Andy Oppenheimer reviews terrorism in the year of Covid-19.
In 2020 terrorism may have taken a back seat in the media and public consciousness. But in several countries, it proceeds apace – and the pandemic has hampered counter-terror efforts.
While Daesh, al-Qaeda in the Sahel region, and other groups have been less active in terms of spectacular attacks, jihadist and right-wing extremists operating in many countries are using the pandemic to spread conspiracy theories online, incite mistrust in Governments, and recruit new followers.
According to the UN in a report last October, the Covid 19 pandemic has exacerbated conditions conducive to the terrorist threat. Specifically, online: the climate of misinformation has worsened, such as blaming Muslim minorities for local transmission of the virus. Internet lies have afforded terrorists simple means to radicalise susceptible individuals online.
Some of the usual suspects – most notably, ISIS – have been regrouping during national lockdowns. While lying low due to the attendant restrictions on movement and heavier police presence in many countries, the terrorist threat from Daesh, according to the British Security Service MI5, “persists at scale.” In early November, following several attacks in France and a mass shooting in Vienna, Austria, the UK’s terror threat level was raised from “substantial” to “severe”, meaning an attack was judged to be “highly likely.”
Terrorist attacks are still continuing in countries where conflict persists. October was a particularly bad month. On 27 October 2020 at least seven people were killed and at least 110 injured in a town already beset with previous attacks – Peshawar, northwest Pakistan – after a bomb left in a bag exploded in a religious school.
TERROR RETURNS TO EUROPE
2 November: Four were killed and 17 wounded in coordinated shootings in the Austrian capital Vienna described by authorities as an ISIS-inspired series of shootings by a rampaging gunman. Described by authorities as a jihadist-inspired attack, a 20-year-old ISIS supporter, Fejzulai Kujtim, was shot dead by police close to the city’s central synagogue. Born in Austria of Macedonian descent, he had been released early from jail the previous December after being sentenced in April 2019 for trying to join ISIS in Syria.
29 October: A lone attacker shouting “Allahu Akbar” stabbed three to death, decapitating one, and injured several other people near the Notre Dame church in Nice in a 30-minute rampage. French President Emmanuel Macron quickly designated it an “Islamist terrorist attack” and ordered an extra 4,000 troops to be deployed to protect churches and schools in addition to 3,000 already stationed outside sensitive venues.
16 October: a teacher, Samuel Paty, was beheaded in a Paris street after showing cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad during a lesson. The perpetrator, named as Abdoulakh A, was shot dead by French police and was said to have ISIS connections. He shared a video online after the attack.
In early April 2020, Daesh multiple attacks on Syrian regime forces and Iranian-backed militias in the desert and mountainous regions between Homs, Deir ez-Zor and the Syrian-Iraqi border prompted Russian air force intervention. By last May, a stop-start recovery phase began. ISIS is still under pressure from forces in Iraq and Syria but has been gaining presence in villages and suburbs. But redolent of the coronavirus during lockdown, Daesh never went away.
Daesh elements are also benefiting from Turkish military intervention in parts of northern Syria and the US withdrawal. Iraq has faced unprecedented mass protests in Baghdad and the south, along with resignation of the government and political and economic paralysis. This provides the ideal breeding ground for terrorist resurgence. In November more than 50 men were beheaded in northern Mozambique by militant Islamists.
Afghanistan continues to suffer terrorism and insurgency more than most countries. Last October a series of attacks on almost each day of the month was launched by the Taliban and Daesh, who together killed 240 and injured 326. Just in the final week of that month: on 24 October a suicide bombing killed 30 people and injured 70 outside an educational centre in Kabul. On the 27th, at least 30 died in separate bombings in the Afghan city of Ghazni, and Kabul. ISIS claimed responsibility.
May 2020: two IED attacks targeted Imams inside their mosques in Kabul, killing at least six and wounding more than 20
12 May 2020: a bombing attack targeted a hospital maternity ward in Kabul, killing 24 and wounding at least 20
25 March 2020: IED attack on a Sikh Gurdwara in Kabul, killing 25 and wounding at least eight
6 March 2020: a Shi’a memorial in Kabul was targeted, killing 32 and wounding at least another 60.
Taking out the leaders
Following the elimination by the US of Daesh leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in October 2019, several terror leaders have been killed. In January 2020 the notorious commander of Iran’s terrorist Quds Force, Qassim Soleimani, was eliminated on 3 January by a US drone strike.
An al-Qaeda commander on the Indian subcontinent, Mohammad Hanif, was also killed by Afghan forces. A member of Harakat-ul-Mujahedin (HUM), Hanif provided bomb-making training to insurgents in the southern Helmand and Nimruz provinces.
In November French forces killed Bah ag Moussa, a senior official of al-Qaeda’s North Africa wing, and Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah, al-Qaeda’s second-in-command, was claimed to have been shot dead in a Tehran street by Israeli agents.
“Racially and ethnically motivated violent extremists have become the primary source of ideologically motivated lethal incidents in the US.”
FBI DIRECTOR CHRISTOPHER WRAY TO US CONGRESS, FEBRUARY 2020
Far-Right “unparalleled activity”
Intelligence and security services in the US and UK are seeing racist terror groups involved in an unparalleled level of activity and confidence. MI5 has made adjustments to respond to the rise in far-Right extremism that now accounts for a staggering 20% of prisoners in British jails.
Last October, in the annual threat assessment of the US Department of Homeland Security its Acting Secretary Chad Wolf stated he was “particularly concerned about white supremacist violent extremists who have been exceptionally lethal in their abhorrent, targeted attacks in recent years.” In late April, the FBI disrupted a racist militia group who had attempted to kidnap the governor of Michigan, Gretchen Whitmer, after militants agitating for a second civil war occupied the state capitol building in Lansing.
In 2019 white supremacists were responsible for 39 out of 48 deaths, making that year the deadliest on record for extremist violence since the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995 – the worst homegrown terror attack on US soil to date.
The far-Right militia groups have grown more tactically practiced during the past four years of the Trump Administration, according to former FBI undercover agent Michael German. He has also claimed that white supremacist and anti-government groups have “active links” with police.
Storming of the Capitol
By far the most serious recent domestic terrorist incident – and the most serious breach in security in the US capital – was the violent and temporary illegal occupation of the Capitol building by far-Right Trump supporters on 6 January 2021 following the President’s election defeat. Six died, including two Capitol Police officers; 50 police officers were injured. Three pipe-bombs were found and rendered safe. The rioters had made plans to abduct and kill senior politicians. The implications of this attack are likely to resound throughout a new Administration.
Image: Teargas was deployed as rioters stormed the Capitol Building on 6 January 2021.