There’s no doubt that COVID-19 has profoundly impacted the world. Governments and businesses were forced to adapt as we transitioned to remote-work environments. Sluggish economic activity has hurt those who cannot transition to online work and left many in dire financial situations nearly overnight. This, combined with the explosion of online conspiracy theories and government dissatisfaction, has put many on edge. However, a number of groups may benefit from the global crisis, including extremist and criminal organizations.
The pandemic presents a number of opportunities – as well as threats – to these groups. First, COVID-19 may enable the spread of extremist propaganda online as more people are compelled to work remotely or have more time to peruse social media. A more engaged and larger audience may also benefit actors engaged in various forms of cybercrime including fraud, which is sometimes linked with extremist groups. Terrorist organizations, in particular, integrated the pandemic into their propaganda strategies to promote various extremist narratives designed to prey on the fears of the more vulnerable in the audience. In Iraq and Syria, the Islamic State has exploited the diminishing governance and disapproval of each state to strike weakened targets and develop popular support by replacing needed services such as healthcare.
Though these groups can benefit from the situation, COVID-19 may also impair operational capabilities and minimize the media’s attention on successful attacks. As a result, opportunities for recruitment will be restricted. The United States and its allies must capitalize on these vulnerabilities to mitigate the threat of violent extremism in the long-term by maintaining pressure in the short-term.
At this early stage, it is difficult to discern what the long term effects of the COVID-19 pandemic will have on global terrorism. Whether the international community leaves this pandemic in disarray will likely be the deciding factor. Things such as increased operational and recruitment activity may falter if the economic situations of more vulnerable areas bounce back. Similarly, if international counter-terrorism efforts can capitalize on terrorist weakness, positive knock-on effects may be seen later on. The information required to predict these trends will only become more valuable as the situation develops. Praescient, with its array of products and partners, will be ready to answer the call.