ATbar COVID-19 and Global Terrorism Pandemics

COVID-19 and Global Terrorism Pandemics

22/03/2021 | by Ganor, Boaz (Prof.)  

First published in EICTP Research Study: Key Determinants in the Era of COVID-19 and Beyond. Trajectory, Disruption and the Way Forward. Volume II, available here


2020 will be written down in history as a turning point year. It is hard to predict where the global pivot will be, however, one thing is clear – what used to be will be no more. The healthcare and economic challenges will change, tourism, work and daily routines will change, international, bilateral and multilateral relationships will change and similarly the security and counterterrorism challenge will be shaped accordingly. The COVID-19 pandemic has been wielding great influence on the above as well as many other global processes.

On the face of it many parallels may be drawn between these two pandemics, COVID-19 and global terrorism. In both cases these are lethal phenomena that endanger many people’s lives, may cause significant bodily injury, negatively affect life routine and the collective as well as personal sense of safety. Yet, beyond the common aspects of the threat these two phenomena pose to the nations of the world, they both present a random challenge. No one on earth is immune to either terrorism or COVID-19. Both can strike anywhere at any time without an advance alert and hurt any person regardless of religion, creed, race or gender or location. An innocent civilian strolling in the mall or down a crowded street may be hurt by a random terror attack perpetrated in the area. Similarly, another person can contract the virus through an accidental chance exposure to a COVID-19 carrier. The random nature of both phenomena and the life threating risks they pose to ordinary civilians evoke a great sense of fear and anxiety. By its nature, terrorism strives to terrorize various target audiences. This modus operandi intends to promote and achieve ideological, political, social and other targets by spreading fear among the target community. In the case of COVID-19, the fear and anxiety are the product of the scope of the risk coupled with the sense of insecurity and inability to defend one from this danger.

The fear factor that accompanies both pandemics is not just an outcome of their random nature but also a product of the media coverage of the damage they cause, especially the personal stories of the victims and their families. The latter, in and of themselves intensify anxiety and create a sense that “by sheer chance it wasn’t me or someone close to me that was hurt. Next time I may not be so lucky.”

One of the prominent common denominators of both pandemics is connected to their infection characteristic. Both phenomena are contagious and spread rapidly and exponentially. If COVID-19 virus spreads through human contact and exposure to a sick person, terrorism virus infects through the web and social media. The exposure of people to incitement and radicalization content via the web may cause a widespread infection of wide circles of people who may adopt radical points of view that encourage and lead to terror attacks. In this sense a person may transfer incitement to terrorism messages, using his own laptop where is present in one country and uses websites, social media networks and other online platforms located in another country and incite followers to perpetrate devastating attacks in their homelands around the globe. This phenomenon is especially evident in “lone wolf” attacks that are in many cases inspiration for terror attacks – the perpetrator becomes a role model to others and inspires them to follow his lead. This kind of Propaganda of the Deed was typical for the activity of anarchists during the late 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century and is based on exponential infection. And this leads to another common denominator – both phenomena are cross-border. Neither COVID-19 virus can be stopped by borders, nor can terrorist incitement, inspiration and activities.

Considering the wider ramifications of the phenomena, one can observe many similarities here again: Both COVID-19 and terrorism cause severe economic harm. COVID-19 measures that require social distancing and quarantine have caused a significant decrease of the GDP of many countries as well as an unprecedent peak of unemployment rates. Air traffic tourism and leisure time industry were among the most severely affected. Similarly, following notorious terror atrocities such as 9/11 in the US as well as other terrorism waves in different countries, these measures have caused severe damage to these and other industries and economies. Moreover, both phenomena challenge and subvert the public’s trust in its governments and decisionmakers and destabilize law and order. This lack of trust may be manifested via harsh criticism in the way COVID-19 is being contended the way these governments manage the crisis, and their decisions especially in connection with social distancing and quarantine policies. Or, in the case of counter-terrorism, the public trust in their governments might be reduced when the public starts to question the government’s determination or capability to protect them at all costs by taking all the necessary steps which are needed to prevent any terrorist’s attacks.

One of the most difficult dilemmas regarding counter-terrorism is the “Democratic Dilemma”, meaning the natural tension between the use of effective counter-terrorism measures and the need to preserve liberal-democratic values. This tension intensifies in light of the fact that counter-terrorism measures are intended, at their core, to protect a basic human right – the right to live, hence these counter-terrorism measures are taken in order to save lives. However, employing some of the most effective counter-terrorism measures infringes to varying degrees on multiple other human and civil rights, such as freedom of speech, freedom of movement and assembly, the right to privacy, and many others. This basic dilemma that marks the tension between the need to prevent the loss of lives and the infringement of democratic-liberal values is manifested in the way countries contend with COVID-19 as well. Is it the state’s right, in the name of public health, to infringe on people’s privacy by questioning patients about the way they live their lives and the people they meet with? Can it impose a widespread quarantine? Compel people to move wearing face masks? Isolate certain communities that have a high infection ratio or are considered high-risk groups (e.g. the elderly or certain ethnic minorities)? Can it prohibit demonstrations or group prayers? The above gets even more sensitive when the preventive measures include the deployment of technology such as advanced triangulation systems, applications that monitor the movements of cell phone owners, AI-based technologies and more. Such technologies serve as sources to locate sick people and to sever the infection chain (in the case of COVID-19) as soon as possible, or to locate the terrorists, their accomplices and supporters to prevent terror attacks.

The Democratic Dilemma-challenges in contending with terrorism or with COVID-19 require a regulatory regime that will govern the use of various measures, especially the use of advanced technology to prevent both phenomena. In both cases there is a paramount need to develop a system of checks and balances based on the separation of powers which will include an effective monitoring system to verify that neither branch of government exceeds their power. These essential checks and balances must be measured and sophisticated enough so as to leave enough room for an effective response for various enforcement agencies to be able to prevent either the spread of COVID-19 or a wave of terror attacks. The states must strike the required balance between the urgent need to effectively deal with the problem and their duty to examine, monitor and review these measures and prevent their abuse.

Moreover, effectively contending with both phenomena calls for tight cooperation, local as well as global. To effectively contend with COVID-19 requires ongoing cooperation among multiple government ministries (Finance, Health, HLS, Education and more), healthcare systems (Ministry of Health, hospitals, HMOs), private and public sector (importers and manufactures of healthcare equipment, technology and life sciences companies that develop vaccines and medicines), municipal and national governments, academia and government (consulting on healthcare, epidemiology, economy, crisis management and more), law enforcement agencies, and healthcare authorities (share of information and executing heightened enforcement) and many more. Similarly, to effectively contend with terrorism requires an inter-ministry, interagency and inter-sectorial cooperation.

With both phenomena it is important to reach an understanding and collaboration between the government and decision-makers and the public at large and particular sectors of the public (high-risk communities) to achieve cooperation, compliance and assistance to the joint effort to thwart terrorism and the spread of the virus. However, due to the fact that both pandemics are infectious and cross-border in nature the need for cooperation is global on top of the local aspect. For example, if a certain country successfully manages, to reduce the infection ratio within its territory and arrive at an effective control of the spread of the virus through enforcement of social distancing and quarantine, the moment it will open its borders to neighboring countries and resume marine and aerial international transportation, without cooperation with its neighbors and other countries on prevention regulation of the spread of the virus, the movement of people (tourists, businessmen, expats and relatives) will soon cause an increase of the infection ratio and worsen its position. The same is true with regards to terrorism. A country that takes effective counter-terrorism measures but leaves its borders open and has no close cooperation with its neighbors is risking terrorist infiltrating in its territory and perpetrating attacks. This global regulatory cooperation has even greater importance whenever terrorists use online platforms in different countries and these countries do not work together to eradicate the phenomenon. An effective struggle against both phenomena requires, therefore, a cross-border, uniform use of countermeasures, mutual thresholds and common regulation, coordination and joint operations among the various enforcements agencies, as well as learning from the experience of other states.

That said, the learning process in and of itself is not enough. At the core of the effective struggle with both phenomena there is the fundamental stage of gathering intelligence, analyzing and processing it and arriving at actionable conclusions. The need for reliable and current intelligence when fighting terrorism is obvious. Without intelligence one cannot thwart a specific attack and cannot actively engage in an offensive or operative action against terror organizations, against their operatives and accomplices, or even establish effective policies and practices. Intelligence is also fundamental to an effective campaign against COVID-19. Policy makers and heads of the healthcare systems need to know as soon as possible who was infected by the virus in order to cut any infection chain. They need to know how other healthcare systems in different countries operate and learn from their experience, and they need to learn the developing dynamics of the pandemic behavior, etc.

Moreover, with both pandemics there is a great importance for enlisting the public to fight each phenomenon and encourage the people to comply with the health regulations. Thus, counterterrorism agencies in various countries understood long ago the importance of recruiting the public for the intelligence warnings and acted to heathen their awareness, inter alia through campaigns such as “If You See Something Say Something”. Similarly, various countries act to recruit the public to report an increase of COVID-19 symptoms through various means such as designated cellular apps to enable them an early detection of infection clusters.

Based on the gathered intelligence one can compile the reference scenarios that will serve as the basis for the decision-makers’ status review and assessment of possible ways to contend with the phenomenon. When dealing with terrorism, possible attack types and locations will be presented so that counter-terrorism agencies will know how to prepare for and deploy countermeasures to thwart them, whereas when dealing with a healthcare crisis possible scenarios are needed in order to identify and address the thresholds beyond which the healthcare system will collapse (e.g. number of patients, number of severe patients, number of ventilated patients). Based on the intelligence assessment and the reference scenarios the required equipment to effectively battle the disease will be prepared and supplies procured, treatment protocols compiled, staff will be trained etc. The intelligence picture also forms a basis for setting the required regulatory regime, most importantly including what laws and ordinances need to be enacted to define the authority of the various government agencies as well as the public’s level of compulsory compliance.

As mentioned above, enlisting the public to contend with both pandemics is paramount, however the way to recruit the public doesn’t have to be via reinforcement and legal sanctions but rather through incorporation, convincing, education and, above all, transparency. Only when the public will be convinced that the steps taken by the government are indeed needed to keep it healthy and safe it will comply. To achieve that there is a need to develop an effective and professional interaction with the public, explaining the policy and the steps taken by the government is necessary. This interaction needs to gain the public’s trust by disseminating current and reliable information coupled with clear and impartial instructions that do not favor or discriminate any sector of the public.

All of the above point to the fact that contending with COVID-19 as well as terrorism require a professional, efficient and consistent decision-making process. The leaders must ensure the existence of a clear, hierarchal chain of command and a definite division of authority and responsibilities between all the relevant ministries and agencies and in synergetic fashion, refrain from unnecessary disputes, devoid of any rivalries, politics and ego clashes (either personal or institutional).

In summary, the processes to contend with either the coronavirus pandemic terrorism are very similar as both conform to the modus operandi required to contend with global crises and disasters (see diagram below). In the early stage (i.e. pre-crisis) one must gather as much intelligence as possible to understand the scope of the phenomenon, its nature, ramification, its vulnerabilities and more. On that basis, one must strive to prevent the crisis from happening by increasing the government agencies’ preparedness and readiness for either routine of emergency activities, increasing public resiliency and heightening public awareness to the possibility of such disaster happening.

Should the preventive measures fail and the crisis (i.e. waves of pandemic or global terrorism) erupts, the government should then switch gears and focus on the next stage, which is managing the crisis. The purpose of the latter is to minimize and mitigate the damage from the crisis, limit the number of casualties (dead, injured or sick) by delegating authority and dividing roles and responsibilities among the various relevant emergency apparatuses, coordinating, controlling and commanding them and enlisting the public to assist the above and comply with the regulations. Once the crisis has been contained then the last stage starts – recovery and resumption of pre-crisis normalcy. Here one must restore, as fast as possible, all the individual, community, municipality and national normal day to day activities.


As explained above, both pandemics, COVID-19 and global terrorism, as well as the challenges that arise when fighting them both have multiple similarities. That said, it is important to acknowledge some fundamental differences between them. First, assuming the COVID-19 eruption was not manmade, both pandemics represent two different types of calamities – terrorism is a manmade calamity, executed by design in an attempt to achieve concrete ideological, political, social and other goals. COVID-19 is an unintended natural disaster[1]. The malice in terrorism is manifested, inter alia, in all the early stages of the attacks – initiation, planning, preparation as well as in the attack itself. All of the above are meant to maximize the terror attack’s impact in a way that will promote the aforementioned goals and interests of the perpetrators. That is not the case with COVID-19. Here, not only are there no plans or preparations to launch the pandemic, but it wasn’t meant to promote anybody’s interests. Moreover, unlike terror attacks which are designed to target a special class of people, ethnic minority, ideological or political rivals, COVID-19 cannot be focused on any specific target population and avoid infecting other people at the same time. Therefore, it is very difficult to maliciously use the virus in the service of a state actor, terror organization or any other group for a pinpoint attack or a specific attack on an enemy or a specific rival[2].

Anther fundamental difference is associated with the way one combats each phenomenon. Whereas counter-terrorism effort is based on the “terrorism formula” whose variables are motivation and operational capability, i.e. a terror attack only happens when the perpetrator has both the motivation to execute the attack and the capability to carry it out, an effective counter-terrorism effort requires either neutralizing the motivation (by CVE measures – Countering Violent Extremism) or neutralizing the operational capabilities of the terrorists (CT). Fighting the COVID-19 pandemic, the counter-measure efforts are totally focused on neutralizing the virus’ ability to inflict massive harm.

Finally, it should be noted that like any other crisis, contending with either the coronavirus pandemic or terrorism entails many opportunities. For example, even though both phenomena have different life-threatening attributes they both create an immediate and acute need to develop special modi operandi and technologies for handling them. The latter may even be one and the same as we have seen with cell phone triangulation. Since need is the mother of all invention one can hope that countering both phenomena will accelerate Research and Development (R&D) processes that not only assist the curbing and preventing of the phenomena in the future, but also may have other dual use advantages and provide a technological and conceptual springboard in many aspects of life.

Another opportunity involves the suffering caused to many innocent people around the world because of these phenomena. This global human suffering creates a sense of shared destiny which may be directed (with the proper steering by the leadership in different countries) to mend fences, overcome differences and mute conflicts. This sense of shared destiny may even promote effective global cooperation that will help defeat terrorism and COVID-19. Same as to effectively contend with terrorism one must form a global coalition to include all global relevant actors battling terrorism (decision-makers, governments, security and intelligence agencies, first responders, international organizations, civil organizations, academia and the public at large). The same holds true when fighting COVID-19. Here too, we must form a global coalition and include all relevant actors to study and understand the disease better, identify the challenges it poses and develop effective ways and means to prevent and handle it, all the while learning from each other’s experience, forming joint doctrines and global regulations for crossborder containment and the elimination of the virus. In fighting the new global phenomenon of the COVID-19 pandemic, we must learn the lessons of countering global terrorism and acknowledge that “it takes a network to defeat a network”.


[1] That of course discounts various theories blaming the Chinese government for the eruption of the pandemic, either negligently or by design.

[2] The above statement obviously assumes that COVID-19 was not launched premeditatedly by the Chinese to inflict harm on global economy and create opportunities for the Chinese market.