Assessing the Terrorist Threat during the COVID-19 Pandemic

Radical and terrorist groups, especially the Islamic State (IS), have taken advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic and have made it a primary resource for their ongoing cause of jihad. Their current narrative is using the pandemic as a means for radicalization, funding, recruitment, and terror attacks. The threat of this narrative came about in early January. Communications intercepted by the NCTN and IACSP via jihadist chat groups representing IS in Southeast Asia, reveal that the COVID-19 had been a prime focus of IS from day one the virus became known. It has since been narrated as an easier alternative method to be adopted for terror attacks. The telegram messages indicated that a strong link of jihadists online was transmitting messages throughout the region, and this included European radical and terrorist groups that are able to access these chat groups originating from Southeast Asia. Radicals in Europe have been awoken from their sleeping cells, and have been prompted to carry out terror attacks by the transmittable human-to-human COVID-19 virus to infect the population. To address this potential threat is by no means simple, regardless of any robust risk assessment or preparedness of any tools used in risk management.

Based on psychological analysis by NCTN and IACSP, assessment on the narratives communicated through IS chat groups via telegram indicates that the COVID-19 represents the “army of God sent to destroy the people who are not pure in heart”. The pandemic is also seen as a tool the Chinese government is using to rid Muslims (Ummah) from their lands. The chat groups also seek to propagate mistrust towards governments, which are accused to try to prevent Muslims from their daily religious life, such as going to the mosque and providing religious education, as well as celebrating the Holy month of Ramadan. The narratives being used also provides militants with new motivations in terms of religious beliefs, ideology, and capabilities. In particular, the global spread of COVID-19 identifies three levels to attaining the virtues of jihad in response to the threat now posed by the infidels.

The first level identifies the “Test from God”: doing good deeds with purity and obedience will save the believers from the divine wrath and this, in return, will elevate them in death to paradise (Jannah). At the same time, the fog (Dukhan) of the virus will spread across the earth and will kill many people, as part of the prophecy before the great Armageddon. The second level identifies the “Preparedness in War”, or the propaganda of online instructions, recruitment, and fundraising through undercover methods. Fundraising is necessary to support the Ummah in protecting its religious doctrines and beliefs, and arming the jihadists in the fight against the enemy. The third level concerns the “Terror Attacks”, and is particularly focused on the Chinese at global level, due to the perceived God’s wrath on them for marginalizing the Ummah in their country, while propagating Communism within Muslim land. It also gives a clear command to execute global attacks as martyrs by spreading the virus via infected jihadists.

As for the risk assessment on the use of COVID-19 in terrorist or criminal acts, it can be mapped into two perpetrator variables: Non-ISIS and Pro-ISIS militants. According to interviews with Abu Thalut, Joko Jihad, Ibrahim Sunkar, Fatur, Muis and Aris Munandar, radicals from Indonesia agree that regardless of the rules in force, the Ummah will still congregate to pray where they are able to do so and whether there is a law to it or not. Within the EU member states, radical Muslims who fall under the Non-IS variable will not adhere to the social distancing policy, as they believe that during the Holy month of Ramadan it is an obligatory statute to go to mosque to worship, be it openly or discreetly within their communities. They have the tendency to not comply with western laws and deem it to be against Islam. They are the greatest potential to become COVID-19 carriers in the western communities. Given the relaxed laws within some EU states the probability is higher for the spread of the infection.

The Pro-ISIS variable is broken into two groups: IS sympathizers and ISIS terrorists. Sympathizers may not execute acts of violence, but that does not discriminate them from doing so. Their acts of terror may be lesser if conducted. However, even they will not comply with any regulation or law imposed by governments. They will continue their normal activities regardless of being infected, and thus can transmit the COVID-19 virus to the community. This also may trigger lone wolf knife attacks if attending mosque is prevented, as it is the “Kafir” system that must be fought off. The ISIS terrorists will continue trying to conduct attacks as in the past, but the IS sympathizers in Europe can be much deadlier than ISIS terrorists as COVID-19 carriers.

The current threat of COVID-19 being used by radical and terrorist groups is highly dangerous and largely invisible to law enforcement agencies in the EU member states. The COVID-19 is a biological security threat that can be categorized either by the term Natural Technological (NATECH) or Chemical, Biological and Nuclear Radiological (CBRN). Jihadist groups have adopted the “new weapon”, which is regarded as invincible and easy to use by lone wolves or would-be martyrs through simple human to human transmission.

In a telegram Pro-ISIS chat group, one anonymous writing states:

“Today we are witnessing the start and the spread of a new and dangerous disease which have shaken the world and thrown all governments into panic. Their attention is diverted to that issue and even if they wanted to redirect their focus against us once more, the bitter truth is that they cannot afford to do that no matter how much they wanted! Allah ‘azza wa jalla in His Infinite Knowledge, knows what we do not and He opens the door to countless things with just one event. So, brothers and sisters, take advantage of how they are now misdirected and forced to let loose the strong grip they had on us, and to exhaust their finances and their resources upon this newly risen matter! The Kefir are being quarantined and kept their eyes strained, looking into the screens of their devises to fight us on the media front, their strength is destroyed on the physical front ‒ and Allah knows best. So, take advantage! And carry out Amaliyat (terror attacks) as according to your capability! Do something good which will benefit you and others with you ‒ for the sake of Allah! And know that if one of you were to be quarantined, be glad and rejoice since your rank gets higher with your Lord ‒ Inshaa Allah ‒ and be certain that you will be superior if you are truly believers! Glad tidings for the believers are expected! And be it terror for the disbelievers? Bismillah”.

Both Non-ISIS and Pro-ISIS militants can be categorized as potential carriers of COVID-19 globally, especially in the West. Documented evidence from the US and Australia indicates that potential attacks towards law enforcement officers has been reported, and this is worrying. However, addressing laws in charging a perpetrator of transmitting the virus to individuals or a community is currently vague in the EU member states. The lack of resources and personnel especially within the Nordic countries, limits law enforcement and security agencies to track radical and terrorist groups efficiently. To prevent attempts to use and transmit the COVID-19 for terrorist purposes calls for an increased monitoring of the internet and online chat groups, as well as of marginalized youths within communities, local and international funding, reverse money laundering approaches, across the whole of Europe.