The Challenge of Counterterrorism in a Post-Quarantine World

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Soldiers on duty after the 2011 terror attacks in Oslo. Photo by Jaime Reyes Palencia via Flickr

As lockdown restrictions ease in Europe, the specter of terrorism is once again focusing authorities’ attention.

The deaths of three persons in Reading, UK last weekend at the hands of an individual on intelligence watch lists for extremist activity served as a reminder that as public places start to reopen and larger gatherings are permitted, societies will once again become vulnerable, said Gary Ackerman, a professor at the State University of New York at Albany and an expert in homeland security.

In fact, Ackerman added, the pandemic itself can be a trigger for violent extremist acts.

“COVID can be used to bolster or amplify the arguments of radicalized extremists,” Ackerman said in an interview with The Crime Report, noting that extremists of all stripes were poised to take advantage of the fear and economic insecurity.

The suspect in the Reading attack, 25-year-old Khairi Saadallah, was flagged twice by security services in the previous two years, but was deemed to pose no danger, The Guardian reported.

The attack, which also left three others wounded, renewed attention to perceived weaknesses in U.S. and European counter-terrorism efforts.

Despite publishing a well-thought-out  National Strategy for Counterterrorism in 2018, President Donald Trump’s administration appears to be focused on closing domestic borders to undocumented immigrants on the grounds that they represent both terrorist and criminal threats to the homeland—though most experts say there is no evidence to support the claim, argued Ackerman.

This does not address, he added, what is a far greater current threat:—a potential surge in homegrown terrorism. “Closing the borders will not stop terrorists that are already in the U.S.,” he said, “Nor will it stop lone individuals– who, after months of isolation, pent up fear and anxiety, and trying to find hope or meaning after losing their job–are attracted by the narrative of extremist organizations that place blame on whatever group they hate, whether that be a government, a religion, or a race.”

See also: “COVID-19 Has Been a Boom for White Supremacist Menace”

Turning to international counterterrorism efforts, NATO last week launched what it called a Counter-Terrorism Reference Curriculum aimed at enhancing allies’ capacity to “develop national skills” in combating extremist threats.

But according to Ackerman, such joint efforts are undercut by White House policymakers’ barely concealed hostility towards the Atlantic alliance.

“NATO is problematic,” Ackerman concedes. “But [leaving NATO] would send the wrong message to our enemies (and) undermine international counterterrorism efforts.

“Pulling out of NATO would first and foremost cause destabilization in the balance of power, and  global security would definitely suffer. It might not be a catastrophe in terms of counterterrorism, but will have a detrimental effect over time.”

Sarah Rose George is a TCR news reporting intern

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