The COVID-19 pandemic is likely to have a mixed impact on terrorism globally in the short-term, according to researchers who stress that lockdown measures will tend to inhibit attacks but terrorist propaganda calling for attacks (while authorities are distracted) will incite some incidents.
One genuine concern is that COVID-19 may lead to resurgence in interest among terrorists for using chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear weapons, warned the study authors.
“Historically, a range of terrorist movements has been interested in bioterrorism though there have been very few successful attacks by terrorists using biological weapons,” according to study researcher Andrew Silke from Cranfield University in the UK.
While serious obstacles certainly remain, the huge impact of COVID-19 may re-ignite some interest in biological weapons, said the report, titled “COVID-19 and terrorism: assessing the short-and long-term impact”.
According to Silke and Pool Re, the UK government-backed provider of a terrorism reinsurance company, while lockdown measures may represent obstacles to terrorists to carry out real-world attacks, many terrorist groups have also flagged that the pandemic has left government and security resources being severely stretched.
“As a result, the ability of government, intelligence and law enforcement agencies to focus on traditional priorities such as counterterrorism has been undermined,” Silke noted.
Much propaganda – and particularly that connected to far-right extremism – is focusing on conspiracy theories connected to COVID-19 and this has already inspired plots and attacks.
According to the report, Islamist extremist propaganda is focusing more on the vulnerability of government opponents distracted by the pandemic and the opportunity this presents for attacks.
“There is a significant current increase in online extremist activity, raising the risk of increasing short-to-medium term radicalization, the findings showed.
There are strong long-term concerns that states weakened by the serious economic consequences of the pandemic will be more vulnerable to the emergence/resurgence of terrorist groups in many parts of the world.
“This report is very timely and worth digesting at a time when we are quite rightly focused on the near-term issues and human and economic devastation being caused by this global pandemic,” said Ed Butler from Pool Re’s Chief Resilience Officer.
“However, Pool Re’s core purpose remains the provision of terrorism reinsurance and we need to continue to understand the contemporary terrorist threats as well as horizon scan the future landscape,” he added.