June 12, 2023

IntelBrief: Addressing Terrorist Exploitation of Crises and Disaster

AP Photo/ Bob Edme

Bottom Line Up Front

  • A global climate of upheaval and transition has ripened opportunities for violent and extremist actors.
  • While COVID-19 disrupted the movement of terrorist groups, it also fed anti-government narratives that benefit terrorist recruitment and fundraising.
  • Beyond the accelerationists who cheer on societal failures, far-right and Islamist extremist groups have launched their own disaster recovery and public health efforts, demonstrating value to local communities.
  • The lack of accountability for former Islamic State members, and the lack of humanitarian services available to their families, has created a hospitable environment for further radicalization.

From a crisis management perspective, terrorism remains a serious risk that states, international organizations, communities, and businesses must prepare for, mitigate against, and respond to, often in emergency situations. In much of the planning and practice around terrorism and crisis management, the act of terrorism is the crisis to be managed. While maintaining robust and ready crisis response plans and procedures for terrorist incidents remains paramount, a growing concern today is terrorist and violent extremist actors’ ability to exploit a range of other human-made crises and natural disasters for political, operational, and financial gain. A global climate of upheaval and transition has ripened opportunities for violent and extremist actors across the ideological spectrum to capitalize and expand their reach.

Any discussion on this topic would be remiss without assessing the impact of the global COVID-19 pandemic on international terrorism trends. Since early 2020, states have been grappling with the public health, societal, economic and security consequences of COVID-19, to include a global economic slowdown and a broader trend of diminishing public trust in information and governance. The COVID-19 pandemic shifted government attention away from traditional security threats as they responded to the crises facing their health and economic sectors, while terrorists and extremists took this opportunity to exploit certain communities’ discontent with lockdowns and vaccination mandates. While travel and in-person activities were largely hampered for terrorist and extremist actors, these groups were able to capitalize on shifts to greater online engagement. The security consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic will remain a factor for years to come. States must contend with the ongoing economic impacts and the risks of an uneven economic recovery, while making decisions which may impact resource and personnel allocations across government institutions and activities, impacting counterterrorism budgets. Other areas to watch closely include the impacts of increased polarization, greater online engagement, and rising anti-government sentiment arising from grievances relating to government handling of the pandemic and its effects. States and other security actors should ensure they develop robust lessons-learned on the impact of this global public health crisis on domestic and international terrorism.

An area of utmost concern today among counterterrorism experts is the growth of an increasingly ideologically diverse violent far-right extremist movement, which many experts argue is evolving into transnational phenomenon. A common concept among some far-right groups is accelerationism, a violent extremist strategy aimed at triggering the downfall of current systems of government and society through repeated acts of extreme violence. Within the far-right context, much of the doctrine aims to bring about social collapse in Western societies through violence. However, accelerationists will celebrate and encourage any act of disruption — whether it be social unrest, criminal acts, or even natural disasters — as a blow against the system they oppose. Attention should be paid by security practitioners to ensure that political, economic and humanitarian crises, as well as natural disasters, do not provide far-right extremists and other violent groups with opportunities to exploit for ideological and operational gain.

Further, crises also offer opportunities for violent and extremist actors to demonstrate their value beyond armed action as they help affected communities recover. For example, militia violent extremists like the Oath Keepers – whose founder was recently sentenced to 18 years in prison for his role in attacking the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021 – have spent the past decade responding to natural disasters and organizing disaster relief efforts in the United States. Far-right groups, especially those peddling anti-government narratives, are able to capitalize on crises and disasters to build trust with communities and raise funds. And this issue is not limited to far-right extremists. Over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, jihadist organizations were able to seize similar opportunities through so-called “health-jihad.” Many terrorists, including the Taliban, Hezbollah, and al-Shabaab members, worked to provide health and relief services in lieu of ineffective governments. Through charity, disaster relief, and humanitarian assistance, terrorist and extremist groups are able to acquire and consolidate political legitimacy.

Another concern for both the humanitarian and security sectors is the situation in camps, detention centers, and prisons detaining populations associated with Islamic State. Four years following the loss of the group’s final territorial stronghold in Syria, the international community has still not adequately addressed the challenge of what to do with the men, women and children who were affiliated with the group. There are 53 thousand inhabitants still living in Al-Hol camp (64 percent of whom are children) and 2,500 in Al-Roj camp (66 percent of whom are children), according to UNICEF. The camps present a protracted humanitarian situation with serious security and counterterrorism implications, and the deteriorating conditions are reaching crisis proportions as states continue to equivocate about solutions. Aid agencies have warned about the dire conditions of the camps, and security actors have noted how extremist indoctrination remains rife. Many Western governments have refused to repatriate their nationals from these camps, and some have revoked their citizenships. Besides the human rights criticisms of this process, the current situation also inhibits possibilities for these individuals to face closer investigation and accountability for crimes they may have committed in the so-called caliphate. The repatriations by France and several European states in recent years suggest there is still hope the situation can be resolved; however this remains complicated as some repatriated individuals have not faced any criminal justice procedures and victims groups in some countries have challenged the lack of accountability they face. The squalor of the camps and the unjust treatment of those who were unwillingly dragged into this situation, especially children, fuels violent jihadist narratives of grievance and revenge and provides propaganda and fundraising fodder for the group. Terrorism experts have long warned how this humanitarian situation risks creating an incubator for the next generation of extremists. Prisons have also offered tempting targets for Islamic State, and these prison breaks can release battle-hardened fighters back into the environment.

These disparate examples show how violent extremist groups, individuals, and movements across the ideological spectrum can capitalize on moments of crisis and complexity for opportunistic gain. On the one hand, episodes of violence and crisis form the basis of narratives of impending societal collapse and strategies within some violent far-right ideologies today, notably among accelerationists. On the other hand, public health emergencies, natural disasters, humanitarian crises, and other types of disasters present opportunities for violent and extremist actors to win hearts and minds, delegitimize governments, raise funds, attract recruits, and feed their own propaganda. Contemporary thinking about terrorism and crisis management should include a broader view that assesses how a range of crisis and disaster scenarios may present opportunities to violent non-state actors and their supporters. Greater understanding of this interplay will assist efforts to deny terrorists and extremists the fundraising, propaganda, and legitimacy opportunities they seek in times of crisis.