really is no relationship between the two. Most of those who post material of a threatening nature are posers with neither the capability nor the intent to plan, let alone carry out, a terrorist act. Some can, but not the vast majority.

To date, crime is down, not up, since COVID-19 came to our shores. Experts believe this is for many of the same reasons cited earlier. Will this continue? I have no idea nor does anyone else. It is important to rely on facts, not conjecture. Like COVID-19, terrorism is scary enough. It would be a bad idea to overstate the impact of those who intend to do us harm in the furtherance of an ideology whether during these trying times or on any other occasion.

Phil Gurski

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