Where is the COVID-19 terrorism spike?

There has not been an appreciable increase in terrorism activity in most nations across the world (there are exceptions). Here is what we know so far.

This contribution was published on the University of Ottawa website on May 06.

As if the novel coronavirus has not already disrupted so much of what we considered normal and decimated the worldwide economy, there may be something else to worry about – terrorism.  Some analysts have predicted a spike in terrorist activity as groups and individuals take advantage of the widespread interruptions in usual services brought about by COVID-19 to plan and carry out attacks.  There are even reports that this increase has already begun.

But has it?

In fact, there has not been an appreciable increase in terrorism activity in most nations across the world.  There are exceptions, however, and no one should predict that a surge will not happen by the time the pandemic subsides.  Here is what we know so far that demonstrates the opposite of what some have stated:

  • There have been more terrorist attacks in Afghanistan and Iraq/Syria and a still high level of activity in Somalia and Nigeria but it is far from clear that this is tied to COVID-19 or any plans by terrorist groups seeking to take advantage of perceived redirected attention to execute action. All the aforementioned countries already suffer from disproportionate levels of terrorism – at least when compared to other nations – and we have yet to have had time to compare pre-COVID and current terrorism tempo.  It is also impossible to determine that acts which have occurred since the pandemic would NOT have happened if COVID had never erupted;

  • Attacks in the broader West are, if anything, less frequent in recent months.  Aside from two attacks in France (an April 27 incident in Paris where three police officers were injured by an alleged Islamic State (ISIS) supporter and one in southern France on April 4 where a knife-wielding man killed two and wounded five) there is yet to be any Islamist extremist action and

  • Reports of terrorists travelling under the cover of COVID to plan attacks in the West have so far been unfounded.  A former British rapper turned ISIS supporter was arrested in Spain on April 21 but there was no evidence to suggest he had been engaged in attack planning.  In addition, on April 30 Danish authorities arrested an ISIS supporter on suspicion of involvement in terrorism but no concrete evidence that he was planning an imminent attack are available. 

Terrorist ‘chatter’

There has also been rampant speculation that increases in online chatter and messaging is pointing to a subsequent uptick in terrorist planning.  This analysis suffers from two flaws:

  • As noted above, there is little open source evidence that the amount of online communications is any higher now than it was before COVID broke out; and

  • Terrorist ‘chatter’ is not the same as terrorist action and any analysis that fails to make this distinction is suspect.  Based on my 15 years at CSIS there is always far more ‘talk’ than action and one of the challenges of any security intelligence and law enforcement agency is to determine when aspiration (if there is any: many so-called terrorists are content with seeming big in online forums and never have any intention, or capability, to carry out an attack) turns to real world acts.

If anything, the status of Islamist terrorist groups thus far in the new COVID world is up in the air.  Groups such as ISIS and the Taliban have advised fighters to stay safe and not contract the disease.  The travel restrictions in place also hamper any pre-COVID attack planning.

This situation may change in the near future. 

Terrorist groups may relaunch pre-COVID attack planning at any time.  Our ability to locate investigate and thwart any such action may be negatively impacted by pressures on the aforementioned agencies as they too are affected by physical distancing protocols and possible reduced work forces (I am sure that CSIS and RCMP officers have daycare issues as well at this time just as millions of Canadians do).

One set of actors that does not seem to be dissuaded by fears over COVID-19 is far-right extremists.  Groups that are active online against a range of issues – immigration the economy to name but two – have turned their wrath to various governments over lockdowns and economic constraints.  Labelling these as the overreactions of state officials, online and real world anger has translated into demands that social/physical distancing restrictions be lifted and offices and businesses be reopened: armed oppositionists even tried to occupy the Michigan Legislature on April 30

As the pandemic continues and if a combination of shuttered businesses and economic hardship gets worse, it would be reasonable to expect some pushback, fed by dis- and misinformation.

As the pandemic continues and if a combination of shuttered businesses and economic hardship gets worse, it would be reasonable to expect some pushback, fed by dis- and misinformation on the seriousness of the situation and the ongoing need to practise emergency measures.  We can expect violent far right groups to use this discontent to gain supporters and it is very possible, albeit not necessarily probable, that a small number may engage in terrorist action.

All this is, of course, speculative.  Promising indications that many societies may get back to normal (or semi-normal/whatever normal looks like in the coming months) may deflate the growing anger in our countries.  Terrorism has clearly not gone away and we will see more attacks: it is simply impossible at this juncture to associate the timing and rationale of such attacks to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The best assessment of what the impact of the novel coronavirus is will only occur when it has passed and we can examine pre- and post-COVID data.  We are not yet in that position.  Hence, any confident prediction that a rise is terrorism is around the corner is both not based on solid evidence and irresponsible.  Many are already frightened enough about their lives now – lost jobs, lost income, lost housing, lost education for themselves and their children, pressures on the food chain, etc.  Adding terrorism fears is not needed.

Phil Gurski

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