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Counterterrorism in 2020

By Sarah Dimock

The global stage of late has almost exclusively starred the COVID-19 coronavirus, but terrorism never stops. Just because you aren’t hearing about it in the news doesn’t mean that counterterrorism has stopped being important.

Times of crisis or disaster tend to bring out the bad guys, as we’re seeing from the recent rise in cyber crime since the beginning of the lockdown. One worry both domestically and internationally is that we could see terrorists using the virus to their advantage. Besides potentially spreading the disease on purpose to sew chaos or harm their enemies, many officials are worried about what we may see from extremist groups specifically as we weather the pandemic. 

Politico recently did a piece about the U.S. military and their fears that a pandemic could lead to an ISIS resurgence in Syria. In early April, Lara Seligman writing for Politico interviewed two senior coalition staff officers about the situation. According to her sources, Syrian Democratic Forces are responsible for guarding thousands of ISIS prisoners and they are being seriously strained to attempt to control and protect the people under their guard.

She writes, “Already this week, a group of ISIS prisoners tried to break out of a facility in Hassekah, the officers said, although the incident was unrelated to the coronavirus. The SDF was able to quell the riot and none of the prisoners escaped, but officials are increasingly concerned that the guards could be overwhelmed by future incidents, particularly if there is a Covid-19 outbreak.”

The threat of disease is a real problem at these facilities where, “More than 10,000 ISIS prisoners held in crowded, makeshift facilities across the region are at significant risk if the coronavirus strikes. Tuberculosis and other diseases are already rampant, and the detainees are in poor physical condition due to lack of exercise, said one of the officers.” The looming risk of contracting a deadly disease might cause riots to take on a more desperate tone with greater numbers of prisoners joining in to escape.

Vulnerable youth may also be more easily radicalized as extremist recruiters capitalize on this time of uncertainty and fear. “Already during the pandemic, there’s been an apparent spike in apocalyptic jihadist videos spreading across the internet,” says Christopher P. Costa for Defense One

Meanwhile, there are some sources arguing that U.S. spending on counterterrorism efforts is too high. They suggest that a reallocation of those funds towards the domestic crisis being caused by the coronavirus would be a more productive use of U.S. spending.

The problem with this statement, as with a lot of the information circulating right now is that we’re in the middle of an unprecedented crisis. It is difficult to base decisions off of data that we just don’t have, and may not have until we reach the other end of this pandemic.

While the U.S. does need to continue to step up efforts to deal with COVID-19, counterterrorism defense funds may not be the best place to begin borrowing from. Especially as we may see a rise in the need for specialists working in CT as extremist groups use these troubling times to grow stronger.

If you are interested in learning more about counterterrorism, check out Capitol’s completely online B.S. in counterterrorism. Earn your degree with a university that stands by its students with a commitment that if you graduate with a qualified bachelor’s degree, you’ll find a position within 90 days of graduation.