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New Research Investigates the Impact of COVID-19 on Terrorism


New Research Investigates the Impact of COVID-19 on Terrorism

ALBANY, N.Y. (July 30, 2020) – While government leaders are focused on fighting COVID-19, the threat of terrorism has not gone away. In fact, homeland security experts have warned that violent extremists may seek to take advantage of the fear and disruption around the pandemic to further their agenda and recruit new members.

Gary Ackerman, an associate professor at the University at Albany’s College of Emergency Preparedness, Homeland Security and Cybersecurity (CEHC), who specializes in terrorist ideology, recently teamed up with CEHC graduate student Hayley Peterson to explore both the challenges and opportunities that the COVID-19 crisis presents for terrorist organizations.

Their observational report was recently published in Perspectives on Terrorism.

“During times of crisis, we often see terrorists exploit the situation and use it for propaganda,” said Ackerman. “This is particularly true amongst anti-government groups on both the far-right and far-left. They take advantage of widespread anxiety and distrust in leadership to promote radicalization and violence.”



Volume 14, Issue 3

Research Notes

Terrorism and COVID-19: Actual and Potential Impacts by Gary Ackerman and Hayley Peterson


The  COVID-19  pandemic  presents  both  challenges  and  opportunities  for  terrorists.  While  the  hazards  of  the  disease and disruptions to society inhibit some of their operations, by their very nature as asymmetric adversaries, terrorists  tend  to  adapt  quickly  and  exploit  conditions  of  uncertainty  and  instability  to  further  their  goals.  This  Research  Note  provides  a  preliminary  overview  of  how  COVID-19  might  affect  the  state  of  contemporary  terrorism. In so doing, it introduces and discusses 10 different ways that the pandemic could impact the terrorism landscape in the short, medium and long term. These range from terrorists leveraging an increased susceptibility to  radicalization  and  inciting  a  rise  in  anti-government  attitudes,  to  engaging  in  pro-social  activities  and  even  reconsidering the utility of bioterrorism. Acknowledging the publication of this Research Note in the midst of the pandemic and its necessarily speculative nature in the absence of historical precedent, the discussion nonetheless seeks to draw attention to several possible pathways along which terrorism might evolve in response to COVID-19 and its attendant societal effects.


As  the  SARS-CoV-2  virus  spread  inexorably  across  the  globe  in  the  early  months  of  2020,  the  pandemic  it  generated has caused unprecedented disruption to the connected, just-in-time world of the early 21st century. Politicians  appear  bereft  of  answers,  the  global  economy  has  become  moribund  while  common  people  the  world  over  have  been  subjected  to  lockdowns,  social  distancing  and  an  interruption  in  the  normal  routines  of life. When it comes to terrorism, as much as some would like to paint terrorists as some type of aberrant “other”, the truth is that they are spawned from and almost always reside, or at least operate in, our societies. Insofar as they form part—albeit a violent, extremist and unlawful part—of our societies, terrorist individuals and  groups,  just  like  everyone  else,  will  thus  necessarily  be  affected  by  the  pandemic  and  the  general  social  disruption  it  has  wrought.  At  the  same  time,  by  their  very  nature  as  asymmetric  adversaries,  terrorists  tend  to  be  markedly  adaptive  actors,  seeking  to  leverage  any  vulnerabilities  they  perceive  in  their  environment.  They  have  often  proven  particularly  adept  at  exploiting  conditions  of  uncertainty  and  instability  to  further  their goals. It can be expected, therefore, that the more strategic and tactically adroit amongst today’s terrorist adversaries  will  attempt  to  gain  whatever  advantage  they  can  from  the  COVID-19  pandemic.  The  potential  obstacles  and  opportunities  presented  to  terrorists  by  the  pandemic  are  thus  worthy  of  careful  and  prompt  consideration. This is especially pertinent given the possibility that COVID-19 is likely to have second-order effects, in addition to immediate impacts, on global affairs.

This  Research  Note  seeks  to  provide  a  preliminary  overview  of  how  COVID-19  might  affect  the  state  of  contemporary terrorism, with the acknowledgment that we are still in the midst of the pandemic and additional consequences might yet emerge. The first thing to realize in this regard is that to a large extent we are in uncharted territory.  The  last  time  the  world  experienced  a  pandemic  as  global  and  consequential  as  the  one  caused  by  COVID-19 was during the 1918–1919 influenza pandemic (often erroneously referred to as the “Spanish Flu”). At that time, several decades before the so-called “modern” age of terrorism, the United States in particular did witness a rise in attacks by anarchist followers of Luigi Galleani, culminating in the devastating Wall Street bombing of September 16, 1920.[1] However, the increased spate of bombings had begun before the pandemic and  was  more  closely  linked  to  opposition  to  the  First  World  War,  making  any  direct  causal  connection  to  the pandemic tenuous at best.[2] The 1918–1919 pandemic is, however, associated with a number of broader sociopolitical changes, several of which are potentially relevant to the current discussion and will be addressed below.

Read Research Notes at https://www.universiteitleiden.nl/binaries/content/assets/customsites/perspectives-on-terrorism/2020/issue-3/ackerman-and-peterson.pdf