Counterterrorism Still a Concern in the COVID-19 Era

September 4, 2020 by Kate Michael

WASHINGTON — Terrorism hasn’t disappeared just because a pandemic is happening. In fact, calamitous world conditions embolden those who want to do others harm, and police budget cuts, virus-related conspiracy theories, and other vulnerabilities are exacerbated during the COVID-19 crisis.

To better understand the impact of COVID-19 on U.S. foreign policy interests, policymakers are holding a round of national security expert briefings specifically for members of Congress and staff. The second of such briefings in their “National Security in the Shadow of COVID-19” series featured Michael Leiter, former Director of the National Counterterrorism Center, who served under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. 

Organized by Representatives Stephanie Murphy, D-Fla., and John Katko, R-N.Y., the briefing was personally attended by Representatives Ed Case, D-Hawaii, Kathleen Rice, D-N.Y., and Mikie Sherrill, D-N.J.

While he gave some discussion time to resource and budgetary issues, Leiter’s primary concern about terrorism in the COVID-19 era is isolation and radicalization in the U.S. and around the globe.

COVID-19 is creating conditions that are a “recipe for radicalization,” Leiter said, outlining the factors intensifying people’s attraction to adopting extremist positions on political or social issues. Leiter said that “the pandemic has forced people into their homes and COVID bubbles,” which causes them to become isolated.

“Usually we’re vastly more integrated,” he said, but the health crisis is keeping people from interacting with a diverse group of people, and “alternate facts start to take hold.” 

He worries that the political dialogue — especially in light of this tense election year — seems less about American policy interests and more about candidates’ and voters’ partisan perspectives. This fomented discontent, combined with increased economic troubles, all contribute to the volatile mix we have in the U.S. right now, he said. So homegrown radicalization continues to be a real challenge, and COVID-19 is only serving to make it worse.

“We’ve always been better with arresting, or killing enemies than stopping the spread of radical terrorism,” Leiter lamented.

The virus also provides an opportunity for terrorist groups to “become the state,” Leiter says, as they find avenues to make themselves relevant in times of crisis. The intentions and capabilities of organizations like the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and Al-Qaeda, as well as groups like Hezbollah and other extremists, show the degree to which terrorist threats have changed since the pandemic emerged. Leiter worries especially about instability aggravated by COVID-19 in places like Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, and North Africa. 

“ISIS has shown incredible resilience over the last 19 years. In some ways, dare I say, more resilience than we have,” said Leiter.

Terrorists are dedicated to their cause, he said. They are resourceful and they are shrewd.

And while he doubts a terrorist organization can weaponize COVID-19, he believes nefarious actors will likely try soon to imitate how the pandemic has brought much of the globe to its knees with a biological weapon. 

“There will be in the next five years, in my assessment, a terrorist organization that sees what happens with COVID-19 and realizes they can have a broader impact with biological weaponry,” asserted Leiter.

Leiter shares all of this in an effort to help identify specific risks and vulnerabilities so that Congress is better prepared to enact legislation and conduct oversight on preventing and responding to terrorist acts with coordination among government agencies moving forward.

No matter which candidate wins the presidential election, Leiter suggests that the future of counterterrorism, including its budget, would benefit specifically from a focus on the mission rather than on a discrete department or agency. We should “take [our] limited resources and apply them to the highest threats across departments and agencies,” he said, accepting that with everything going on with COVID-19, there may be reduced resources, but that agencies should use individual dollars where they are most effective.

In addition to inter-agency cooperation, Leiter wants to see more partnerships between the U.S. government and technology companies. “This relationship cannot be adversarial,” he warned. Alliances inhibit the exploitation of information and communication technologies for terrorist and violent extremist purposes in a manner that could still respect human rights and freedom of speech.

“I am [also] worried about the increasing distance between the U.S. and Europe,” says Leiter, stressing that the “European/U.S. relationship, especially, has got to stay tight.” He knows from experience that the U.S. cannot be everywhere; “Counterterrorism has always been a team sport,” he said, stressing that international partnerships are critical to identifying and protecting the nation from threats.

He predicts that political isolation could be particularly dangerous, undoubtedly harming the United State’s ability to share data effectively. “If we go ‘America Alone’ we will be highly vulnerable,” Leiter said. “That would be catastrophic for counterterrorism.” 

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