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Thursday, 08 June 2023
Terrorism in the age of the Coronavirus
James Denselow

Writer, Middle East Analyst

A British tabloid paper recently published a story with a headline warning that Coronavirus ‘poses a bigger threat than terrorism’. With an increasing percentage of the world’s population on lockdown in fear of the virus this might seem mind numbingly obvious, yet it points towards a potential recalibration of people’s perception of risk in the years ahead.

Small numbers of people committing deadly and spectacular attacks has been the sine qua non of global terrorism over the past decades. From airlines slamming into buildings to mass shootings at cultural sites, attacks on mass transit systems to targeting tourists. All of our lives have changed in response, whether accepting the steady increase of counter terrorism powers held by the state or the ubiquitous delays in checking into flights.

Decisions related to terrorist threats and terrorist ground have of course determined countries foreign policies and decisions over peace and war. Sometimes a lack of agreement as to who is and isn’t a prescribed group has seen states clash whilst both attempting to ‘fight terror’ - for instance Russia and Turkey in northern Syria.

Fears over terrorism have dominated certain countries public opinions with the US public in particular seeing it as a clear and present danger - this reinforcing the public policy mandate given to their governments to act upon it.

A mandate for what action is the critical question being currently considered by President Trump. What scale of a clampdown can be justified to address Coronavirus against harm to the economy? Trump has articulated this as making sure that the cure is not more harmful than the disease. Other US politicians have reinforced this message - one even suggesting that old people would be willing to accept the sacrifice to support the wider economy.

Already in the space of a few weeks the residents of liberal democracies are having to change their lifestyles in ways that terrorism has not managed to achieve in decades.

State shutdowns of borders, airports escalated to shut downs of businesses which escalated further to residents being forced to stay in their homes with threats of fines for non-compliance. The police and even the army are on the streets with politicians citing a ‘war’ on the virus in much the same way a ‘war’ was waged on terrorism since 9/11.

These incredible adjustments to people’s lives will leave a legacy of both experience - and potentially resilience - that will shape the public’s threat perception from human threats in the years ahead.

A recent incident at Barcelona airport involving a car smashing into a terminal and men allegedly shouting ‘Islamist slogans’, barely made the news in the shadow of the pandemic. Could we see a substantial drop off in such attacks as would be terrorists decide that there is little point shouting into such a void of inattention?

Imagined fear has always been the critical ingredient to the disproportionate influence that terrorism has. Few people will have experienced terrorism, but like the fear of flying the potential for something happening to somebody is a powerful motivator of behaviour. Coronavirus cannot be said to be imagined having already infected over quarter of a million people and killed nearly 20,000.

Trump argues, with some degree of justification, that the annual flu and road traffic accidents account for vast death tolls but are somehow baked into what society accepts as understandable death tolls. Coronavirus could become endemic and managed with a vaccine but by no means eradicated.

The crucial question that follows this unprecedented modern moment is how much our politics and economics will reset to the status quo that existed before the reports from Wuhan started to emerge.

The longer and more serious that things get the less likely a straight forward return would appear to be. The very demographics of countries are changing and their politics will follow. The rise of nationalist over multilateral agendas may be vindicated by the closure of sovereign borders to slow the virus or it may be fatally undermined by the fact that no country - even if it has zero remaining cases - can engage fully with a country that has the virus in its system.

Terrorists, would-be terrorists and the States that are aligned against them are not immune from this Virus driven changing politics. The grievances and identity arguments used by terror groups may not survive this period, they may mutate and become even more dangerous or they may find themselves extinct. levant

Coronavirus has highlighted how interconnected and therefore vulnerable the world is to a contagion that is driven by human contact. The threats that emerge from the ashes of its legacy may be very different indeed both in the form they take and the perceived threat that the public feel in response to them. levant