Katharina Cavano | Palladium - Aug 07 2020
Terrorism Thrives on Hopelessness: The Impact of COVID-19 on Terrorist Activities

Refugee Camp in Dadaab.
Photo Credit: Reuters

The economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic threatens to push upwards of 100 million people into poverty according to The World Bank, and will be “the first increase in global extreme poverty since 1998, effectively wiping out progress made since 2017”. As the situation continues to evolve, it’s difficult to predict the full impact, but the human cost – of lives lost, careers upended, and rising levels of poverty to this point – are contributing to social unrest and upheaval across the world.

“Fundamentally, terrorism tends to pick up during times of instability” says Palladium Managing Partner Rhys Morris. “There are economic indicators such as joblessness, recession, and people losing careers and family, that tend to drive an uptick in recruitment and a hardening of resolve around terrorist groups.”

It goes without saying that the pandemic has exacerbated these issues, creating a sense of hopelessness among some of the most vulnerable populations globally, and in some areas, putting them squarely in the sights of terrorist propaganda and recruitment.

Preying on the vulnerable

Morris draws the comparison between the COVID-19 pandemic and Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon and Jordan in the late 1990s and early 2000s, which he describes as ‘happy hunting grounds’ for Al Qaeda to recruit. The camps contained a population of youths without hope for a future, chance of career, or life outside of the poverty in which they found themselves.

“That’s what I’m really concerned about when it comes to global affairs,” Morris says. “It’s the loss of jobs, the loss of a future that brings people in and attracts them to terrorist groups.”

In their June 2020 Global Prospects, the World Bank reported that the economic effects of COVID-19 will be long-lasting, and will create a population of new extreme poor, concentrated in countries that are already struggling with high poverty rates. Projections show that almost half of the ‘new poor’ will be in South Asia, and more than a third in sub-Saharan Africa.

According to Palladium Safety & Security Manager Charlotte Land, there’s potential for groups to exploit grievances in communities and turn people against authorities, particularly with anti-COVID propaganda. At a time when children are home from school and spending more time online, terrorist groups have more opportunities to spread propaganda and misinformation.

“The usual recruitment methods aren’t accessible right now, but it doesn’t mean it’s not happening,” she says.

While the pandemic has shut down most movement around the world, it’s meant that terrorist groups have fewer opportunities for ‘spectacular’ attacks in populated areas, at events, or in large groups of people. It’s also meant that displaced groups are stuck in place.

“If there’s a massive economic impact on those areas and a massive impact on their ability to move, you’ll have a group of people who are very marginalised and will listen to the recruiting call of something that will give them hope for the future,” explains Morris. Terrorist groups often utilise religious rhetoric in these situations, providing a strong rallying cry for groups of marginalised people looking for hope.

Morris also points out that though COVID-19 is new, the economic consequences of a pandemic are fairly predictable. “The impacts and effects of poverty and disparity in areas with vulnerable populations are well understood. COVID-19 and the economic fallout may drive a spike in joblessness and hopelessness that will potentially give us a terrorist legacy that will last a lot longer.”

The fight against terrorism continues

Just last month, the terrorist group Boko Haram released an execution-style video of the murder of five aid workers in Northern Nigeria. The violence may have come as a shock to many as the news cycle has been dominated by the COVID-19 pandemic in recent months, but terrorism and the fight against it continues, even while the media is focused elsewhere.

For instance, there have been at least six large detonations in Kabul in as many weeks according to Palladium’s Safety & Security team, which monitors situations across the globe on a constant basis.

“While most of the public is focused on what’s happening with the pandemic, others are still pushing against terrorist groups and undertaking operations to fight them,” says Land.

“If you’re not digging into it, you’re likely to miss the trends,” Morris adds.

As for the Palladium teams working in areas affected by terrorism and regular conflict, security infrastructure is built into their project strategies, and many have embedded security teams as a matter of course. “It’s an everyday lived reality for our teams who are operating in spaces where conflict occurs,” Land explains.

While they focus in-country, the global Safety & Security team engages in what Morris calls ‘horizon scanning’, constantly looking for events across the globe, assessing how people may be impacted, and working to diminish the risk as best they can.

COVID-19 is only making this work more necessary.

Contact info@thepalladiumgroup.com to learn more.