While the world has been focused on dealing with COVID-19, and the resources of the security apparatus confronted the epidemic, transforming institutions to apply restrictions and maintain social distancing, more traditional security threats have been operating with less pressure and growing. Tracing the signs of terrorist activities in recent months suggest that they continue to operate across the region, from Somalia to Syria, Libya to Iraq, Egypt, Yemen, Afghanistan and across Central Asia.
In Libya, the risk of growing terrorism appears higher than ever, as fighters fled there from Syria and joined with existing Deash cells, boosting their capacity, skills, supplies and resources. While most of these cells have not reached the capability required to launch large-scale sophisticated attacks, we are seeing small-scale hit-and-run attacks in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and even Libya itself.
The changing landscape created by COVID-19 gave these cells the opportunity to grow and better coordinate. The increasing economic and political frustration which is bound to continue in the post-COVID period in many countries, creates fertile ground for terrorist exploitation of community sentiment to create new hotspots and open the door for new waves of recruitment amongst frustrated people.
It is important to start paying extra attention to the symptoms of the emerging new wave of terrorist phenomena. Incidents across many countries demonstrate the impact of economic hardship through the spread of criminal and terrorist propaganda. These incidents do not necessarily involve confrontation with security services, but rather leverage social pressure and hardship to provoke instability, including protests and riots based on dissatisfaction with public policy and the political system. Not only are they fanning the flames of disenchantment, they are also using it to recruit and grow. The people of these cities are particularly valuable to these groups, as in addition to growing in size, they assist in making national borders more porous.
This creates dual challenges for governments, with social frustration due to economic hardship combined with increased risk of terrorist and criminal activity trying to use borders to export their violence. The tactics of smuggling and exploiting land and sea borders have become more frequent and efficient during COVID-19.
Containing the growing risk of global terrorism requires careful monitoring of the groups and the fertile situation that makes them more credible amongst the local populations. It is important as well to consider the wider context of both regional instability and internal economic hardship that each country is facing, and how to forge a path to create a viable future for millions of youth, in spite of the terrorist propaganda, and develop an approach that considers how they will continue to leverage potentially long periods of economic frustration and social protests.
Dr. Amer Al Sabaileh