Within a matter of weeks, the novel coronavirus – which came in the global limelight after spreading in China’s Hubei province and resulted in lockdowns in the country – has created major risks for global economy and public health.
On December 31, 2019, China had alerted the World Health Organization (WHO) of “several flu-like cases” in Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province. Patients had then been quarantined and health authorities commenced work on tracing the source of the “flu”. Soon after, on January 1, 2020, the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention identified a seafood market in Wuhan as the “suspected hub of the outbreak”. Since then, at the time of writing this piece, the COVID-19 strain of the Coronavirus has caused a global pandemic, affecting over 150 countries, infecting nearly 200,000 and killing nearly 8000 people (More details and live tracking of the coronavirus data can be found here).
The World Health Organization (WHO) chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus went as far as claiming that “a virus is more powerful in creating political, economic and social upheaval than any terrorist attack”. Hence, pandemics like these also raise concerns over the possible use of a deadly virus as a “bioterrorism” tool by terrorist groups around the world.
In 2015, it was reported that scientists at a top-secret facility in the UK were assessing the “potential use of Ebola as a bioterrorism weapon”. The unit was tasked with evaluating whether terrorist organisations like Al Qaida and the Islamic State could use the virus to attack targets in the west[i]. Moreover, Stephen Strauss also argues that much of the research on Ebola was funded due to the growing fears of the virus turning into a bio-weapon by terrorist organisations.[ii] In addition to that, outbreaks have also been used in the past to influence political outcomes. According to The Lancet, ‘on Dec 26, 2018, DR Congo’s Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI) invoked concerns about the Ebola outbreak and terrorism to postpone the elections in three areas in North Kivu (Beni, Beni Ville, and Butembo) until March 2019.’[iii] This move invited strong criticism as many of 1.2 million people in these three areas were likely to vote for the opposition leader, Martin Fayulu.
These precedents make the coronavirus epidemic a point of concern for state officials, policymakers and counter-terrorism experts around the world. Opinion pieces have already started showing up in major news outlets, especially in the US, particularly on the lines of mild “conspiracy theories” and orientalist discourses, on how the coronavirus can be used as a major bioterrorism weapon by non-state and ‘hidden’ state actors, especially in the “desert caves of Middle East”.
In this regard, Grady Means, in The Hill, writes:
Regardless of the source of the coronavirus, it is now a roadmap for future bioterrorism. The damage has been quick and enormous — much greater than 9/11 — and worldwide. The responses have been predictable and ineffective. And the cost of a potential weapon such as this is close to zero. It represents the perfect asymmetric warfare strategy, and there should be little doubt these lessons are being studied carefully by military planners in North Korea, Tehran, Moscow, Beijing and desert caves throughout the Middle East [iv].
However, along with raising “bio-terrorism” concerns, the coronavirus outbreak is also impacting (and somewhat hampering) the everyday operations of various terrorist and militant groups around the world. Moreover, due to the urgency and importance of covering the outbreak in the mainstream and alternate media, incidents around the world involving terrorist attacks are also going unnoticed.
COVID-19, Terrorism and Peace
The Islamic State recently included a full-page infographic on coronavirus prevention in the new issue of its official weekly “al-Naba newsletter”, the Homeland Security reported. The group also asked its followers to “stay away from countries affected by the outbreak”. The group has been constantly “reporting” on the Coronavirus in its newsletter since last month, with one of its February issues noting that even though the epidemic was a punishment from God for China’s rights abuses against the Uighur Muslims, the interconnectedness of this world would facilitate the transfer of epidemics. Therefore, “Muslims should seek help from God Almighty to avoid illness and keep it away from their countries”. These updates from the group suggest that the outbreak has, in some way, affected the Islamic State, at least for the time being.
US, Taliban and Peace in Afghanistan
Afghanistan has remained a point of concern for many, as not only is the country battling through a major presidential crisis, between Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, but a possible spread of coronavirus is also threatening to endanger the recently signed ceasefire agreement between the United States and the Taliban. Locals also fear that lack of supplies and facilities could be detrimental to the Afghan population, especially if the number of cases exponentially rises in the country.
“A doctor or a nurse may be able to buy some hand sanitiser and gloves for their homes, but we have hospitals in Kabul that don’t have clean water for doctors to wash their hands,” Najmusama Shefajo, an obstetrician-gynaecologist, told Al Jazeera news. She also said that if doctors lack the supplies to guarantee their own hygiene, it will then be hard for the patients to trust the doctors.
Therefore, political instability amid growing coronavirus concerns have caught the attention of foreign and senior officials overseeing security matters in Afghanistan.
Nick Kay – a senior representative of NATO – in a video message on Saturday called on the Afghan leaders find to an amicable solution the political instability in the country. “As the coronavirus sweeps the world causing public health crisis and potential economic crisis…it is strange that the political leadership cannot find a way to resolve their differences and unite the country both in the interests of public health but also peace,” Kay said.
Ironically, the Taliban have also raised concerns on the spread of coronavirus in government prisons. “About 40,000 people are living in prisons run by the Kabul administration where there are no hygiene or healthcare facilities, making it a serious threat. This virus can spread very easily in such conditions. If something goes wrong, it will be the responsibility of the Kabul government.”, Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid said on Sunday.
On the other hand, US expert and scholar Dr Barnett Rubin succinctly summarises the threat coronavirus poses to peace and stability in the region. In this regard, he writes:
The pandemic seems likely to spread quickly from both Iran and Pakistan into Afghanistan. All of the known cases are related to Iran—with which Afghanistan has a 572-mile largely unmonitored border, and where more than 10,000 coronavirus cases have been recorded and over 300 have died, making it the fourth-most-affected country after China, South Korea, and Italy …… Afghanistan also has a 1,510 mile long border with Pakistan, which is at risk because of the weakness of its public health system, its 596-mile-long border with Iran, and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which has brought tens of thousands of Chinese citizens into Pakistan…. The pandemic makes it even more important to end the war. The virus makes no political, national, religious, or sectarian distinctions. [v].
On the other hand, U.S. Peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, who was primarily responsible for giving final touches to the Afghan peace plan, has repeatedly met both the presidential claimants, Ghani and Abdullah, however, there is no end in sight for the political turmoil. Moreover, even after the signing of the deal with the US, violence has continued in the country as a recent “insider attack” killed seven Afghan security officials.
In these testing times, and with a near-global lockdown, regional actors like China, Russia, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan can do little in terms of mediating between the Afghan government, the US and the Taliban. Hence, Barnett Rubin asks a pertinent question:
Will Qatar still welcome a delegation from Afghanistan, plus hundreds of journalists, under these circumstances?
The latest data (see graph below) on coronavirus infections from Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Systems Science and Engineering indicates two positive trends; one, the “infections curve” (orange) in China is flattening, and two, the patient recovery rates (green) are getting higher.
However, in terms of its impact on terrorism and terrorist activities, even though little could be said with certainty whether coronavirus outbreak will hamper terrorist attacks from groups like Islamic State and the Taliban, concerns expressed by both these groups over the pandemic suggest that it may affect them in “some” way; probably in terms of movement and operations. The Taliban, even though seemingly concerned about the pandemic, has carried on with it its attacks on the Afghan security forces. The Islamic State, on the other hand, is also fighting for its survival and relevance in Afghanistan. Only time will tell whether COVID-19 outbreak will negatively affect the Afghan peace deal and the frequency of terrorist attacks around the world. However, this also leaves a gap for future research projects on global pandemics and their impact on the frequency of terrorist attacks.
[i] The Guardian (2015), URL: https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2015/feb/21/top-secret-ebola-biological-weapon-terror-warning-al-qaida-isis
[ii] Strauss, Stephen. “Ebola research fueled by bioterrorism threat.” Canadian Medical Association. Journal 186.16 (2014): 1206.
[iii] The Lancet, URL: https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(19)30002-9/fulltext
[iv] Means, Grady, The Hill, URL: https://thehill.com/opinion/national-security/485921-the-coronavirus-blueprint-for-bioterrorism
[v] Rubin, Barnett, The Coronavirus Risk to the Afghan Peace Process, CIC-NYU, URL: https://cic.nyu.edu/publications/coronavirus-risk-afghan-peace-process