Commentary – Mass Attacks in Public Spaces: An Assessment by the United States Secret Service

By Stevie Kiesel, Biodefense PhD Student

Locations of Mass Attacks in Public Spaces in the United States, 2019

In 2019, 108 people were killed and 178 injured in 34 mass attacks conducted on US soil. In the middle of the coronavirus pandemic that has already killed 200,000 Americans, this death toll may seem to pale in comparison. However, much like with COVID-19, fairly simple measures could have a significant effect on the death toll. This article reviews recent US Secret Service assessments of mass casualty attacks in public spaces, discusses recommended measures to prevent some attacks, and suggests improvements for future reports.

Since 2017, the Secret Service’s National Threat Assessment Center published an annual report on mass attacks carried out in public or semi-public spaces (2017 report, 2018 report, 2019 report). The Secret Service defines a mass attack as an incident “in which three or more persons, not including the perpetrator, were harmed during a targeted attack in a public or semi-public space.” 2017 saw the highest numbers of deaths and injuries from 28 total mass attacks (147 deaths and 700 injuries). The October 1 shooting at a Las Vegas music festival drew these numbers sharply upward – in that incident alone, 58 were killed and 546 were injured. Additionally, two shooting incidents and two vehicle-ramming incidents in that year caused higher casualties than average for these types of attacks. In contrast, 2018 saw 27 mass attacks with 91 deaths and 107 injuries, and 2018 saw 34 mass attacks with 108 deaths and 178 injuries. In both of these years, the incidents with the highest numbers of casualties involved mass shootings. Figure 1 below shows weapons types used by year.

Figure 1: Breakdown of Weapons Types for 2017, 2018, and 2019

These reports identify important similarities among the attackers, as well as potential indicators that an attack may have been forthcoming. For example, each report highlights how these attacks were very often preceded by a significant stressful event in the attacker’s life, such as divorce, death in the family, unemployment, and/or financial hardship. Additionally, many attackers struggled with substance abuse and/or mental health conditions. Each report found that a majority of attackers elicited concern from others in their life, to the extent that these people felt concerned for their own or others’ safety. Many attackers also had some sort of criminal record; a history of domestic violence was fairly common.

This personalized analysis of the attackers leads to several actionable conclusions to potentially reduce the occurrence of and casualties associated with mass attacks in public spaces. The latest report offers five recommendations:

  1. Establish threat assessment programs for commonly targeted areas, such as schools and workplaces
  2. Enforce existing firearms laws – the majority of mass attacks in the US are carried out with illegally owned firearms
  3. Provide crisis intervention, drug treatment, and mental health treatment
  4. Recognize the risk of crime and violence, based on criminal histories (particularly violent criminal histories)
  5. Encourage reporting of concerning behavior

While these recommendations would likely have some impact, many focus entirely on the individual’s personal situation (recent hardships, stressors, and issues with drugs and mental health) and fail to incorporate the role that extremist ideology can play in many of these attacks. In 2019, FBI Director Christopher Wray highlighted the “evolving and persistent terrorism threat to the homeland,” in which “the greatest threat we face in the homeland emanates from self-radicalized lone actors, of any ideology, who look to attack soft targets with easily accessible weapons.” This depiction is in line with many other threat assessments conducted in recent years.

The 2019 report begins to tackle the issue of ideology, highlighting the rising threat of misogynistic extremism such as the incel movement. However, no other ideologies are discussed here. Also, in this section, the report describes the hyperconnected nature of the internet’s potential to radicalize, allowing “those with fringe or extremist ideologies to converge and promote their beliefs to a wider audience.” The report specifically calls out the message board 8kun as a hub for this type of content, particularly among the far right. Simply mentioning incel ideology without discussing white supremacy, neo-Nazism, and other forms of extremism, and just mentioning 8kun while saying nothing about Telegram, BitChute, and the many other dark corners of the internet where extremists congregate, makes this section seem woefully incomplete, more of a suggestion of areas for future research than an assessment informed by the 34 mass attacks carried out that year.

These annual assessments could be greatly improved by analyzing the attackers’ ideologies, their affiliations (online or in real life) with extremist groups, and their online presence. In particular, clearing up definitional ambiguity around ideological affiliations could provide much needed clarity going forward. Assessing the importance of ideology for each attack is composed of two steps: (1) determining if the perpetrator had any history of association with extremist ideologies and (2) determining whether the extremist ideology had any impact on the attack itself. For example, the 2018 report finds that only two of 27 total attackers were motivated by an ideology: “one was motivated by anti-abortion beliefs while the other was motivated by anti-Semitic beliefs.” But the report also notes that

[W]hile only two of the attackers were primarily motivated by an ideology, nearly one-third of the attackers appeared to have subscribed to a belief system that has previously been associated with violence. Often the attackers’ beliefs were multifaceted and touched on a range of issues, including white supremacy, anti-Semitism, conspiracy theories, sovereign citizens, animal rights, and the incel movement.

The nature of extremism today is multidimensional, decentralized, and highly connected; one attacker may be active in many online extremist communities, including those that glorify mass shooters and seek to gain the next “high score” in terms of fatalities when they conduct their own attacks. For future reports, the Secret Service should determine a methodology for identifying the attackers’ ideological affiliations, as well as the level of impact these ideologies had on the attack itself. Making this information public will provide important context to the rising threat of violent extremism in the US.

Commentary – Captivating Conflagration: Arson as a Terrorist Tactic

By Stevie Kiesel, PhD Student

In 2018, the deadliest, most destructive wildfire in California’s history tore through the state. The Camp Fire killed 85 and caused an estimated $16.5 billion in damage. The towns of Concow and Paradise were nearly completely destroyed. Not even a year later, Australia experienced an uncharacteristically destructive bushfire season that ultimately killed 34 people, burned nearly 50 million acres, and destroyed almost 6,000 buildings. The fires also wrought devastating impacts on the environment, and cleanup costs alone have exceeded $5 billion.

The most extreme terrorist groups aspire to achieve this level of death and destruction. It therefore comes as no surprise that jihadist groups, such as the Islamic State and its affiliates, have touted these fires and others in their propaganda. A video released earlier this month by the Islamic State’s Al-Hayat Media Center describes arson as a highly effective, low-skill attack with great potential for damage and psychological impact, highlighting the California wildfires as an example for how death tolls in large fires “sometimes exceed the number of those lost in major strikes by the mujahideen in which they used guns and explosives.” Voice of Hind, an online magazine published by an Islamic State affiliate in India, has encouraged adherents to use fire as a comparatively simple means of attack to “annihilate the disbelievers.” Jihadist publications and videos have touted the use of fire for years, from the Islamic State publication al-Naba (as well as their now-defunct magazine Rumiyah) to Al Qaeda’s magazine Inspire. In 2019, the Islamic State claimed responsibility for widespread crop fires that caused a great deal of damage in Iraq and Syria.

The use of arson for terrorist purposes is not a new phenomenon, nor is it limited to jihadists. Extremists on the far right and the far left, as well as special interest extremists, have used arson to send political messages for years. In a recent example from April 2020, John Michael Rathbun was charged with attempted arson after trying to use gasoline to start a fire at a Jewish assisted living center in Massachusetts. Rathbun was active on white supremacist internet forums—so active, and so lax about what he was posting, that his attack was discovered after he posted his plans on a public calendar on Telegram. Similarly, in 2019 far-right extremist Tristan Morgan accidentally set himself on fire while attempting to burn down the Exeter Synagogue in the United Kingdom. Despite the tactical errors in these cases, the threat of arson terrorism should be taken seriously. Arson has a long history of being used to terrorize black neighborhoods, businesses, and churches in the United States. Even when no lives are lost, the psychological and economic impact of these attacks can be severe.

Environmental and animal rights extremists also have a history of arson attacks. Arson was particularly appealing to their ideology because they wanted to destroy facilities or machinery that they felt were doing harm, but they did not necessarily want to harm humans or animals. For example, the Earth Liberation Front advocated a tactic called “monkeywrenching,” which refers to sabotage and property destruction against industries that they perceive to be damaging the environment. Common monkeywrenching tactics include arson, sabotaging logging and construction equipment, and tree spiking. The Earth Liberation Front has claimed responsibility for a number of fires, the most destructive being the 1998 fire at a Colorado ski facility, which reportedly caused $12 million in damage. Other special interest groups that have a history of engaging in arson include the Animal Liberation Front (animal rights) and the Coalition to Save the Preserves (environmental protection). Anti-abortion extremists have also conducted arson attacks, though organizationally they would be considered lone wolf attacks rather than attacks affiliated with a specific group.

While these cases demonstrate clear interest and intent to weaponize fire by a wide range of terrorist groups, a more systematic look at arson as a terrorist tactic is possible by using the Global Terrorism Database developed by the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) at the University of Maryland. This database, whose information is publicly available from 1970 through 2018, captures arson as a unique weapon type. The four charts below show some interesting trends about arson use throughout history.

Charts compiled by author using data from the START Global Terrorism Database.

*Note that for Chart 4 (Top 15 Groups Using Arson, 1970-2018), the top result was an unknown group (n=1,792) followed by the groups listed in the chart.

Arson is an attractive tactic for many types of terrorist groups. Fire can be incredibly destructive in terms of lives lost, property and economic damages, and psychological impact. Arson is a low-cost and low-skill tactic, and elements of nature (such as high winds) can be used as a force multiplier. Additionally, arson can function as just one element of a complex attack, with a potential for “ambushes (luring), intentional depletion of resources (diversion), and follow-on or secondary attacks.” Large fires are also incredibly appealing to terrorist groups with apocalyptic or accelerationist ideologies, such as jihadist and extreme right-wing groups.

The COVID-19 pandemic has already had a significant impact on terrorism. Because of ongoing public safety measures and many people’s discomfort with crowded areas at the moment, typical soft targets for terrorist attacks are not as plentiful as before the pandemic. Arson may become a more attractive method to terrorists during this time because fires can drive people out of their homes and, much like a virus, once started, fire can spread far and leave devastation in its path. Another worrying development that has accelerated during the pandemic is the rise and increased reach of conspiracy theories. These theories can be incredibly radicalizing, particularly when people are spending more time at home and online while suffering anxiety over the pandemic and the economy. One example of a conspiracy theory whose adherents have committed arson attacks: the theory that 5G cellphone towers are somehow responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic. This theory has led to more than 70 arson attacks on cell phone towers, which can put people’s lives at risk if the towers are damaged and access to emergency services is disrupted. Such attacks on critical infrastructure have not gone unnoticed, particularly on white supremacist messaging boards. As COVID-19 forces terrorists to adapt, the potential for arson attacks should not be ignored.

Commentary – COVID-19 Data and Modeling: Applications and Limitations

By Stevie Kiesel, Biodefense PhD Student

Did you know that since 1999 data has shown a strong correlation between the amount of crude oil the US imports from Norway and the number of drivers killed in collisions with railway trains? When the US imports more oil, more drivers are killed in these collisions. Don’t take my word for it, the proof is in this chart, backed by data from the Department of Energy and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention!

This correlation, of course, is just a coincidence between two unrelated variables. Even though the source data is legitimate, correlation in this case does not equal causation. This image comes from a website called Spurious Correlations, which parses publicly available data to show these types of meaningless, but visually captivating, graphics.

Analyzing data helps us better understand so many questions about the world, but data can also be misinterpreted or intentionally misused to promote a particular agenda. The ways that data can be misrepresented are virtually endless, from a misleading y-axis to inappropriate scaling to cherry-picking what data to include. For an egregious example of bad chart-making, take a look at this comparison of prevention services and abortions conducted by Planned Parenthood, presented by former Utah Representative Jason Chaffetz in 2015.

The Congressman explained his chart by saying it shows “the reduction in breast exams and…the increase in abortions.” And while those general trends may be accurate, in what universe is 935,573 cancer screenings a smaller number than 327,000 abortions? This is the kind of visual trickery you can get up to when you decide a y-axis isn’t necessary. The chart below shows the same data plotted in a more traditional (and accurate) way:

Politicians, media organizations, your uncle on Facebook – anyone can manipulate data and create a snazzy graphic to drive home their particular message. With the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, such data skewing can be particularly dangerous, obscuring important trends and leading to counterproductive policy decisions. Such is the case even when bad visuals are not malicious. Take for example this visual from the Arkansas Department of Health, which is trying to make some kind of point about COVID-19 cases and preexisting health conditions:

The choice to present the data as semi-circles is curious – it is assumed, but not stated, that these percentages are out of 100. Plotting these statistics on a bar graph, perhaps with a y-axis that goes from 0 to 10% rather than 0 to 100%, would allow readers to see more nuanced differences between these conditions. These graphics also lack the “so what.” A case refers to a person who is presumptively or confirmed positive for COVID-19. A comparison of the cases, hospitalizations, and deaths among the various conditions would provide much more useful insights about how other health issues impact the severity of the disease and a patient’s likelihood of surviving it.

Fortunately, while some in our government are misreading or misrepresenting COVID-19 data, other institutions are working to gather and analyze data in a systematic and defensible way. Toward this end, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) recently published a Technology Assessment GAO-20-635SP, COVID-19 Data Quality and Considerations for Modeling and Analysis. This assessment was undertaken to provide policymakers with context on the proper use and limitations of COVID-19 data and models. This report is a useful explanatory tool for understanding how data is gathered, aggregated, contextualized, presented, and updated.

 The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) relies on public health surveillance data that originate with health care providers, hospitals, and laboratories and then are reported up to the CDC through local public health agencies and state health departments. Reporting requirements are established at state and local levels, and notification to the CDC is voluntary. A standardized case definition for COVID-19 was not developed until April 5, 2020. Because of these factors as well as local variations (availability of tests and testing centers, contact tracing capabilities, etc.), data consistency is a challenge. Data completeness is another big challenge causing an undercount of the true number of cases (see page 7 of the GAO report). Lack of resources, asymptomatic or mild cases not seeking medical care, and timeliness of test results can all present challenges to obtaining complete COVID-19 data.

Another challenge comes from the failure to systematically collect demographic data. Local and state reporting requirements for this information were inconsistent until June 4, 2020, when the Department of Health and Human Service released new guidance that requires additional demographic data (race, ethnicity, age, and sex) to be reported with COVID-19 test results beginning August 1, 2020. Therefore, even though preliminary evidence suggests demographic disparities in the case load and severity of COVID-19, these data have only begun to be systematically provided for analysis.

The GAO report also provides helpful guidance on when to use certain measures and certain types of analyses. For example, this table shows when to use data on cases versus hospitalizations versus deaths:

And this table highlights common methods for contextualizing data, when each method is most appropriate, and their respective limitations:

The report finishes with several recommendations to improve data collection, analysis, and reporting. First, researchers should examine deaths due to other or unspecified respiratory diseases (including pneumonia and the flu) during the pandemic to determine if some COVID-19 deaths had been miscategorized by analyzing whether higher-than-expected number of non-COVID-19 respiratory deaths were recorded during the pandemic. Second, researchers should examine higher-than-expected deaths from all causes during the pandemic (also called “excess deaths”), also to help address the issue of potential undercount of COVID-19 deaths. Third, in the longer term when data become available, researchers should compare higher-than-expected numbers of deaths from other causes to deaths from COVID-19 to get a better sense of the magnitude of deaths caused by COVID-19. And fourth, while efforts to improve forecasting model accuracy should continue, policymakers and researchers must understand that “during the outbreak of a new disease, models can be most helpful early in the response, but are most limited by a lack of data. Later in the outbreak, more data become available, but there is less time to implement an optimal response for ending the outbreak” (GAO report, page 26).

Commentary – Event: Advancing Biosecurity in the Age of COVID

By Stevie Kiesel, Biodefense PhD Student

The response to COVID-19 has exposed a world that is largely unprepared to deal with emerging and novel biothreats, whether the outbreak is natural or intentional. The Global Health Security Network brought together two biosecurity experts to discuss how current projects to improve global health security can adapt during the pandemic and what changes the world needs to make to improve biosafety and biosecurity. Dr. Rebecca Katz moderated while also providing insight from her position as the Director of the Center for Global Health Science and Security at Georgetown University Medical Center, while Dr. Beth Cameron provided her perspective as the Nuclear Threat Initiative’s (NTI) Vice President for Global Biological Policy and Programs. If you missed the livestream on 15 July, you can watch it on YouTube here

As the novel coronavirus emerged and began spreading across the globe, Dr. Cameron was working on a project to strengthen biosecurity and biosafety across five regional centers in Africa, leveraging a strong relationship with the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention that helped produce significant improvements in national public health capacity throughout the region. When COVID-19 was declared a pandemic and travel was severely restricted, this team was preparing a series of workshops on laboratory biosafety and biosecurity. However, they took this opportunity to revamp the trainings to include information about biosafety in laboratories working with the novel coronavirus and to make them available asynchronously online. Such flexibility is a hallmark of a strong and agile institution, and creating new ways of collaborating and learning reduces barriers to access.

Another example of thinking outside the box to provide timely, useful, easily accessible information to policymakers and the public is COVID Local, a project Drs. Cameron and Katz both work on to produce a decision framework to support leaders trying to safely open their community. This project has so far resulted in both US and international guides full of checklists, metrics, and key objectives to ensure a safe reopening informed by the best available science.

Drs. Cameron and Katz had numerous suggestions for how to improve biosafety and biosecurity efforts, some inspired by lessons learned from COVID-19 and others for which they have advocated for years. Particularly relevant today is the need to support institutions such as the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC). While these institutions should never be above reproach, they should not be abandoned with no plan for addressing the purpose they served. Depoliticizing these institutions, conducting lessons learned reviews, and implementing evidence-based changes will serve the US and the international community much better.

That being said, current institutions leave an important gap that should be addressed. The BWC focuses on deliberate misuse of biological agents, while the WHO is responsible for natural outbreaks. However, no entity in the international system tracks emerging biosecurity risks. Such an entity could add a great deal of value by developing norms and standards for biosecurity research and soliciting buy-in from the private sector, academia, and non-governmental organizations so that these standards represent a wide range of perspectives and are more likely to be adhered to.

A final suggestion was informed by the initial confusion (since dispelled) that the novel coronavirus represented an act of biological warfare. Dr. Cameron suggested that a mechanism must be created to investigate the circumstances of potentially suspicious outbreaks (or as Dr. Cameron calls them, “high consequence events of unknown biological origins”). This mechanism must be depoliticized and led by a coalition of countries so that it does not appear punitive or politically motivated. This concept is similar to the idea of a challenge inspection, found in the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). If a CWC member country suspects another member country of non-compliance with the CWC, they can request a challenge inspection, which is undertaken in a short amount of time after the request is submitted. The request must contain evidence for suspicions of non-compliance. Dr. Cameron believes that the concept of a challenge inspection is useful for investigating suspicious outbreaks, but the requirement for evidence of nefarious activity should not apply. Investigations of suspicious outbreaks should not be accusatory but should attempt to fully understand the epidemiological origins of an outbreak so that the appropriate action can be taken. The details of such a mechanism, as well as which entity would have responsibility for the mechanism, need further development.

This hour-long discussion only scratched the surface of the topic of biosecurity and biosafety. And while the webinar attendees were from many countries of the world, more global cooperation is essential to improving biosafety and biosecurity in any meaningful way. To that end, the NTI and the Global Health Security Network are sponsoring the Fourth Annual Next Generation for Biosecurity Competition. Teams of researchers are encouraged to work with colleagues across the globe to answer the following question: “What are technical and/or political actions global health security community stakeholders should take either nationally or internationally to reduce biosecurity-related risks associated with COVID-19 and future outbreaks/pandemics?” While this webinar certainly had a number of great ideas to answer this question, COVID-19 has exposed a great deal about the current status of biosecurity risks, and there is much to be said on the topic.

Commentary – Legislation to Watch: The Global Health Security and Diplomacy Act of 2020

By Stevie Kiesel, Biodefense PhD Student

In 2013, before becoming Donald Trump’s Secretary of Defense, retired General Jim Mattis testified to the Senate Armed Services Committee that “if [the US doesn’t] fund the State Department fully, then I need to buy more ammunition.” Mattis went on to say that “the more we put into the State Department’s diplomacy, hopefully the less we have to put into a military budget as we deal with the outcome of an apparent American withdrawal from the international scene.” Though Mattis was expressing worry about an American withdrawal during the Obama administration, the US’s failure to lead (or indeed, even muster an adequate domestic response) a COVID-19 response also demonstrates the downsides of an isolated America. From the first emergence of the novel coronavirus, the US response has been confused, clouded by other interests, and continually divorced from scientific reality. Diplomacy and coordinated international action have taken a backseat precisely when they are needed most, in the realm of global health security. However, Senator James Risch (R-ID) has introduced a bill hoping to clarify and improve the US’s global health security and diplomacy objectives.

Senate Bill 3829, introduced in May 2020 and currently titled the Global Health Security and Diplomacy Act of 2020, aims to “advance the global health security and diplomacy objectives of the United States, improve coordination among the relevant Federal departments and agencies implementing United States foreign assistance for global health security, and more effectively enable partner countries to strengthen and sustain resilient health systems and supply chains with the resources, capacity, and personnel required to prevent, detect, mitigate, and respond to infectious disease threats before they become pandemics.” The bill endorses a “One Health” approach to global health security, which brings together stakeholders from the local to the global level, across all relevant sectors, to achieve optimal health outcomes by recognizing health implications inherent in the interconnected nature of today’s world.

As currently written, the bill calls for several actions to meet its objectives. First, the President should maintain a comprehensive Global Health Security Strategy with clear objectives and evaluation mechanisms. The bill acknowledges that the 2019 Global Health Security Strategy is sufficient for 2021, but also lays out a framework for improvements in the next iteration of the Strategy. Second, the bill establishes a new position within the State Department to coordinate US government activities to advance global health diplomacy and security overseas. Third, the bill recognizes the importance of supporting partner country efforts to strengthen their own public health systems and supply chains, which would foster outbreak detection earlier in a disease’s progression.

Fourth, the bill calls for “accelerating progress under the United States Global Health Security Strategy, the Global Health Security Agenda, the World Health Organization (WHO) International Health Regulations, and other relevant frameworks.” Unfortunately this may pose a bit of a challenge now that the US has begun the process of withdrawing from the WHO. Going forward, this bill should be modified to address how to adhere to the spirit of the International Health Regulations, even if the US is no longer a member of the WHO.

Finally, the bill contains several provisions regarding funding. It calls for enhanced support for public-private partnerships on research, development, and deployment of diagnostic tools and medical countermeasures – a sound strategy in line with other US government agencies that should not falter once we feel like we are safely past the current pandemic. Section 107 of the bill authorizes $3 billion for fiscal years 2021-2025 to advance the Global Health Security Strategy, while Section 201 authorizes the Secretary of State to begin negotiations with the World Bank or the International Development Association to establish a Trust Fund for Global Health Security. This fund, overseen by member states who are both donors and participants, would provide resources for a wide range of initiatives related to global health security, pandemic preparedness, and infectious disease control. Such a fund would provide further incentives for countries to strengthen their public health infrastructure, reducing the likelihood of pandemic disease by improving detection and response capabilities at the source. 

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a hearing to discuss this bill with experts from the Department of State, the US Agency for International Development (USAID), and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) on June 18, 2020. All three of the men who provided testimony reiterated how quickly infectious diseases can go global and how strengthening indigenous public health systems will go a long way toward lessening the impact of future outbreaks. They also stressed the importance of transparency, accountability, and clearly defined objectives and metrics, themes that are present throughout the bill.

Many times, this hearing returned to the question of the WHO’s role and what shortcomings the pandemic exposed. Chairman Risch argued that the WHO has an extremely important role, but this pandemic revealed significant weakness when trying to respond to a fast-moving international crisis. On the other hand, Garrett Grigsby, who testified as the Director of the Office of Global Affairs at HHS, repeatedly returned to the theme that the WHO’s failure to call out the Chinese government early in the crisis represented an egregious error, repeating a mistake made during the 2002 outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS).

Now that the US has announced its intention to withdraw from the WHO, what country will step in to take the United States’ place as a heavyweight player? Senator Murphy (D-CT) expressed concern that this vacuum of leadership presents an opportunity for China to gain a great deal of influence, nixing any potential US push to improve secrecy around infectious disease outbreaks. However, Senator Barrasso (R-WY) argued that withdrawing from the WHO gives the United States leverage to place conditions on their return, allowing the US to push harder for transparency measures. Time will tell if the withdrawal was a tempered tactic to gain more leverage for reform, or simply a temper tantrum. Until then, it will be interesting to see how the language of Senate Bill 3829 changes, and indeed whether it goes anywhere at all.

Commentary – State Department Releases the 2019 Country Reports on Terrorism


By Stevie Kiesel, Biodefense PhD Student and Associate Editor of the Pandora Report

The US State Department’s Bureau of Counterterrorism releases an annual report on terrorism across the globe. The 2019 report was just released, highlighting successes and persistent threats associated with international and domestic terrorism in nearly 100 countries.  The report begins with a discussion of notable successes in the counterterrorism landscape, including the destruction of the Islamic State’s (ISIS) “caliphate” in Iraq and Syria; the military operation that killed the Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi; the military operation that killed rising leader al Qaeda leader Hamza bin Laden; the “maximum pressure” campaign against the Iranian regime; a multi-country effort to designate the entirety of Hizballah as a terrorist group; and the repatriation, prosecution, and rehabilitation of ISIS fighters and family members.

            The report then identifies the persistent terrorist threats that will dominate counterterrorism policy in 2020. These threats can be divided into four categories: (1) the Islamic State’s ability to build global networks, (2) continued terrorism sponsored by Iran and carried out by its proxies, (3) al Qaeda’s ability to adapt, and (4) the rising threat from what the United States calls “racially or ethnically motivated terrorism” (REMT). These four themes are expanded upon in the country reports, summarized below.

Africa

            The majority of terrorist activity in Africa occurs in East Africa, the Sahel, and the Lake Chad region. Major groups active in this region include al-Shabaab (East Africa, especially Somalia), ISIS-West Africa (Lake Chad), Boko Haram (Lake Chad), Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM) (Sahel), ISIS-Greater Sahara (Sahel), and Allied Democratic Forces (Democratic Republic of the Congo). Many of these groups are aligned with ISIS, though al-Shabaab and JNIM are al Qaeda affiliates. A big challenge in Africa is that terrorist groups exploit local conflicts between ethnic groups. In Nigeria, for example, terrorist groups manipulated existing tensions between Fulani and Peuhl ethnic groups as a means of recruiting supporters and giving themselves an operational advantage.

            Eleven African countries experienced terrorist attacks in 2019: Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Mali, Mozambique, Niger, Nigeria, Somalia, and Tanzania. Common terrorist tactics include the use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs), ambushes, abductions/kidnappings, targeted killings, and suicide bombings. Securing porous borders is a common struggle for these countries in their counterterrorism efforts. The report also points out that some countries have used counterterrorism legislation to suppress anti-government criticism and other political speech. Seven African countries experienced no terrorism in 2019: Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Mauritania, Senegal, South Africa, and Uganda.

Middle East and North Africa

            With territorial losses in 2019, ISIS undertook more clandestine actions and continued expanding its transnational reach. ISIS and its affiliates were particularly active in Libya, the Arabian Peninsula, the Sinai Peninsula, Tunisia, and Yemen; Egypt saw a significant rise in the number of attacks. The US focused specific attention on airstrikes against ISIS targets in Libya. Al Qaeda was also active in this region, where they maintain safe havens in Egypt, Libya, Syria, and Yemen. Many actors see the turmoil in Yemen as an opportunity to exploit existing conflict for their own gain, much like in Africa. The devastating conditions in Yemen have created a pool of impoverished citizens susceptible to radicalization.

East Asia and the Pacific

            The report commends governments in East Asia and the Pacific for their regional cooperation on counterterrorism, which has resulted in a high number of terrorism-related arrests and prosecutions and improved cooperation on border and aviation security gaps. However, the region was not without its share of deadly attacks, perhaps most notably the Christchurch, New Zealand white supremacist attack against Muslims that killed 51. Australia also assessed the threat from REMT (which the Australian government calls “extreme right-wing terrorism”) to be increasing, though Islamist extremism currently poses a higher threat. Islamist extremists conducted a number of attacks elsewhere throughout this region, particularly the Philippines and Indonesia. Common tactics used include IEDs, small arms, and suicide bombings – new phenomenon this year in the Philippines. While other countries, such as Malaysia, experienced no attacks, there is still a danger of these countries being used as transit hubs for extremists. Additionally, Thailand experienced several attacks from domestic ethno-nationalist terrorists in its southern region. Finally, the report calls out China for using counterterrorism as a pretext to target political opponents and religious minorities, a trend also seen in Africa.

South and Central Asia

            Terrorist violence in South and Central Asia is characterized by insurgent attacks in Jammu and Kashmir, al Qaeda continuing operations from remote safe havens in the region, and “aggressive and coordinated” attacks by ISIS affiliates. Interestingly, in 2019, attacks by ISIS (particularly in Afghanistan) did not follow their typical seasonal pattern of reaching peak levels during the summer fighting season, then declining. Instead, levels rose during the summer months and remained high. Common terrorist tactics used during this period consist of IEDs (including vehicle-borne) and suicide bombings. In addition to these acts of international terrorism, Nepal also experienced several incidents of domestic terrorist attacks on infrastructure and government/political locations surrounding the 2019 elections. These attacks have been attributed to a political faction known as Biplav.

Europe

            Europe saw two trends in terrorism in 2019: (1) Islamist terrorists conducted operationally simple attacks against symbolic targets and (2) REMT recruiting, plotting, and operational activities increased significantly. I believe global efforts against REMTs are currently too disjointed to be effective, and policymakers fundamentally misunderstand the REMT threat. Although many European countries have acknowledged and begun trying to counter this threat, much more work needs to be done to coordinate these efforts. Multiple countries identified a heightened terrorist threat to migrants, refugees, Muslims, and Jews in particular.

Notable Islamist attacks in Europe in 2019 include the May shrapnel bomb detonated by an ISIS supporter in Lyon, France, as well as a number of thwarted plots. Notable REMT attacks in Europe in 2019 include an October shooting targeting Muslims in Bayonne, France; the murder of German politician Walter Lübcke by a neo-Nazi; the Halle synagogue shooting during Yom Kippur; and the attempted mass shooting at a mosque in Oslo, as well as a number of thwarted plots.

Western Hemisphere

            Islamist extremists continue to be active in South America, particularly the Tri-Border Area of Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay. Regional groups such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), Shining Path, and the National Liberation Army (ELN) are also active, taking advantage of porous borders and partnering with transnational criminal organizations. While most countries in the Western hemisphere experienced no terrorist attacks during 2019, Colombia, Mexico, Paraguay, Peru, and Venezuela experienced attacked from regional terrorist groups. A final trend to watch is ISIS recruiting in the Caribbean, particularly Trinidad and Tobago, which has seen a greater than average number of its citizens move to Iraq and Syria to fight for ISIS.  

Commentary – Reopening Community Labs in a Time of COVID: Balancing the Needs and Risks of DIYBio Spaces During a Global Pandemic

By Yong-Bee Lim, Biodefense PhD Candidate

Introduction

COVID-19 has devastated much of the world. As of July 1, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported that there have been over 10.3 million confirmed cases of this novel coronavirus with over 500,000 deaths, a mortality rate of nearly 5%. The United States alone accounts for roughly 25% of global cases and deaths – a fact that has done significant damage to the U.S. reputation in the international community.

One method that countries have used to address these high case numbers is to slow the infection rate amongst the general population. This method utilizes a two-pronged approach that is colloquially known as “flattening the curve.” One prong leverages communication platforms to encourage and inform best practices for citizens, such as washing hands frequently with proper technique, self-isolating when one is sick or suspects illness, and avoiding other people whenever possible. The second prong takes more aggressive action to limit the potential spread of the disease, such as instituting stay-at-home orders, moving education to online formats, and shutting down business operations where people congregate.

In the United States, many states are now trying to re-open their businesses and public spaces with varying levels of success. A group that is taking a more cautious approach to re-opening is Do-It-Yourself Biology (DIYBio) community labs – community science spaces where people come together to explore the life sciences, educate others in everything from scientific theory to lab skills, empower individuals to pursue communal or individual projects, and engage in biotech-driven entrepreneurial ventures.

On June 17th, the MIT Media Lab hosted a timely webinar to discuss Reopening Community Labs in a Time of COVID – Balancing the Needs and Risks of DIYBio Spaces During a Global Pandemic. This webinar brought together a diverse panel of experts from community labs, the life sciences, and public health to discuss the unique challenges and opportunities community labs have faced during the pandemic, the current state of the disease throughout the United States, and considerations and recommendations for reopening.

The panelists included Maria Chavez, the Executive Director and Board Member of BioCurious (a community lab based in Santa Clara, CA: https://biocurious.org/); Dr. Angela Armendariz, Director of Operations and Lab Manager at Genspace (a community lab based in Brooklyn, NY: https://www.genspace.org/); Dr. Thomas Burkett, Founder, former Executive Director, and current Board Chair at the Baltimore UnderGround Science Space [BUGSS] (a community lab based in Baltimore, MD of which I am also a member: https://bugssonline.org/); and Dr. Saskia Popescu, who works as an infectious disease epidemiologist and infection Preventionist in Arizona (and is a proud alum of the Biodefense PhD program). I served as the moderator for the event.

COVID-19 Opportunities and Challenges in the DIYBio Community Lab Ecosystem

Community labs face many obstacles even during normal times. Panelists highlighted the overall negative perception of community labs outside of the DIYBio ecosystem: that these labs could be irresponsible or malicious, and could accidentally or inadvertently cause harm within the larger communities they operate in. This perception, plus a sense of responsibility for the communities that they live in, were the main reasons why many community labs shuttered their spaces even before they were legally required to do so.

Closing down the labs created difficulties of their own. Chavez noted that BioCurious depends significantly on entrepreneurs who use the lab as an incubator space, complete with lab equipment, bench space, and office space. The loss of this income was significant over the course of two months. Chavez was happy to report, however, that BioCurious would resume its operations as an incubator space once California begins reopening, while keeping the lab closed to other potential users. Armendariz echoed these sentiments of financial hardship – many community labs run on shoe-string budgets, and the fact that Genspace maintains paid staff means that it consumes significantly more capital than the average community lab. In terms of being able to run community projects, Burkett highlighted the Inner Harbor DNA Barcoding Project  as an example of how BUGSS was very fortunate to have a number of community lab projects that are mostly at the discussion and analysis stage; community projects at BUGSS would have ground to a halt if they required lab work.

However, community labs have learned to adapt to these hardships. All three panelists noted that their community labs had pivoted toward online formats to continue providing resources and helping educate others in a remote capacity. Some examples of remote community lab activities include convening expert panels to discuss the promise and challenges of vaccine development and clinical trials, making DIY disinfectants, discussing health inequities related to insulin access, and being a resource for the public to ask questions about science.

The State of the COVID in the United States

Popescu highlighted how the pandemic has essentially split America into two. There is one America where people are trying to return to a sense of normalcy, including going out to public spaces, eating at restaurants, and having large gatherings for everything from personal parties to political rallies. However, she noted that this America stands in stark contrast to the other America that she sees unfolding: one where the United States is experiencing significant upticks in COVID-19 cases.

She partially attributed the surge in cases to poor implementation of guidance related to reopening – states that chose to open rapidly despite the public health guidance have now erased all gains achieved through the earlier implementation of social distancing measures. This issue is also exacerbated by poor communication about cases; just because a state or community is reopening does not necessarily mean that there are no cases of COVID-19. This has unfortunate repercussions for public spaces as, most likely, this increases the likelihood that states will have to close everything down again to try and contain new outbreaks of COVID-19.

In addition, Popescu noted that the pandemic is exposing gaps in the nation’s preparedness against large-scale biological events. Hospital supplies have dwindled for essential personal protective equipment (PPE) including masks, gowns, and gloves. While these supplies have gotten significant attention in the COVID-19 discourse, Popescu pointed out that disinfectants are also in short supply. She stated that resupplying with bleach could help deal with the disinfectant issue, but that bleach also has the unfortunate effect of degrading medical equipment, lab equipment, and PPE.

Considerations and Recommendations for Reopening

While the situation in the United States is very troubling, Popescu noted that the national picture of COVID-19 does not necessarily reflect what is happening at the local level. For instance, the situation in Arizona may be quite different from the situation in the state of Virginia. Therefore, one recommendation she offered to the DIYBio community is to keep track of local news concerning COVID-19 cases, because the risks of reopening may be different depending on where the lab is located in the United States.

Popescu also highlighted that labs are inherently difficult to open given how people operate in close quarters in such spaces. The panelists all agreed with this, saying that community labs function as social spaces and education spaces where people congregate to learn, so lab work sometimes brings people less than 6 inches away from each other. To ameliorate these concerns, Popescu recommended that community labs:

  1. Build a plan to address safety measures to prevent infections and response measures in the event of a potential positive case of COVID-19 emerges within the community lab community
  2. Encourage and build a culture of transparency in the community lab space
  3. Be careful of COVID-19 snake-oil salesmen: products that claim to address COVID-19 concerns that seem “too good to be true” probably are
  4. Evaluate workflow to minimize potential transmission, including minimizing the number of people in the space, minimizing the length of time people work together, increasing the distance between people, decreasing high-energy activities like yelling, and being mindful of the type of environment that community labs operate in
  5. Be mindful of potential vulnerabilities, like removing masks in break rooms.
  6. Retrain personnel and users in safety protocols and safe lab practices
  7. Clean spaces regularly and, if in a rented space, find out who is responsible for making sure the space is cleaned
  8. Be flexible – as circumstances change, be able to change the lab’s actions, protocols, and procedures to keep up-to-date with the latest guidance from public health authorities

Conclusion

Reopening a community space while COVID-19 cases continue to rise is a path potentially fraught with peril. However, DIYBio community labs are committed to continuing their mission of engaging the public in science while they proactively limit access to their physical spaces to help their communities “flatten the curve.” As these spaces consider reopening, they are building bridges and broadening their ecosystem to get advice from public health experts and others to find ways to reopen and operate in responsible ways.

It is clear the discussion and recommendations between community lab leaders and public health can be applied in many other contexts. View the event in its entirety with additional insightful comments throughout the webinar here.

Promising COVID-19 Therapeutics: From Remdesivir to Human Convalescent Plasma

By Stevie Kiesel, Biodefense PhD Student

The constant flood of headlines decrying the US response to COVID-19 paints a bleak picture. From muddled messages at many levels of government to failures at ramping up contact tracing, from the breakdown in procuring enough personal protective equipment to a cultural resistance to wearing face masks, the US is rightly coming under scrutiny for its efforts to recover from the human and economic toll of this pandemic. But among the barrage of bad news are promising stories that are often overlooked. To draw attention to two potential safe and effective therapies for COVID-19, the American Society for Microbiology held a virtual briefing titled “From Remdesivir to Human Convalescent Plasma: Understanding COVID-19 Therapeutic Development.” Dr. Mark Denison from Vanderbilt University Medical Center discussed his work on two antiviral therapeutics, while Dr. Arturo Casadevall of the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health reviewed his work on convalescent plasma therapies.

            Dr. Denison covered two antivirals that have so far shown promising results against COVID-19: remdesivir and EIDD-2801. Remdesivir was originally developed to treat Ebola Virus Disease (EVD), and while its effectiveness against EVD was limited, it did appear promising against coronavirus diseases such as SARS and MERS in animal studies. Both remdesivir and EIDD-2801 are nucleoside analogs that interfere with viral RNA synthesis. Viruses must enter a cell and replicate in order to survive. Once inside a cell, the virus will undergo translation and process proteins, replicate itself within the cell (what Dr. Denison calls “making virus factories”), copy the virus RNA genome, and then assemble and release the new virus to continue spreading throughout the host. These nucleoside analogs interrupt the process of copying the virus’ RNA genome.

            In addition to their mechanism of action, these antivirals have other important similarities. Both potentially inhibit multiple coronaviruses (more study is needed to confirm); both have been proven to prevent disease and lessen disease severity when used early (in animal models); and both have been declared safe for human use. However, remdesivir is given intravenously, while EIDD-2801 is an oral drug. Options for antivirals given in multiple administration routes is important because while remdesivir may be given intravenously to patients in more critical condition in the hospital, EIDD-2801 can be prescribed for treatment at home. Both antivirals are available for human trials; EIDD-2801 is currently undergoing clinical testing, while remdesivir has been approved and provided for use in certain areas. Obviously, supply will outpace demand for these types of treatments for some time.

            Dr. Casadevall then reviewed his work on the National COVID-19 Convalescent Plasma Project. Convalescent plasma is the liquid in the blood that holds blood cells; it can be obtained from donors through standard blood transfusion practices. Plasma from recovered patients contains antibodies that can neutralize a virus. For example, a recovered COVID-19 patient would donate their blood, and the virus-neutralizing antibodies found in their plasma would be extracted to make a therapy that can be used for prophylaxis (shortly after exposure to the coronavirus to prevent the virus taking hold) or therapeutically (to lessen the symptoms and/or duration of illness in a COVID-19 patient).

Convalescent plasma treatment has a long history of treating various diseases, such as the 1918 influenza epidemic, polio, mumps, measles, Argentine hemorrhagic fever, SARS, and MERS. We have learned that plasma can be an effective therapy for infectious diseases, particularly when administered early and in sufficient quantities for the particular agent being targeted. Dr. Casadevall believed early in the outbreak that convalescent plasma therapies had promise, and on March 1 he published an op-ed to bring attention to this possibility. Research into convalescent plasma therapies for COVID-19 soon picked up, and by March 27 the first US patients were treated with this therapy in Houston, Texas. Shortly after, the FDA expanded access to convalescent plasma treatment for COVID-19 patients, and by mid-April more than 1,000 medical centers offered this treatment option. Today, over 2,500 centers do so. China, Italy, Spain, and the United Kingdom have also seen success with convalescent plasma treatments. Italy, for example, has reported a 50% reduction in mortality in COVID-19 patients treated with convalescent plasma therapy when administered before admittance to an intensive care unit. Additional data from other countries will be made available in the coming weeks. Although the safety and efficacy of this treatment is not yet proven, Dr. Casadevall argues that there are positive signs: historical data, theoretical support based on antibody action, and early data during the pandemic.

Both Dr. Denison and Dr. Casadevall highlighted the likelihood that COVID-19 represents the new normal in emerging infectious diseases. Scientists have discovered a great number of coronaviruses in bats that could make the jump from bats to humans just as COVID-19 did. To combat this threat, research should be undertaken now to better understand zoonotic viruses and to develop antivirals that are broadly effective against coronaviruses. According to Dr. Denison, antiviral development should have several goals: a variety of routes of administration (oral, inhalation, and intravenous); a high barrier to resistance; safety; stability; scalability; and affordability. While COVID-19 has taught a great many lessons on how the US and countries around the world can improve their pandemic preparedness, this webinar highlighted the important research that must remain a priority not just at the height of the pandemic but as the world moves forward.

Viruses and Violence: How COVID-19 Has Impacted Extremism

By Stevie Kiesel, Biodefense PhD Student

It has become a cliché to point out the massive scale of change being wrought by COVID-19. From the toll in human lives to economic hardship to the impact on mental health, life has changed immensely since earlier this year. There are so many questions about how we recover and what changes are permanent. Even as COVID-19 looms as a threat to global health, other security issues cannot be overlooked. Therefore, I will examine how extremist groups understand and exploit the pandemic and how their operations have changed because of it. In April 2020, the Tony Blair Institute acknowledged that “extremist groups are beginning to recognize the scale of the COVID-19 pandemic, seeing opportunities to exploit fears, exacerbate tensions and mobilize supporters while government are occupied with trying to address COVID-19.” Extremists across the ideological spectrum have incorporated the pandemic into their messaging and their operations, though groups have differed on just what COVID-19 means and how to best exploit the pandemic and its resultant unrest.

Jihadist groups have primarily seen the pandemic as an opportunity to regain territory and expand their influence while governments are consumed with pandemic response and a rapidly deteriorating economic situation, according to European Union Counter-Terrorism Coordinator Gilles de Kerchove. However, there has been one incident of a jihadist plot to use the coronavirus as a biological weapon. Two men were arrested in Tunisia for encouraging men infected with COVID-19 to gain access to Tunisian security forces and cough, sneeze, or spit on them. One man admitted that he attempted to carry out this plan, but he was thwarted by security measures. There have also been isolated incidents of discussion about intentionally spreading coronavirus, either with live vectors or corpses, but overall COVID-19’s main operational impact on jihadist groups appears to be the opportunity it presents to strike at government forces while their resources are already stretched thin.

Far-right extremists (FREs) have “gone much further in directly exploiting the COVID-19 pandemic.” For example, FREs on social media have suggested that anyone who becomes infected with COVID-19 should attempt to spread the virus at synagogues, law enforcement offices and other government buildings, public transportation, retail stores, and neighborhoods with high minority populations. Suggested methods of spreading the virus include coughing, sneezing, and spitting on people or inanimate objects (like door handles and elevator buttons) and collecting bodily fluids in a spray bottle then spraying the fluids on frequently touched objects.

FREs have also viewed stay-at-home orders and other government-mandated pandemic prevention measures as unacceptable violations of their liberty. An inconsistent and oftentimes incoherent federal messaging strategy encouraged the proliferation of conspiracy theories of either the implementation of an authoritarian government regime or a coup orchestrated by the President’s political opponents, depending on who you ask. Indeed, some FREs have called the stay-at-home orders “medical martial law.” In this vein, Bradley Bunn was arrested by the FBI for possession of four pipe bombs while on his way to an armed protest against public health restrictions at the Colorado State Capitol. He later told investigators that he planned to use the bombs against anyone who tried to take his weapons.

Author compilation of popular coronavirus memes on FRE social media

Just as some messaging and recruitment tactics among jihadis and FREs share similarities, so, too, have these groups showed similar themes in their rhetoric and activities surrounding COVID-19. For example, both groups have espoused a great deal of antisemitism as it relates to the pandemic. The Pakistani Taliban and US far-right conspiracy theorists have both argued that COVID-19 was engineered by Jewish people as part of a plot to achieve world domination.

Another point of ideological consistency between these two groups lies in the philosophy of accelerationism. Broadly and as it applies to political extremism, accelerationist thinkers disavow non-violent political processes as a means to achieve change; the ends they seek often involve a dramatic reimagining of society, and incremental change will never accomplish these ends. For jihadis, this means tearing down existing governments and replacing them with a caliphate. Since March 2020, the Islamic State has increased its armed activities in areas where it believes governments are weak and encouraged recruits to “capitalize on the fear, ensuing chaos, and stress caused by COVID-19 by conducting attacks throughout afflicted and vulnerable populations in Europe and the United States.” Far-right accelerationists similarly believe that society must be fundamentally destroyed and replaced. The most popular accelerationist ideology among the far right posits that a genocidal race war will be waged, resulting in the creation of a white ethno-state. While some believe that this race war is inevitable and will come about on its own, others believe that they must spark the race war through violence.

Far-right accelerationist ideology inspired a March 2020 attack that was fortunately thwarted while the suspect was en route to his target. Timothy Wilson had been planning a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (IED) attack before the pandemic; he had considered targets such as a nuclear plant, an Islamic Center, a synagogue, and Walmart headquarters. However, Wilson ultimately moved up the date for the planned attack and changed his target to a Missouri hospital center. According to an FBI joint intelligence bulletin, Wilson “cited the likely increased impact and media attention on the health sector during the coronavirus pandemic as a reason to accelerate the timing and selection of a healthcare facility.” The modern extreme right is characterized by a decentralized structure, with individuals often “operating alone but…tied together through virtual communities on the Internet.” Wilson had been active in a number of communities that espoused accelerationist and neo-Nazi ideologies; he had communicated with members of the now-defunct neo-Nazi group Atomwaffen Division and expressed sympathies for a similar group, The Base.

A final noteworthy similarity between jihadist and far-right groups is the impact the pandemic has had on their recruitment and radicalization strategies. As more people are stuck inside, socially isolated, and many experiencing economic hardships, both types of groups have increased their online presence and tailored their materials toward this new reality. These groups often have their own culture and inside references. For example, FREs began calling the corona-virus “corona-chan,” referencing it reverentially for its potential to sow chaos. Between February and March 2020, the term was used over 13,000 times on 4chan and saw a 375% increase in interactions on Reddit and a 1,920% increase in interactions on Facebook. Before the pandemic, “corona-chan” was not a term with any other meaning. This means that increased interactions occurred because people were engaging with far-right social media.

Unfortunately, just as indicators show that engagement with extremist communities online is on the rise, counter-extremism programs are reporting less engagement. A United Kingdom counter-radicalization program called Prevent has reported that referrals to the program have fallen by about 50%. Even as more people are at home, online, and isolated, fewer people are reaching out for help to escape the radicalizing influence of extremist groups from across the ideological spectrum.

Violent Non-State Actors and COVID-19: Challenge or Opportunity?

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.