By Stevie Kiesel, Biodefense PhD Student
While government bureaucracies are lumbering through their response to the COVID-19 pandemic, how are non-state criminal and terrorist organizations’ operations being impacted? Have lockdowns and physical distancing guidelines hindered their ability to recruit, radicalize, and plan and conduct operations, or are these historically flexible and adaptable organizations taking advantage of pandemic conditions? A May 26 Wilson Center event, “Violent Non-State Actors and COVID-19: Challenge or Opportunity?” shed some light on this question.
On the first panel, three experts discussed how transnational criminal organizations have adapted to current conditions. Dr. Duncan Wood, the Director of the Wilson Center’s Mexico Institute, described how cartels have responded to border shutdowns and supply chain issues. Partial border closures and increased police presence to enforce physical distancing orders have made it more difficult to (1) obtain necessary precursor chemicals for drugs like methamphetamine and (2) move drugs north and money south. Despite these disruptions, cartels have been flexible, shifting their transportation method and the drugs they are selling. Now, more shipments are arriving in the U.S. by sea, and fentanyl is becoming even more widely available in the U.S. because supply chain issues reduced the availability of heroin and methamphetamines but not fentanyl.
Eric Olson, a global fellow at the Wilson Center, highlighted an important trend that cartels as well as terrorist groups engage in whenever a state is weakened. In the absence of a state providing social services and security, violent non-state actors (VNSAs) have often stepped in to exploit that void. VNSAs as diverse as Hezbollah, Japanese organized crime network yakuza, Peruvian terrorist group Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path), and the Sinaloa cartel have throughout history provided resources to local communities in an effort to win hearts and minds and increase their influence in a territory. During the pandemic, VNSAs are poised to step in and provide resources and security if the state fails to do so. A botched pandemic response can also erode the legitimacy of the state, creating a vacuum that VNSAs could fill.
George Mason University’s Dr. Louise Shelley predicted that transnational criminal organizations will readily adapt to changes caused by the pandemic. Several characteristics of organized crime will facilitate this adaptation. Organized crime is generally a cash-heavy endeavor, which can be a huge advantage during a crisis. People and small businesses are suffering, and governments’ responses may not be adequate to help people keep their jobs and help small businesses stay afloat during lockdowns. Related to Eric Olson’s point about VNSAs filling vacuums left by state responses to the pandemic, Dr. Shelley argued that criminal organizations, rich in cash, could step in and provide relief to communities. This brings people and businesses under the thumb of the criminal organization, with effects that may not be felt immediately but that represent a fundamental shift of power to criminal organizations.
Dr. Shelley also noted that as transnational criminal organizations are cut off from their traditional supply chains, they will move to the cyber realm, and countries are not prepared to meet this threat. We have already seen a significant rise in child exploitation online as more traditional methods of human trafficking are impacted by lockdowns. The pandemic will also provide new criminal opportunities that can be facilitated online. For example, illicit medical supplies and pharmaceuticals that are newly in demand can easily be sold online, as long as supply chains remain intact. Additionally, there has been a rise in identity theft and other fraudulent activities aimed at stealing state resources intended to provide pandemic relief. The Washington state unemployment fund in particular has experienced a massive problem with identity theft, wherein identities of Washington state residents have been stolen and sold on the dark web. Criminals purchase these identities and use them to file for relief funds. Dr. Shelley argued that the U.S. remains vulnerable to cybercrime because of the decentralized nature of the government and a lack of coordination among relevant agencies.
During the second panel, Deputy Director of the Wilson Center’s Asia Program Michael Kugelman and Wilson Center Middle East Fellow Dr. Marina Ottaway discussed how VNSAs in the Middle East have been impacted by COVID-19. Michael Kugelman continued the conversation about non-state actors providing support to local communities in the absence of a strong state by discussing the Taliban’s activities during COVID-19. The pandemic, he argued, poses a small challenge to the Taliban but offers a larger opportunity to expand their reach. The challenge is that COVID-19 could potentially take out a large number of Taliban fighters, who live in close quarters and who train heavily together in the spring. However, Mr. Kugelman believes this is a minor challenge because of the Taliban’s strong position at the moment: the Taliban controls a sizeable amount of territory, and the U.S. is winding down operations in the region. More likely is that the Taliban uses COVID-19 as an opportunity to win local hearts and minds as the Afghanistan government fumbles its pandemic response. Indeed, the Taliban’s recent public messaging has focused on providing information about the pandemic and assurances that local citizens will be cared for and health care workers will be given access to all Taliban-controlled areas. The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction released a report at the end of April warning that a combination of poor healthcare infrastructure, malnutrition, and ongoing conflicts could lead to a health disaster. If this comes to pass, it will provide an opportunity for the Taliban to provide services and undermine the Afghan government.
Finally, Dr. Ottaway described how the Islamic State believes that because governments are distracted by COVID-19 and afraid of committing troops, now is an opportune time to increase the pace and severity of attacks. This rhetoric has been borne out by escalating attacks in Syria and Iraq since COVID-19 was declared a pandemic, with a 69% increase in ISIS’s armed activities in April 2020. The full impact of COVID-19 may not be known for years after the pandemic ends, but one important space to watch is how groups accustomed to rapidly changing conditions adapt and respond. Where do they see opportunities, and how can governments respond to this new environment?
If you missed this webinar, you can view the recording here.