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Terrorism Remains a Threat During the Coronavirus Pandemic

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By Dr. Jarrod Sadulski, Faculty Member, Criminal Justice, American Military University

Over the past seven months, the major focus in the United States and around the world has been on the coronavirus pandemic. The news cycle has been consumed with coronavirus coverage and the recent unrest occurring in many cities across the United States, where peaceful protests have turned into violent and destructive riots.

The UN Has Identified Several Terrorism Risks Resulting from the Coronavirus Pandemic

However, it is important to remain aware of the risk of terrorism. The United Nations’ Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate has identified both short-term and long-term opportunities and risks for terrorism in relation to the coronavirus pandemic.

[Related: Nationwide Protests Are Fertile Soil for Domestic Terrorism]

One of the risks is that since the coronavirus pandemic has resulted in many students being online to a greater degree. As a result, young people engaging in unsupervised internet usage could be influenced by an adversary. For example, gaming platforms are used by terrorist organizations as an opportunity to expose their ideologies to a greater number of people.

The Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate also noted that the reported rise in cybercrime since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic could result in an increased connectivity between terrorist organizations and criminal actors. Terrorists routinely engage in cybercrime and cyberterrorism, and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime reports that terrorists use the internet for the purposes of spreading propaganda, radicalization, recruitment, terrorist financing, cyberattacks, and the execution of terrorist attacks.

Terrorist Groups Have Used the Pandemic in Their Propaganda and to Exploit Weaknesses

During the coronavirus pandemic, there has been evidence of terrorist groups integrating the coronavirus pandemic into their narratives and propaganda. They have also used the pandemic to exploit divisions and weaknesses among their enemies.

For example, there were attempted attacks against a hospital treating coronavirus cases and a hospital ship in the United States, according to the Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate. Another incident involved the arrest of two Tunisian men who were reportedly planning to infect security forces with COVID-19.

The Coronavirus Pandemic Has Reduced Potential Terrorist Targets, But Not for Long

On a positive note, the reduction of public gatherings and the use of large-scale quarantines have reduced potential terrorism targets. However, many states are reopening as children go back to school and many people return to work.

FBI Says That Lone-Wolf Attacks Remain a Threat

On September 17, 2020, FBI Director Christopher Wray made a statement to the House Homeland Security Committee. In that address, Director Wray addressed the current threats to the homeland in the United States. Director Wray mentioned that “hostile foreign actors, violent extremists, and opportunistic criminals have seized upon this environment,” referring to the current coronavirus pandemic.

Most interestingly, Director Wray identified lone-wolf attackers as our most significant risk, which is consistent with the past several years. Director Wray stated that “the greatest threat we face in the homeland is that posted by lone actors radicalized online who look to attack soft targets with easily accessible weapons.”

This is a timely warning considering that restrictions in the United States are subsiding, students are returning to school, and citizens are coming out of their homes and resuming many of their normal activities. These changes may increase the vulnerability of citizens to a lone-wolf attack.

Citizens Must Remain Aware of Suspicious Activity and Report It to Law Enforcement

To address this terrorism threat, it is critically important for citizens to report to law enforcement any changes that they observe in a neighbor, associate, family member, or someone they know who displays indicators that they are engaging in radical ideology. This information could involve concerning social media posts that mention the threat of violence or statements that show someone is becoming radicalized or has developed a hatred toward a specific group of people or organization.

[Related: Resources for Local Law Enforcement to Fight Domestic Terrorism]

Since there is a significant risk of radicalization online, parents should monitor the online activity of their children. Also, family members should remain alert for internet activity within the household that could lead to radicalization.

Soft targets may involve areas such as shopping malls, churches, or any other public areas. While such areas are often difficult to protect from someone who intends to inflict harm, citizens should remain aware of their surroundings and report to law enforcement suspicious persons or activity.

Everyone has a role in protecting the homeland from the risk of terrorism by remaining vigilant and reporting suspicious activities. Suspicious activity can be reported to local law enforcement or the Department of Homeland Security at 1-866-347-2423. The FBI also has an online form for reporting suspicious behavior.

About the Author: Dr. Jarrod Sadulski is an associate professor at American Military University. He has engaged in speaking engagements in the United States, Central America, and Europe on the topics of human trafficking, narcotics trafficking, police responses to domestic terrorism, and various topics in policing. Most recently, he presented at the 2020 International Human Trafficking Conference. His expertise includes infrastructure security, maritime security, homeland security contraband interdiction and intelligence gathering.

Dr. Jarrod Sadulski is an associate professor in the School of Security and Global Studies at APU. Jarrod was selected as the Coast Guard’s Reserve McShan Inspirational Leadership Award recipient for 2019. His expertise includes infrastructure security, maritime security, homeland security contraband interdiction and intelligence gathering.

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