Key Questions for Counter-Terrorism Post-COVID-19

Posted: April 24, 2020 in RSIS
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Finally, in this latest clutch, a new piece for the in-house journal Counter-Terrorist Trends and Analyses (CTTA) at my new Singaporean institutional home ICPVTR at RSIS. It is a bit of a thought experiment in trying to think forwards about what the impact of the current COVID-19 crisis could be to counter-terrorism practitioners and policy makers. It goes in a way alongside my previous Foreign Policy piece which sketched out how the threat might get worse. Clearly the big topic in this one is resources which is going to create problems which will be difficult to predict, but there are other dangers and even opportunities as well. In the UK, there is already concern around Prevent referrals being down, while France is already worrying about release of terrorist prisoners and I am sure we will start to see other issues in this space emerge.

Key Questions for Counter-Terrorism Post-COVID-19

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All aspects of government decision and policymaking are likely to be impacted in a post-COVID-19 world. This article focuses on the specific impact on counter-terrorism policy and practice amidst a changed environment. Using the UK’s Contest strategy and its formulation of the 4 P’s (Prevent, Pursue, Protect and Prepare) as a frame, the article explores a set of questions that governments will have to think through to manage a persistent terrorist threat.


The impact of COVID-19 is widespread. At a geopolitical level, it will accelerate existing trends, while free-trade and open borders will be hurt for some time as the global economy adjusts to such a dramatic freeze and the inevitable fitful re-opening. This will have consequences across the board for governments, including security policies. Though a lot has been written about how different terrorist groups are reacting to COVID-19, its impact on counter-terrorism policy and practice remains understudied.

This article will outline some key issues that security officials should be considering going forwards about how COVID-19 might impact counter-terrorism (CT) and countering violent extremism (CVE) policies and practices. As a framework, the article will use the structure of the UK counter-terrorism strategy that captures the different strands of most CT and CVE policies around the world. In short, the UK’s Contest strategy is made up of the following four pillars:

• Prevent: to stop people becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism. This forward-looking work comprises of rehabilitation and de-radicalisation initiatives.

• Pursue: to stop terrorist attacks. This involves disrupting and arresting individuals involved in terrorist activity.

• Protect: to strengthen safety mechanisms against a terrorist attack, such as building up physical defences.

• Prepare: to mitigate the impact of a terrorist attack. Here, societal resilience is emphasised to ensure society can bounce back from an incident.1

Overview of COVID-19’s Impact

Before going into a detailed analysis of the impact using the four P’s framework, some overarching themes need to be considered about the impact of COVID-19 on CT and CVE work. First is the re-evaluation of national risk assessment (and more importantly perceptions of risk) that will take place in the wake of the virus. Re-reading old national strategy documents or statements, it is possible to find evidence that numerous countries had identified pandemic disease as a major risk and threat – the UK’s National Risk Register, for example, identified ‘pandemic influenza’ as the event of greatest relative likelihood and impact.2 US President Donald Trump’s 2017 National Security Strategy had also identified pandemics as a major danger,3 while President Xi Jinping had spoken of the threat in his speech to the 19th Communist Party of China (CPC)’s National Congress in 2017.4 The United Nations (UN) and the World Health Organisation (WHO) have of course been warning about these pandemic threats for years. Yet, notwithstanding these repeated warnings, it is not clear if sufficient resources and expertise were allocated into mitigating the risk.

This lack of focus (and in some cases, specific choice to reduce focus) was in part a product of the absence of political pressure around the issue.5 While the global commentariat is now full of chatter about how obvious this threat was, previously it was only experts in the scientific community who were genuinely concerned with little public discussion about the threat.6 Parts of Asia that had faced viruses before were more attuned to the concern than others, but largely, it was not a high ranking political issue.

The net result was other threats, like terrorism, cyberattacks, state conflicts and trade wars absorbed more attention and budget, alongside assessments of priority. Given the widespread impact of COVID-19, this balance is likely to change as governments realise the full potential extent and damage of a pandemic disease. This will in large part also be driven by public pressure as populations see extensive impact of the threat. For terrorism threats, it will highlight once again the relatively limited impact that they actually have to the average citizen (especially comparable to pandemic threats) and might make it harder to mobilise the same sort of national level concern around them in the short to medium term.7

The positive side to this will be a reduction in the noise around terrorist threats, which may have a corollary impact on the degree to which threats can multiply and reduce the copycat or lone actor phenomenon whereby individuals are drawn to terrorist ideologies more by the noise around attacks than the ideology. It will also potentially marginalise those drawn to such ideologies as people re-evaluate what matters to them and consequently refuse to simply accept the narratives advanced by terrorist groups about the global upheavals that merit terrorist mobilisation.

On the negative side, the massive expansion of online activity will produce its own problems of radicalisation with some vulnerable individuals becoming more isolated and getting more embroiled in extremist ideologies.8 National budgets will also shrink around the world. Governments will have to make harder decisions and redirect their resources and capabilities on economic revivals. This will mean pressure on security budgets at home and abroad, with more questions asked about importance and prioritisation. This is where public perceptions of risk will come into play. In the wake of COVID-19, the public will continually ask about policy steps to mitigate the next possible pandemic outbreak and this will lead to reallocations of budget from elsewhere.

Even before the COVID-19 outbreak, there was already a noticeable shift away from concern around terrorist threats, with state- based conflicts or cyber threats getting the top priority. This trend will accelerate further making it harder for CT security officials to ensure their issues retain the level of attention and budget they require. This particular issue is one that is going to play across this article. Finally, how COVID-19 will impact extremist ideologies merit some brief thought. The economic downturn will create contexts in which anti-state groups can thrive. Racism has already emerged – in particular towards Asians, but also within Asian countries towards others – which may lead to different forms of violence.

The disenfranchised communities or inequalities that will emerge in the post- COVID-19 world will create some individuals or groups who see violence as the answer to their situation. In some contexts, the massive increase in government will produce its own problems. In America, for example, the long history of fear of federal government has generated terrorist atrocities in the past (like the Oklahoma City bombing which just passed its 25 year anniversary);9 some similar reactions seem to be already appearing.10 There is also the possibility that fringe groups will be able to take advantage of the ensuing world to find their own specific niche fears further exacerbated. For instance, the accelerated rise of tech during this moment may generate extremist luddites, or other fringe movements might emerge.


At the best of times, preventing people from being drawn towards groups or persuading them to subsequently reject extremist ideologies is difficult. Governments find it almost impossible to eradicate, counter or stop the proliferation of extremist ideologies. In some countries, dealing with the root causes of any form of terrorism can go into deep social issues whose origins go back decades. Terrorist groups offer ideologies which are parasitic on these problems. This means that in order to eradicate the problem, governments have to deal with the underlying socio-economic issues, while at the same time prevent the spread of extremist ideas.

Fund allocation is key in dealing with these issues, be they at home or abroad. The problems far from home usually need resolution through social transformation, something which only happens through investment of resource. As budgets tighten, problems in places far from home, which are not directly linked to a threat back home, will be easily dispensable in favour of more immediate problems. This resource tightening for distant CVE work will be exacerbated by the fact that often aid work doubles as CVE work in some contexts – whether by chance or on purpose to mask its intent. This means not only will distant countries lose resource from direct CVE work, but also from a broader and likely budget tightening.

In societies with relatively limited numbers of people affected, CVE and de-radicalising work tends to be built around individual level interventions in which mentors work with individuals to steer them onto a better path. In countries with larger problems, this model is essentially enhanced, with interventions targeted at entire sectors or larger groups of people. In systems where the number of cases is limited, this will likely remain manageable, but countries where hundreds, if not thousands, need managing will require a considerable expenditure of resource which will come under pressure. While there is an ongoing debate about degrees of recidivism amongst terrorist offenders, there will be budgetary pressures on programmes in prisons.11 More generally, the lack of clear evidence of programme effectiveness will make it easy for such programmes to become targets for budget cuts.

Lastly, the online ideological space and counter-messaging will face greater scrutiny as a necessary expense. Already, there are concerns around the efficacy of online counter-messaging campaigns.12 It is likely that the entire counter-ideological space will come under budgetary pressure given the almost impossible task of showing causal effect of programmes to the issue they are seeking to address.


National security questions are easy to mobilise public resource towards. The public sees government as their ultimate protector and will give fairly substantial lee-way in deploying resources to keep any threats at bay. The most visible expression of this within terrorism comes via Pursue work, which involves chasing down terrorists and using security and intelligence agencies to detain and arrest terrorist suspects. This strand of work may find some of its resources redirected into other tasks. But the underlying political reality of needing to maintain this capability at a high state of readiness will ensure these parts of the system remain funded.

Pursue actors are in fact already benefitting in a COVID-19 world. The mass imposition of quarantine conditions across societies creates a context in which monitoring and disruption becomes much easier. Security forces no longer need to develop complicated reasons to detain suspected individuals but can simply mask disruptions or inquiries under the veil of the quarantine monitoring. Furthermore, suspects of interest will find themselves as housebound as everyone else creating static targets requiring less resource to observe. And should they venture out, security agencies have a justified reason to inquire as to what they are doing.

Countries have also already pushed out apps seeking to track individuals and gather data to help monitor transmission of the virus. Whilst many legal systems will put in place strong measures to prevent their use beyond the COVID-19 pandemic, these apps are potential monitoring tools for security officials concerned about terrorist attacks or networks. Some countries may be less open about their subsequent use. It is also possible that the data generated will produce some interesting findings about human behaviour in crisis situations which might support future counter- terrorism activity.

Finally, the development of such tools will create learning within the technological space. This learning may be currently directed towards tracking COVID-19 spread, but the same tools might be later more useful in the counter-terrorism space. Analysing movement of people or potential disease transmission using multiple vectors and probabilities might generate a new set of analytical tools that might subsequently be turned towards countering terrorism or chasing terrorists online.


The Protect space is dominated by expenditure on security which seeks to cover every potential eventuality. Sometimes these are sunk costs which generate one-off expenditures, but others require regular reinvestment. Furthermore, they have a habit of increasing in a corollary manner to the terrorist threat evolution, as new counter- measures need to be deployed to reflect changing patterns of terror activity.

One positive effect to the Protect space might come in the form of more restrictive behaviour that will be imposed on citizens in order to mitigate further flare-ups of COVID-19. These measures will likely focus on preventing movement, or checking people’s temperatures or other indicators at regular intervals. This will create a potential Protect (and even Pursue) opportunities. For example, temperature checking posts would be a moment for security officials to check on members of public; they could be a deterrent in themselves. It has been observed that terrorists have changed attack locations due to the presence of Protect measures.

In some cases, governments seek to offset these costs by passing them on to the private sector which is at the front line of this threat. Private sector sites are often the targets of terrorist groups; consequently, they bear the expenses in making their locations safe. This discussion might become more complicated in an environment of contracted economic means, for any business sector. It will become more challenging for the governments to impose requirements for expenditure that do not answer an immediate security concern (like fire hazard) rather than a more abstract one like terrorism.

An additional challenge to the Protect space will come from the likely surge in transborder activity of goods and people that will take place in the wake of COVID-19 and the lifting of travel restrictions.13 For travel hubs where international travel is an integral part of existence, this will mean a sudden potential surge in work in different directions. This will be impacted by the urgency with which there will be a push to return to normality in terms of getting trade and international supply chains moving again. While there might be a push to nationalise supply chains in some countries, few will be able to effectively deliver this, meaning an expansive security cordon which will need to be developed with equal rapidity.


Societies have for the most part demonstrated a remarkable resilience against terrorist attacks. Terrorists have largely failed to disrupt social orders in the wake of their attacks.14 Where they have caused damage, however, is in tearing the social fabric. And this could worsen in a post-COVID-19 world. While there have been globally remarkable demonstrations of collective civil mindedness and a push to help and celebrate fellow humans, there has also been a darker edge as people seek to apportion blame. Most obviously, this is visible against Asians in the west in particular with repeated reports of assaults on people of Asian appearance in response to what has been described by very senior government officials in the United States as the ‘Chinese virus.’15

This tension is visible in other contexts as well and is likely to generate its own counter- responses, both in terms of state-to-state tensions, but also amongst communities. Within China, there has additionally been a growing anger towards African communities.16 While this does not necessarily portend terrorism, it does raise the danger that as waves of the virus continue to express themselves and be reported in different parts of the world, this might lead to consequent targeted social tensions at different moments. This is significant in terms of shoring up social cohesion and resilience, a key component of long-term Prepare work.

The practical tools often used to advance Prepare goals are potentially ones impacted by broader budgetary cuts. Emergency services are essential amenities which people expect, but ensuring their resource levels are maintained to a high enough level to cover every contingency might come under pressure. While emergency response services will always be needed, the question will be whether the additional training and expense required to maintain a full-spectrum counter-terrorism response (which might include low probability events like CBRN attacks) can be justified or is essential in the same way as it was before.

Looking Ahead

The impact of COVID-19 on CT policy and practice will be complicated and varied. Overall, the pressure on direct CT measures will not necessarily be strong. Concerned publics will continue to expect governments to deliver adequate defences against terrorist threats. If security agencies are dynamic enough, ample opportunities avail to use the virus restrictions as an opportunity to enhance security blankets. But longer-term programmes focused on dealing with problems at root are likely to be impacted. This problem is magnified in third-world and poorer countries badly affected by the COVID- 19 fall-out, and has a knock-on effect on the threat picture emanating from these locations.

The danger will also come from a threat picture rendered even more complex in the wake of COVID-19; in part, driven by existing threats which will not resolve themselves and may even get worse and also, as a result of new emerging threats. With more people pushed deeper into online worlds, this might generate a new articulation of the lone actor terrorist threat under different ideologies. While much of broader society, focused on health security and economic recovery, will vie for greater government attention and resources, terrorists will not go away and likely multiply in new and confusing ways.

Raffaello Pantucci is a Visiting Senior Fellow at the International Centre for Political Violence, Terrorism Research (ICPVTR), a constituent unit within the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore. He can be contacted at

1 “CONTEST: the United Kingdom’s Strategy for Countering Terrorism,” Home Office (UK), June 2018, uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/71690 7/140618_CCS207_CCS0218929798- 1_CONTEST_3.0_WEB.pdf. A final caveat on this choice of structure is that the author will sometimes veer away from precise UK designations about what is covered under each pillar of Contest, but this is not relevant for the discussion at hand which is merely using Contest as a frame with which to structure a discussion.

2 “National Risk Register,” Cabinet Office (UK), 2008, uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/61934/ national_risk_register.pdf.

3 “National Security Strategy of the United States of America,” White House, December 2017, content/uploads/2017/12/NSS-Final-12-18-2017- 0905.pdf.

4 “Full text of Xi Jinping’s report at 19th CPC National Congress,” Xinhua, October 18, 2017, 11/03/c_136725942.htm.

5 Marisa Taylor, “Exclusive: U.S. slashed CDC staff inside China prior to coronavirus outbreak,” Reuters, March 26, 2020, health-coronavirus-china-cdc-exclusiv/exclusive-u-s-slashed-cdc-staff-inside-china-prior-to-coronavirus-outbreak-idUSKBN21C3N5.

6 Tim Harford, “Why we fail to prepare for disasters,” Financial Times, April 16, 2020 82f6-150830b3b99a.

7 Two caveats to this are the event of another major terror attack which might once again shift people’s perceptions of risk, and the fact that over time this perception will likely shift again.

8 Nikita Malik, “Self-isolation might stop Coronavirus, but it will speed the spread of extremism,” Foreign Policy, March 26, 2020 might-stop-coronavirus-but-spread-extremism/.

9 Kelly-Leigh Cooper, “Oklahoma City bombing: The day domestic terror shook America,” BBC News, April 19, 2020,

10 The two separate cases of Edouard Moreno and Timothy Wilson illustrate this threat. Moreno tried to derail a train in the Port of Los Angeles and Wilson tried to attack a Kansas City hospital preparing to deal with COVID-19. Both claimed to highlight the dangerous expansion of government. For more on Moreno: “Train Operator at Port of Los Angeles Charged with Derailing Locomotive Near US Navy’s Hospital Ship Mercy,” Department of Justice Press Release, April 1, 2020, cdca/pr/train-operator-port-los-angeles-charged- derailing-locomotive-near-us-navy-s-hospital and Wilson; Emily Rittman and Maggie Holmes, “Court documents reveal new details in Raymore man’s alleged hospital bombing plot,” KCTV News, April 8, 2020,

11 For example, Andrew Silke “Risk assessment of terrorist and extremist prisoners,” in A. Silke (ed.), Prisons, Terrorism and Extremism: Critical Issues in Management, Radicalisation and Reform, (London: Routledge, 2014), pp.108-121; Omi Hodwitz “The Terrorism Recidivism Study (TRS): Examining Recidivism Rates for Post-9/11 Offenders,” Perspectives on Terrorism, Vol. 13, No. 2 (April 2019) conclude the problem is limited; Mary Beth Altier, Emma Leonard Boyle & John G. Horgan (2019): Returning to the Fight: An Empirical Analysis of Terrorist Reengagement and Recidivism, Terrorism and Political Violence conclude the opposite.

12 Eric Rosand and Emily Winterbotham, “Do counter-narratives actually reduce violent extremism?” Brookings Institution, March 20, 2019 chaos/2019/03/20/do-counter-narratives-actually- reduce-violent-extremism/.

13 Officials in Wuhan noted an immediate surge in travel in the wake of the lifting of the strict quarantine there.

14 There are of course counter examples, with IS success in Syria-Iraq being the most recent example. But in many of the cases where success can be evaluated, it involves a level of contact resulting in taking on the state as a military force. Terrorism campaigns in otherwise peaceful societies have not for the most part resulted in the same level of impact.

15 “Trump defends calling coronavirus the Chinese virus,” Al-Jazeera, March 23, 2020, 020/03/trump-defends-calling-coronavirus-chinese- virus-200323102618665.html.

16 Danny Vincent, “Africans in China: We face coronavirus discrimination,” BBC News, April 17, 2020, 52309414.

  1. […] This aside, a Webinar with some RSIS colleagues here in Singapore looking at COVID-19 and the terrorist threat picture in now up on YouTube. My comments focused a bit on how it was impacting counter-terrorism response drawing on my earlier RSIS CTTA article. […]

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