An Opportune Moment to Strike
While much of the world stays locked within the confines of their homes, the internet is abuzz with extremist chatter on the implications of COVID - 19. Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) and al-Qaeda look at the pandemic as divine retribution, calling it a “soldier of Allah” bringing down God’s wrath on the infidels.
"Allah, the Creator, has revealed the brittleness and vulnerability of your material strength. It is now clear for all to see that it was but a deception that could not stand the test of the smallest soldier of God on the face of the earth," al-Qaeda said in a statement this week distributed by its propaganda arm As-Sahab.
Whereas more than 50,000 people have died from the virus worldwide, extremist strongholds such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, sub-Sahara Sahel and the Levant remain relatively less impacted, so far, thus strengthening their belief on divine intervention.
There is a growing concern that while the focus is upon fighting the virus, terrorist groups may slip under the radar and carry out spectacular strikes, taking advantage of the weakened anti-terrorism shield in each country. This is evident from the statement issued by al Naba, a publication of the ISIS, declaring, “The last thing they hope for today, is that this difficult time will coincide with the preparations of the soldiers of the Caliphate for new strikes on them, similar to those of Paris, London, and Brussels and elsewhere."
The western coalition against the jihadi in the Middle East is weakening in the face of the risks imposed by the virus. UK, France and Spain have all announced plans to withdraw their contingents from Iraq due to the risk of contagion. This does not bode well for an embattled Iraq which is not only under increasing threat from the I and itself grappling with an outbreak. Its Shia ally, Iran is also majorly impacted by the pandemic.
Bioweapon is a reality
COVID-19 has stripped bare all claims of preparations against a biowarfare threat even in developed countries. If this was a terrorist initiated bio-attack, the results could not have been more spectacular from the perpetrator's viewpoint. The scarcity of the basic protective equipment and absence of set protocols and drills which could have come into effect clearly shows the lack of preparation to face bio attacks. While many countries as part of their regular civil defence drills carry out mass practices in preparation against natural disasters, fire, cyclones etc. there has been no thought given to virus spread, either naturally or maliciously. COVID-19, would perhaps set this right in the future.
Public order and safety
Purely from the perspective of human behaviour, a grave threat in such times is from citizens who refuse to comply with the directions issued by the authorities and do not adapt their behaviour as demanded by the crisis. These ‘refusers’ pose an active threat to others and thus can be categorised as a public security threat.
While the measures imposed by the authorities may not be conforming entirely to the value of protection of civil liberties, the suspension, albeit temporarily, of these protections in times of national emergency may prove to be the key to keep mortalities down.
Lockdown was imposed with some severity by the law and order agencies, which was meekly accepted by the public in general. However, with survival itself at stake due to loss of income and non-availability of food items, we may witness mass public disorder, food riots, looting of ration shops in urban areas and food carrying trucks in rural areas. Reports are already filtering in of medicine shops being ransacked.
There could be an increase in petty crime like burglary, mugging, armed robberies and even extortion as unemployed youth join the ranks of criminals. The worst-case scenario is in case some congested areas are infected badly resulting in mass casualties, then the inability of the local health care facility to treat the sick may incite their relatives and friends to indulge in riots and arson.
The lockdown is likely to be relaxed in phases and in a calibrated manner. The need to prevent mass movement from safe areas to infected zones will put immense pressure on the administration and law enforcement agencies.
The lockdown once again proved how invaluable the cyber world is for the functioning of the present world. There were reports of an increase in cyber-attacks which would persist even post COVID-19 once economic activities picked up. The state and private companies are coming out with advisories and security patches to provide “Work from Home” with a safe cyber environment.
The Indian security scene
In India, the summer months coincide with the annual spurt in infiltration from Pakistan into the Kashmir Valley. The recent chain of fierce encounters is indicative of the trend which is unlikely to abate due to COVID-19. Terror attacks, including bomb blasts, may be initiated in the hinterland also to show empathy with the victims of Delhi riots or in retaliation to the revocation of Article 370. A similar situation may develop in the North East (NE) also.
With regards to the Left Wing Extremism in India (LWE), the intensity of the conflict has not diminished. In March, in a bold ambush, Maoists killed 17 and injured 14 Central Armed Police Forces personnel in Chhattisgarh's Sukma district, the hotbed of left-wing extremist activities. However, a senior Maoist leader, Jallandhar Reddy alias Krishna, struck a conciliatory note when he made a plea in an online video message for peace in the LWE affected areas during the COVID19 threat. He assured that their cadre would refrain from any offensive action, as long as the government is engaged in the battle against COVID-19, and the security forces reciprocated with an informal cease-fire.
LWE affected tribal areas have largely remained unaffected from the virus till now. However, the presence of over 100,000 security personnel in these densely forested remote areas from all parts of the country poses a threat of infection from other parts of the country. Many locals work as migrant labour in neighbouring states, and as they stream back home, the risk increases.
Protective levels covering the entire spectrum of human and national security need to be maintained at a high operational tempo as the risk factors have only increased, not diminished during the ongoing pandemic.
Terrorists have an affinity to stake a claim on even natural occurrences to publicise their capacity to terrorise. Bioweapons are ideal tools for them because of the ease of the spread and the stealth they afford the perpetrators. Countries dabbling with bio weapon vectors in their top-secret labs have an immense responsibility to secure them from leakages, in case they cannot come to a mutual understanding to do away with them entirely.
Putting it in a morbid way, the COVID 19, is a timely wake-up call for humanity to prepare for even worst-case scenarios in the future, for surely the virus will return, perhaps in an even more virulent avatar. Every country must maintain a reserve of PPE, establish protocols for detection and mitigation and R&D establishments primed up and ready to find an anti-dote at short notice harnessing all the scientific tools in their arsenal.
Author: Major General Ajay Sah, SM, VSM(Retired), CHief Information Officer, Synergia Foundation