Virus or Terrorism: Which is deadlier?

Image Source: (L) Outlook India, (R) Wall Street Journal

Globally, as COVID-19 is rising, its reflection on societal upheaval seems quite evident in the countries. South Asia, being recognized as a third-world region, needs to dig deeper into the crucial security implications that this pandemic presents. The desperate times of COVID have made these countries more vulnerable to the already existing issues of economic destabilisation, food insecurity, increased poverty rate and a wide surge in unemployment. It is worthwhile to look at a larger canvas of issues beyond the ongoing health crisis, for it is quite an opportune moment for the terrorist organisations to increase radicalization and extremist activities.

South Asia is home to 1/4th of the world population with its contribution to the world’s GDP limited to a mere 5 percent, making it more vulnerable to the pandemic. In the wake of an ongoing pandemic, when the governments are thoroughly occupied in flattening the COVID-19 curve, it is not surprising to see a parallel spike in terrorist activities. The statement issued by the UN chief confirms this graph of escalated hatred and recruitment of young people online by these groups. Worryingly, in 2018, South Asia has been the world’s most affected region by terrorism. Thus, where states in the region continue to fight the battle against the threats posed by COVID-19, they should also formulate a comprehensive approach to understand how this pandemic could become a free gateway for terror organisations to expand their footprint in the region.

Economics of Terrorism

A recent report from the World Bank states that because of the multiple prolonged lockdowns, economic growth of South Asia is expected to decline to 1.8 to 2.8 percent in the year 2020, which was earlier projected at 6.3 percent. This will be counted as the region’s worst economic performance in the last 40 years. Its effect is already evident with the number of people losing their jobs in the region. Notably, around 80 percent of the population in South Asia is employed in the informal sector, making it exceptionally vulnerable to the tremor caused by the pandemic. This uncertain time with economic hardships would not only push people into long-term poverty but also would deepen their trust deficit regarding the transparency of public institutions in their capability to handle this pandemic. There are researches which reinstate that exclusion and the problem of economic inequality drive people towards terrorist violence.

This antagonism becomes an easy route for terrorist groups to tap on these vulnerable frustrated minds and recruit new people. This might lead to the region witness a hike in the number of youths willing to take up violent measures to vent out their frustration.

Today, World has become a global village and penetration of the internet has exposed youth to a universe of information. This has made it easier for terrorists to hijack young minds on social media. As a matter of fact, unfortunately, South Asia is home to 803 million internet users making it the second-largest in the world. And now with national lockdowns, people are spending more time online. All this offers potential ground for groups to propagate their extremist ideology using cyberspace. Global Terrorism Index (GTI) report 2019 reveals that, worldwide, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India are recorded in the top ten countries as being most impacted by terrorism. And in such scenarios, the unprecedented crisis is creating a conducive environment for terrorist groups to proliferate their influence on vulnerable individuals.

Image source: The Week

Evidently, socio-economic conditions such as fragile health systems, poor infrastructure, persistent poverty, lack of education, and an uncertain economy along with distrust in governments have been major root-causes of driving people into extremist and terrorist activities. And now pandemic would additionally present a favourable breeding ground for problems like exclusion and poverty. In the region, it is estimated that, due to COVID-19, nearly 16 million people could go down the well of poverty. This creates a permissible environment for terrorists to strengthen themselves in the region.

There have been several reports which state that far-right extremist organizations are using conspiracy theories linked to COVID-19 and have ramped up their recruitment activities, worldwide. Similarly, Islamist terrorist groups have named this pandemic as “soldier of God” against their enemies. The pandemic seems to provide a haven for groups like IS and Al-Qaeda which are already in the quest of opportunities to further amplify their operations in the region. The current situation could be exploited to a great extent by these groups to organise hate campaigns against the sitting establishments. Notably, Khorasan Province of the Islamic State is the second deadliest terror group in South Asia.

Also, to counter COVID-19, governments across the region have declared huge national aid packages which might lead to a rise in debt of the government. This would lead to drawing down other budgets of states and adjusting the spending on other crucial sectors like defence and intelligence inputs. The reports of SIPRI reinstate that global economic crisis emerging due to COVID-19 pandemic is likely to disrupt the military budget and could be lower this year compared to previous years. This could be a matter of grave concern as a decline in military spending could possibly weaken the shield against terrorism. Furthermore, in continuing their efforts to combat the pandemic, the governments in the region are deploying armed forces for the same. In such a scenario, there are high chances that terrorists could exploit this void to execute their operations.

This brings us to the question: While trying to save the lives of citizens from the virus, are governments on a juncture of losing more lives from terrorism?

Desperate times, desperate measures!

There are a few crucial points which need to be taken into account to counter-terrorism in the region.

Firstly, states need to understand the psychological damage attached to the pandemic. Commoners are the most affected primary sufferers of the COVID battle and given the size of informal employment in the region, it is crucial for states to give national economic protection and social assurances to people.

Secondly, to understand the nature of cyber radicalisation, governments should train and educate intelligence forces with new cybersecurity technology. They should remain vigilant and should augment its capacity in the virtual world. They need to improve the digital resilience capability of supporting institutions.

Thirdly, States need to take the whole of society approach towards mitigating challenges posed by both the threats. There should be increased cooperation between governments, civil society and research-based think-tanks.

Lastly, there is a need for regional cooperation to deal with the menace of terrorism. Member-states have not been able to arrive at a consensus on security cooperation because of protracted distrust and repeated cancellation of their summits since 2014. However, India’s initiative of having a video conference in March 2020 shows some hope of revival of regional cooperation in South Asia.

Hitherto, we do not know how long this pandemic will last but what we know is the persistent threat of terrorism looming over the region. Therefore, countries need to find equilibrium between both the crises so that maximum human lives could be saved.

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The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Kootneeti Team

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Karnika Jain

Karnika Jain is currently pursuing PhD from Centre for South Asian Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi

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