Sri Lankan Christian devotees light candles as they pray at a barricade near St Anthony's Shrine in Colombo on April 28, 2019, a week after a series of bomb blasts targeting churches and luxury hotels on Easter Sunday. Photo: AFP

“Conventional” terrorism, as we have known it for the last few years, has abated, and not just because of the Covid-19 pandemic. It is also because governments have spent considerable amounts of money on counterterrorism and on global efforts to stem the transnational flow of weapons, funds and terrorists.

Moreover, the defeat of Islamic State (ISIS) and al-Qaeda have robbed both these groups of the physical wherewithal and leadership to direct massive publicity-garnering attacks.

Covid-19 has meant strict lockdowns and advanced forms of techno-surveillance, which has further hampered the aims of would-be terrorists. Except for last year’s coordinated terrorist bombings in Sri Lanka, the world has not witnessed a series of terrorist incidents across the globe like those seen in the 2000s. Yet this does not mean that newer forms of terrorist attacks will not rear their ugly head in the months and years to come.

The factors that fuel terrorism are still very much in play worldwide. Under the guise of combating Covid-19, governments from Tanzania to Colombia and from India to Sudan are clamping down on civil liberties. This will fray the unwritten contract between societies and law-enforcement agencies, the bedrock upon which intelligence agencies rely to block terrorist incidents.

In some instances, ruling regimes have actively fed identity politics and fueled ancient tribal hatreds as a way of diverting attention away from their mishandling of the pandemic. This has damaged the social fabric in these countries and could be fertile ground for terrorists.

In India, since the start of the pandemic, senior members of the ruling party and government-friendly media have been busy vilifying the country’s 200-million-strong Muslim minority as being “super-spreaders” of the disease. This was on the back of anti-Muslim violence in Delhi in February.

Elsewhere, the police allegedly stood by while allowing rioters to run amok or, in some instances, themselves participated in the riots.

In Sri Lanka, government agencies openly insulted the country’s Muslim community by spiriting away and cremating the bodies of community members who died from Covid-19. This lays the groundwork for long-lasting fissures that extremists will be more than happy to exploit.

In other countries, localized grievances will continue to flare up. These will take the form of insurgencies.

We see examples of this in northern Mozambique. Years of government neglect, corruption, discrimination and heavy-handed tactics toward the local population have given rise to what is now a full-blown insurgency. The insurgents in Mozambique have sworn allegiance to ISIS. But this may be nothing more than branding for the insurgents to burnish their credentials and perhaps attract more recruits and funding.

There may even be more localized acts of terror perpetrated by lone-wolf terrorists, such as the recent knife attack in Paris.

However, the most serious threat of transnational terror today comes from white nationalist outfits in Western countries.

In the US, there is a curious convergence between white extremist groups and conspiracy theorists that routinely peddle anti-Semitic theories, gun-rights defenders and anti-maskers. Several have shown up to mount counter-protests against Black Lives Matters protesters. President Donald Trump has, on several occasions, praised white nationalists.

There is a growing realization among intelligence agencies in the Western world about the transnational threat posed by white extremist groups. This was particularly apparent after the 2019 Christchurch attacks in New Zealand. The attacker derived much of his ideology from white nationalist ideas emanating from the US.

More recently, Germany disbanded one of its elite special-forces units for being full of far-right extremists. Members of the special-forces unit hoarded explosives and ammunition as part of plans to carry out terrorist acts or an overthrow of the government. Indeed, a German politician called far-right terror the biggest threat to democracy. Over the last two years, far-right terrorists have attacked a synagogue, assassinated a politician, and murdered nine immigrants.

A recent UN Security Council report warned of the dangers of the pandemic fueling extremism. Close to a billion schoolchildren are at home, and many adults are unemployed. There has been a reported increase in online browsing of extremist content, particularly as Covid-related anxiety fuels widely swirling conspiracy theories.

The inability of social-media companies such as Facebook to stem the flow of extremist content is particularly galling. A recent investigation by The Wall Street Journal, for example, claimed that senior Facebook executives in India chose not to ban inflammatory content posted by a member of the ruling party. The report alleged that Facebook’s management in India did not want to anger the government in New Delhi.

Since the beginning of the global pandemic, the world may not have witnessed acts of mass-casualty-causing terrorism such as the September 2001 attacks or the London Bombings. But this does not mean that the menace of terrorism has entirely left us.

Covid-19 has consumed policymakers in thinking about the future of government and economies. But they must also seriously ponder whether the pandemic has flattened the terrorism curve.

This article was provided by Syndication Bureau, which holds copyright.

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Dnyanesh Kamat

Dnyanesh Kamat is a political analyst who focuses on the Middle East and South Asia. He also consults on socio-economic development for government and private-sector entities.