Foreign Policy Essay

Global Counterterrorism in (and After) a Pandemic

By Jessica Davis
Sunday, February 27, 2022, 10:01 AM

Editor’s Note: The coronavirus pandemic has changed the world, transforming politics, economics and society itself. Terrorists, too, have not been immune from the effects of the pandemic, but here there might be a silver lining to this very dark cloud. Jessica Davis, author of “Illicit Money: Financing Terrorism in the Twenty-First Century,” explores the global decline in terrorism in the past few years and argues that the pandemic is part of why the world has seen fewer attacks than expected. She contends, however, that there is still much we do not know, and states need to both prepare for a rebound in terrorism and better fund research that might explain sources of this apparent decline.

Daniel Byman

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At the outbreak of the pandemic, terrorism scholars and experts made numerous assessments about how the pandemic would affect terrorism. There was considerable concern among some scholars and researchers that terrorist activity, including attacks, would increase because of the negative effects of pandemic policies and the effects of the virus itself. Others, myself included, suggested that the pandemic would, on balance, have the effect of decreasing terrorist attacks globally because of illness and stay-at-home policies. 

Initial data suggest terrorism is on the decline around the world. (I use the Global Terrorism Database’s definition of terrorism here, which is an inclusive definition that captures the vast majority of political violence globally.) For instance, there were very few terrorist attacks in the United States in 2021. Terrorist violence in Southeast Asia also appears to be on the decline in the pandemic. This is in keeping with a pre-pandemic trend: Deaths from terrorist attacks have also decreased in recent years, and the number of terrorist attacks also appears to have declined between 2016 and 2019.

The decline in the global number of terrorist attacks over the past six years, potentially facilitated in part over the past two years by the pandemic, has implications for counterterrorism policy and practice. While any decrease in terrorism rates is likely to be multicausal, understanding some of the factors that lead to these decreases is important for fine-tuning responses and allocating resources, particularly in a global environment that requires managing an array of crises ranging from systemic threats like the pandemic and climate change to security challenges stemming from aggressive Russian and Chinese foreign policy. Understanding the balance of these factors and how they have contributed to the observed decline in terrorism will be important for adapting counterterrorism policies for the post-pandemic world.

The likely primary causal factor in potentially fewer terrorist attacks over the past two years is the pandemic. It has created mass waves of illness, led to stay-at-home orders and has decreased the number of attractive targets for terrorists. Air travel has decreased substantially, as have the number of events with large numbers of people, both attractive targets for terrorists. My own data, which looks specifically at female-perpetrated terrorist incidents, suggests that the rate of decline is greater than in the pre-pandemic period. Another likely factor in the decreasing rates of terrorism is counterterrorism policies. Globally, there have been 20 years of intense counterterrorism responses, and data from the Global Terrorism Database suggests that numbers of terrorist attacks globally have been decreasing since 2014, aside from a significant spike associated with the rise of the Islamic State.

Depending on the causal factors at play, there are different lessons to be learned for counterterrorism. If the main cause is the pandemic, then terrorism would be expected to resume to pre-pandemic levels as restrictions are lifted. However, if current approaches to counterterrorism are causal, this creates policy options.

Globally, there’s a long catalog of counterterrorism policies and practices. These range from counter-extremism programs, to terrorist leadership decapitation, to my own area of expertise, countering terrorist financing, among many more types of policy response. It’s important to know, as global policymakers seek to diffuse best practices to other countries, which of these practices (or, more likely, combination of practices) are likely to be effective at preventing terrorist attacks. This will require increased transparency from governments and civil society organizations in terms of sharing data on their approaches to counterterrorism, including specific activities and their outcomes.

The problem is that policymakers around the world still have very little information about which, if any, of these approaches are most effective. Even less is known about which of these approaches translate across social and political contexts.

At the same time, states need to prepare for levels of terrorism to rebound, possibly to pre-pandemic levels. While the cause of the potential decline in rates of terrorism is unknown, the worst-case scenario is that levels of terrorism have been artificially suppressed by pandemic restrictions. Some of the potential causes of declines in terrorism could include fewer attractive targets (like large or high-profile gatherings), fewer opportunities for international or regional travel, local lockdowns, illness among potential terrorists, or perhaps opportunistic repression. More sophisticated statistical analyses are needed to answer this question with certainty, but in the meantime, policymakers need to prepare for increased levels of terrorism.

This is particularly true if assertions about increasing rates of extremism are true. Some researchers have expressed concern that individuals under stay-at-home orders are increasingly online and being drawn to extremist propaganda, resulting in “rising” rates of radicalization. While the theory behind this assertion is compelling, measuring (or even just defining) radicalization is extremely difficult. Further, measuring changes in those levels is even more fraught, and given that there are only two years of pandemic data, establishing a statistically significant causal relationship here is unlikely. With such limited evidence, policymakers should prepare for the worst-case scenario, one with greater levels of extremism than before the pandemic.

To prepare for any potential post-pandemic rebound in terrorist attacks, there are a few concrete actions that states and the global community can take. The first is to fund more research into the effects of counterterrorism policies and practices. There has been much funding and research dedicated to identifying the “root causes” of terrorism and radicalization, but much less is known about what policies and practices work to counter terrorism and extremism, how they do and do not combine and in what specific contexts. Multilateral organizations should take stock of existing research into counterterrorism and carefully seek to diffuse evidence-based best practices, keeping in mind that these counterterrorism activities will need to be localized to their context and evaluated on an ongoing basis.

States should also make available more information about the outcomes of their counterterrorism policies and practices. Specifically, while terrorist attacks are easily measured, they provide an incomplete picture of terrorism. States should also release information on interrupted plots and other disruption activities that they undertake in the name of counterterrorism, and should open up these practices to evaluation. Public safety plans should also be updated; several years of potentially artificially low numbers of terrorist attacks might have made first responders and counterterrorism professionals complacent. There might be a global lull in terrorist activity, but now is the time to reflect on how best to make communities resilient against renewed threats. Other global challenges, from pandemics to climate change, will require resources and prioritization, so the optimal level of resources to allocate to counterterrorism will be the lowest effective amount. To optimize responses, policymakers need to first understand what works.