COVID-19 may reignite interest in biological weapons, terrorism risk experts warn

Lockdown measures may have inhibited terrorist attacks but propaganda – particularly connected to far-right extremism and with a focus on conspiracy theories connected to COVID-19 – represents an ongoing risk. This, according to a new report, has already inspired plots for attacks. Islamist extremist propaganda, it says, is more focused on the vulnerability of government opponents distracted by the pandemic and the opportunities this presents.

Amid a significant current increase in online extremist activity, experts are warning of a much greater risk of short-to-medium term radicalisation.

In the report released today, Cranfield University’s professor of terrorism, risk and resilience, Andrew Silke writes about his long-term concern that states weakened by the serious economic consequences of the pandemic will be more vulnerable to the emergence or resurgence of terrorist groups in some parts of the world.

“The pandemic is likely to have a mixed impact on terrorism trends in the short term. While lockdown measures may represent obstacles to terrorists to carry out real-world attacks, many terrorist groups have also flagged that the pandemic has left government and security resources being severely stretched," he said. “As a result, the ability of government, intelligence and law enforcement agencies to focus on traditional priorities such as counter-terrorism has been undermined.”

Professor Silke also voiced his concern on the use of CBRN weapons. “One genuine concern is that COVID-19 may lead to a resurgence in interest among terrorists for using chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear weapons. Historically, a range of terrorist movements have been interested in bioterrorism though there have been very few successful attacks by terrorists using biological weapons. While serious obstacles certainly remain, the huge impact of COVID-19 may re-ignite some interest in biological weapons.”

Chief resilience officer at Pool Re, Ed Butler added: “This report is very timely and worth digesting at a time when we are quite rightly focused on the near-term issues and human and economic devastation being caused by this global pandemic. However, Pool Re’s core purpose remains the provision of terrorism reinsurance and we need to continue to understand the contemporary terrorist threats as well as horizon scan the future landscape. Pool Re’s strategic relationship with Cranfield University underpins the importance we attach to collaborating with academia in understanding and mitigating against catastrophic perils.”

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