Pandemic as a ‘Window of Opportunity’ for Terrorists

 By Anashwara Ashok


The world is today fighting an invisible enemy that has brought almost the entire human race to a standstill. Streets have beendeserted , daily routines have been stalled, borders have been sealed and travel has been banned, the global economy remains paralysed. All across the world, national resources and public attention has been directed towards containing the outbreak of COVID-19. While people are uncertain about the impact of this pandemic on different aspects of life in the future, terrorist organisations are busy leveraging the outbreak of COVID-19 to generate further panic and distress. While addressing the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) on 9 April 2020, the Secretary General accepted that, “there exists a great possibility that non-state groups could gain access to virulent strains that could devastate the world. Terrorist groups may see a window of opportunity to strike while the attention of most governments is turned towards the pandemic.”[1] Hence, this threatens the international peace and security and necessitates nations to tackle two enemies simultaneously.

Reaction of Terrorist Organisations

Some of most brutal terrorist organisations like the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) or Al Qaeda have tried to falsely justify the pandemic as ‘God’s Will’ and a divine punishment for the non-believers. These extremist outfits have been encouraging their operatives and sympathisers to capitalise the situation and launch terror attacks while the governments and security agencies are involved in tackling the pandemic. ISIS was one of the first terrorist organisations to react to the pandemic. The group issued a travel advisory in its ‘Al-Naba’ newsletter, warning against travel to pandemic-hit Europe and those affected to not exit from there.[2] At the same time, it also urged its operatives to show no mercy and launch attacks wherever they are. The United States Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has also warned that, “members of extremist groups are encouraging one another to spread the virus, if contracted, to targeted groups through bodily fluids and personal interactions.”[3] These organisations find this an opportune time to attack the Unites States, India, Africa and Europe to produce maximum damage. A manifestation of this threat was witnessed in the month of March as the Islamic State carried out a deadly attack on a Sikh Gurudwara in Kabul and also a terror attack killing 92 soldiers in the Republic of Chad carried out by Boko Haram and other attacks in Maldives and Philippines in the last few days.

Terrorist organisations will also utilise this period to strengthen their narratives for radicalisation and recruitment. With a complete lockdown declared in majority of countries, these groups will use online platforms, mainly social media, to target the vulnerable individuals using fake news, conspiracy theories and extremist material. For example, they have been asserting in their propaganda magazines that COVID-19 is god’s punishment against the West and the quarantine period must be used to learn about Islam. With such propagandist material they have been calling upon their individuals to carry out attacks on the frontline workers in a bid to attack vital national infrastructure. Those contracted with COVID-19 are being urged to use it as a ‘weapon’ and transmit the disease to security personnel. In fact, ISIS is ready to consider those members who get infected and die as martyrs.

The Indian Concern

India has been a victim of state-sponsored terrorism emanating from Pakistan. Even at a time of global health crisis, terrorist organisations operating from Pakistan have been trying to push in COVID-19 infected terrorists into Jammu and Kashmir in a bid to transmit the disease to the local population in India. These terrorists aim at attacking the vital infrastructure of India especially hospitals, security personnel and other frontline workers. According to Dr Seigfried Wolf, “Pakistan sponsored terrorist organisations like Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), Hizbul Mujahideen (HM) and Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) have started exploiting this situation by accelerating their terrorist recruitment propaganda campaigns across South Asia.”[4] Amidst a complete lockdown, people are susceptible to various grievances and insecurities. A slowdown in the economic activities has already developed disruptions in the livelihood of many. These terrorist organisations will exploit such insecurities in order to radicalise the vulnerable sections of society, especially the youth. Junaid Qureshi claims that, “the tactic of terrorist groups is exploitation followed by subsequent weaponising of their so-called success of exploitation. The same is happening now as some may exploit and weaponise the pandemic, while others will exploit by weaponising those who have been tested positive or otherwise been a victim of the pandemic, whether economically, politically or socially.”[5] The Delhi Police has also recently issued an advisory, warning the possibility of terrorist organisations launching lone-wolf attacks on the security personnel in the form of stabbing, firing or ramming vehicles into security check posts.[6]

To succeed in their sinister plans, the Pakistan Army has resorted to its age-old tactic of using increased ceasefire violations to distract the attention of the Indian Armed Forces and thereby assisting the terrorists to infiltrate the Line of Control. Pakistan has violated the ceasefire approximately 1,144 times between January and March, with the highest number of violations (411) being recorded in March when COVID-19 cases started peaking globally.[7] The nefarious objective of Pakistan Army behind infiltrating terrorists into India at a time of pandemic includes among other reasons an attempt to prevent the spread of the disease amongst its own population`, avoid infecting other terrorists, infecting the Indian population and continuing its proxy war against India. The complicity of the Pakistan Army in assisting terrorists was emphasised upon by the Chief of the Army Staff (COAS) recently during his visit to Kashmir. He criticised Pakistan for exploiting the current global crisis situation by continuously engaging in its policy of state-sponsored terrorism and exporting terror into India.[8]

Combating the Challenge

The United States Department of Justice taking cognisance of the possible hike in terrorist activities by exploiting the COVID-19 crisis, has declared that Coronavirus be considered as a ‘biological agent’ and its intentional transmission by extremist organisations/individuals be treated as a crime of terrorism.[9] It is believed that the leadership of these organisations will promote such modus operandi because using infected humans to spread the contagious disease requires very little logistical support, hence making it a feasible option. Moreover, this threat can be prevented by further strengthening the intelligence-gathering channels which can stop an infected terrorist from reaching the target population, in a timely manner. Strong monitoring of social media platforms and suspicious online activities can help agencies pre-empt such attacks. Amidst a complete lockdown, certainly the terrorists will have a small target population to attack but with gradual lifting of lockdown and movement of people, target population will increase. Hence, it is essential for the government to prevent any possible usage of COVID-19 as a ‘weapon’ by terrorists to attack people across countries. Indeed, at these challenging times, there requires a whole of government approach towards containing COVID-19. At the same time, counter-terrorism strategies need to evolve with these changing times and be adaptable to threats such as the “Pandemic Terrorism”[10].

End Notes:

[1] PTI, “COVID-19 pandemic provides “window” into how bio-terrorist attack might unfold in world: Guterres”, Economic Times, 10 April 2020.

[2] PTI, “ISIS advisory warns terrorists to be off coronavirus-hit Europe”, Economic Times, 16 March 2020.

[3] Richard Pilch, “How to keep the new coronavirus from being used as a terrorist weapon”, The Bulletin, 27 March 2020.

[4] ANI, “LeT, Jaish and other terror groups exploiting COVID-19 to recruit jihadis, warn Western anti-terror experts”, ANI, 13 April 2020.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Arvind Ojha, “Islamic State threat during coronavirus outbreak: Delhi Police personnel on target, alert issued”, India Today, 1 April 2020.

[7] Rahul Singh, “Spike in ceasefire violations by Pakistan amid Covid outbreak”, Hindustan Times, 8 April 2020.

[8] IANS, “Pakistan exporting terror while India helps world against Covid-19: Army Chief”, Livemint, 17 April 2020.

[9] Harry Litman, “Column: The DOJ just made it too easy to link coronavirus to terrorism”, Los Angeles Times, 2 April 2020.

[10] Richard Pilch, “How to keep the new coronavirus from being used as a terrorist weapon”, The Bulletin, 27 March 2020.