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The US: Critical Infrastructure, COVID-19, and Terrorism

By Dr. Joshua Sinai

Today the United States’ critical infrastructure (CI) is under one of the most severe threats since the 1930s Great Depression, caused by the massive disruptions by the COVID-19 pandemic’s mass infections of people who work in and depend on the CI’s 16 sectors.

In the United States, the pandemic has created a public health catastrophe. Since around March 2020, some 11.5 million people have been infected by COVID-19 to varying degrees in terms of illnesses or testing positive, with more than 250,000 deaths, while more than 4.3 million people have recovered.

Critical infrastructure is defined as the physical and cyber systems and assets that are so vital to a country that their incapacity or destruction would have a degrading impact on its physical, economic or public health security. In the United States, the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic has degraded to varying degrees critical infrastructure sectors and sub-sectors such as health and public health (including hospitals, medical clinics, and testing sites), food and agriculture (such as restaurants and hotels), government facilities (including educational institutions), the transportation system (such as airlines and mass transit), commercial facilities (such as office buildings, hotels, shopping malls, and retail stores), financial services (such as banks), and others.

As a result, the pandemic-related catastrophic human and economic costs, including high unemployment and closures of businesses, have elevated the restoration of the country’s public health system through various government measures such as the deployment of vaccines, wearing facial masks, maintaining social distance, and, when necessary, various levels of lockdowns, as a top national security mission on a par with national security threats such as terrorism, cyberattacks, and potential attacks using weapons of mass destruction.

Many sectors and sub-sectors in the critical infrastructure have attempted to bounce back through various strategic innovation business practices. Businesses are enabling their employees to work from their homes remotely, educational institutions have adopted distance learning platforms and other hybrid arrangements to continue teaching, restaurants offer take-out and delivery services, retail stores have shifted to online sales, and even election voting ballots are now possible via the mail system.

Attaining full public health recovery, however, is not a short-term or linear process. Extremist protest movements have emerged around the country that oppose the implementation of restrictive public health measures, such as wearing facial masks, maintaining social distance, and state and local lockdowns (when necessary) of businesses. Of utmost concern is the likely refusal by many to be vaccinated because of various disinformation campaigns that have persuaded them that this and other preventative measures are part of “big government’s” takeover of citizens lives.

In one significant terrorism-related incident, in October 2020, 14 members of an extremist anti-government group in Michigan and neighboring states were arrested for felony domestic terrorism charges for their alleged plot to kidnap the Governor of Michigan, Gretchen Whitmer, violently take over the Michigan capitol building, and execute public officials. Enraged over the restrictive measures introduced in Michigan to contain the pandemic’s spread, the plotters allegedly envisioned their operation to trigger a wider uprising against the government for supposedly violating the U.S. Constitution through the restrictive measures to mitigate the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Although not reaching the level of terrorist attacks, numerous protest demonstrations have erupted throughout the country by such militant activists against the imposition of various COVID-19 restrictive measures by states and other local authorities.

The presidential inauguration of Joseph Biden, Jr., on January 20, 2021, and the likely implementation of enhanced government regulations and guidance measures to mitigate the further spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, are likely to lead to further upheavals. Protest demonstrations against such restrictions, including refusing to be injected by a vaccine, once it is approved for mass distribution, might take place. In a worst-case scenario, a tiny minority of such protesters might turn to terrorist-type attacks against their perceived government and medical professional adversaries. Hopefully, this worst-case terrorism scenario will not occur, with solutions to the coronavirus pandemic succeeding in restoring the country’s critical infrastructure to public health safety and economic prosperity with minimal opposition violence.

Dr. Joshua Sinai is a Professor of Practice at Capitol Technology University who teaches the BS and PhD in Counterterrorism. His more than 30-year career in Washington, DC has included working as a contractor at the Department of Homeland Security’s National Operations Center (when it was first stood up) and DHS’s Science & Technology Directorate, as well as at the FBI’s Foreign Terrorist Tracking Force (FTTTF) and the Federal Protective Service’s (FPS) Training Branch.