Butterfly Effect: Pandemic Shrouds Terrorist Activities - OZY | A Modern Media Company
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Terrorists are gathering strength in a climate where the world’s attention and resources are focused elsewhere.

Charu Sudan Kasturi

Charu Sudan Kasturi

OZY Senior Editor Charu Sudan Kasturi's column, "Butterfly Effect," connects the dots on seemingly unrelated global headlines, highlighting what could happen next and who is likely to be impacted.

By Charu Sudan Kasturi

Looking like a Wolverine doppelgänger, a bearded Eric Trump offered a dire warning last week, in keeping with the fear mongering tone of the rest of the Republican National Convention. Joe Biden, former vice president and the Democratic nominee for November’s presidential elections, would represent a “giant relief” for terrorists if he wins, the U.S. president’s second-born son said.

Guess what? Terrorists of most stripes are already celebrating the “relief” that has come with the coronavirus pandemic, which continues to cause turmoil in many of the world’s biggest nations, including the United States. On the surface, terrorism would hardly seem to be the world’s biggest challenge right now, with COVID-19 having killed more than 850,000 people, including 185,000 in the U.S. And it’s true, 2020 has so far spared us terror attacks on the scale and impact of last year’s horrific mosque shootings in Christchurch, New Zealand, and the Easter bombings in Sri Lanka.

Yet terrorists and extremist groups are gathering strength while the world’s attention and resources are focused on combating the pandemic. Meanwhile, several governments are using anti-terrorism measures to target political opponents. And a toxic political environment is encouraging far-right terrorism. Taken together, it’s a deadly cocktail, a bomb that, unless it’s defused in time, could explode in our faces in the coming months and years.

Early signs have already emerged. In August, terrorists affiliated with ISIS took control of a strategically vital Indian Ocean port in oil-rich northern Mozambique. In Mali, the government’s failure to tackle terrorism was cited by military leaders as one of the reasons behind their coup last month. In Niger, to the east of Mali, terrorists killed one Nigerian and six French aid workers.

ISIS might have physically lost its so-called caliphate following a series of pre-pandemic military reverses, but the United Nations warns that the group still has 10,000 active fighters in Syria and Iraq and that it is regrouping. And in Afghanistan, the Taliban launched attacks on two U.S. bases last weekend in violation of its peace agreement with the Trump administration.

It shouldn’t be a surprise. Terrorist organizations thrive where the state is dysfunctional or struggling. There’s a reason Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida chose war-torn Afghanistan as its base, and why Islamic terrorism is on the rise in African nations with weak governance. The difference this time is that the pandemic has weakened many previously solid regimes and governments, exhausting their resources. It won’t be a shock if the attacks we’re currently seeing in Afghanistan, the Middle East and the Sahel region of Africa spread.

But that’s far from the only challenge. Amid a racially charged political campaign that has coincided with the coronavirus crisis, the U.S. has seen acts of domestic terrorism that officials have attributed to the far-right Boogaloo movement. The attacks include shootings and bombings that targeted law enforcement in Oakland, California, in May and Santa Cruz in June that left two officers dead. 

Meanwhile, authorities are using terrorism charges to target political opponents. In Rwanda, the government of President Paul Kagame has arrested critic Paul Rusesabagina, who sheltered 1,200 Tutsis in a hotel he managed during the 1994 genocide. The Oscar-nominated movie Hotel Rwanda was inspired by Rusesabagina’s heroics. In the U.S., local and federal officials have charged multiple protesters with terrorism in the street agitations that have spread across the country following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May.

The pandemic has posed fresh challenges for terrorist groups too. The global restrictions on travel mean it’s a lot harder to send extremists across borders to carry out bombings or shootings. The 9/11 suicide bombers, for example, or the Australian terrorist behind the Christchurch massacre would have found it harder to carry out their mass murders with planes grounded and borders sealed.

But none of that stops terrorism perpetrated by domestic actors. In the U.S., research published in June by the Washington, D.C.–based Center for Strategic and International Studies shows that white supremacist, right-wing terrorism was responsible for two-thirds of terror acts in 2019, and 90 percent of terror attacks in the first five months of 2020. The researchers warned that “over the rest of 2020, the terrorist threat in the United States will likely rise based on several factors, including the November 2020 presidential election.” And homegrown terrorism, often carried out by small groups, is typically much harder to track and preempt than foreign-sponsored terrorism.

Once a vaccine is ready, the pandemic will slowly pass. That’s when a new era of terrorism will become truly visible, like secret ink, unless countries take note now. The writing is on the wall.

Charu Sudan Kasturi

Charu Sudan Kasturi

OZY Senior Editor Charu Sudan Kasturi's column, "Butterfly Effect," connects the dots on seemingly unrelated global headlines, highlighting what could happen next and who is likely to be impacted.

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