Terrorism After the Pandemic

Months of isolation and governments grappling with other crises could lead to a rise in attacks.

A police officer stands guard outside a cordoned-off block of apartments where the suspect in a multiple stabbing incident lived in Reading, west of London, on June 23.
A police officer stands guard outside a cordoned-off block of apartments where the suspect in a multiple stabbing incident lived in Reading, west of London, on June 23. Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images

“Europe has now become the epicenter of the pandemic,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus declared back in March. The warning from the head of the World Health Organization (WHO) was stark, but not all countries in the continent reacted with urgency. Some countries were yet to go into lockdown.

But an unlikely voice concurred with Tedros. The Islamic State’s al-Naba newsletter warned supporters not to set foot in the “land of the epidemic.” That might seem like good news, but there are already plenty of Islamic State supporters—and those animated by a broader jihadi ideology—already living in the continent. That means that the tempo of plots in Europe has remained relatively steady, even during the pandemic.

The most recent example occurred in the United Kingdom on June 20. Khairi Saadallah, who arrived from Libya as an asylum-seeker in 2012, targeted civilians relaxing in a park in Reading, Berkshire. Three people died and three more injured before Saadallah was restrained by a nearby police officer. Thames Valley Police described Saadallah’s attack as a “terrorist incident,” and the victims were all gay men, suggesting there was a potential homophobic element.

Following the attack, British Home Secretary Priti Patel commented that “it is clear that the threat posed by lone actors is growing.” A new report from Europol confirmed that “the greatest threat emanates from lone actors or small cells carrying out violence on their own accord without being directed by larger organisations.”

Indeed, radicalized individuals animated by a broader Islamist ideology show no sign of letting up or being deterred by the coronavirus. In addition to Saadallah, there have been at least six additional plots targeting Europe since WHO declared the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic on March 11.

The first was actually not a lone attacker but a five-man Tajik cell based in Germany. All were allegedly members of the Islamic State and received instructions from terrorist planners in Syria and Afghanistan. The cell had acquired firearms and had scouted U.S. military bases in Germany as potential targets, along with an unnamed individual they deemed to be critical of Islam, before the authorities thwarted their suspected plans.

This is the most ambitious plot in Europe to be disrupted in the coronavirus era so far. Others were simpler, and some—like Saadallah’s—proved harder to stop.

Take the case of Abdallah Ahmed-Osman, who went on a stabbing rampage in Romans-sur-Isère, in southeastern France, in April. The attack led to two deaths and five injuries. He has since been charged in France with murder connected to a terrorist enterprise. Ahmed-Osman had mentioned to investigators that being confined to his studio apartment as a consequence of the lockdown in France was an aggravating factor in his decision to act. Ahmed-Osman struggled to cope with the isolation, and writings discovered at his home made reference to no longer being able to “live in this land of disbelievers.”

That same month, a man identified in French media as “Youssef T.” injured two police officers in the Parisian suburb of Colombes via a vehicular attack. Prior to striking, Youssef T. pledged allegiance to Abu Walid al-Sahraoui, the Islamic State’s emir in the Greater Sahara. Days later, Danish authorities announced that there was “no doubt” that domestic intelligence services had prevented a newly arrested lone actor with a “militant Islamic motive” from carrying out an attack.

The next threat presented itself in Barcelona, where a joint U.S.-Moroccan-Spanish security operation led to the arrest of an Islamic State-linked Moroccan who was suspected of planning an attack. Then, shortly before Saadallah struck, a 14-year-old boy was charged with planning an Islamist attack in the United Kingdom.

These plots are noticeable for their simplicity and for being carried out by those seemingly planning to carry out their attack alone. That makes sense. It is already well established that such attacks require little planning and are extremely difficult to thwart. They’ve been the main mode of attack in the last five years: Muhaydin Mire attempted to behead a commuter at a London Tube station; Mahdi Mohamud stabbed two civilians and a police officer in Manchester; Usman Khan stabbed two people to death and injured three others on London Bridge before being disrupted by nearby civilians and then being shot and killed by the police; and Sudesh Amman stabbed two civilians in London before being shot and killed by the police.

In other words, it seems unlikely that the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the nature of terrorism in Europe. It does, however, present an opportunity for the acceleration of preexisting trends. For example, a recent report by the United Nations Security Council Counter-Terrorism Committee warns that “[t]he increase in the number of young people engaging in unsupervised Internet usage—particularly on gaming platforms—offers terrorist groups an opportunity to expose a greater number of people to their ideas.”

There are other potential negative consequences. For one, EU Counterterrorism Coordinator Gilles de Kerchove has warned of how extremists of all stripes could exploit the situation for their own ends: For example, the far-right might blame migrants or ethnic minorities for the spread of the virus. There has already been reports of an increase in hate incidents against East Asians. Or governments might be distracted from security issues, which would allow terrorists to regroup. The U.N. counterterrorism report assessed that “[s]ome Member States have already announced the reallocation of resources, including the withdrawal (or planned withdrawal) of foreign armed forces involved in operations against ISIL and Al-Qaida, and the relocation of armed forces to support domestic pandemic relief efforts.” For its part, the Islamic State was reported as having expressed its hope that with Western countries focused on the pandemic, they would now stop “meddling” in Muslim-related issues.

Yet it is also very possible that terrorism in Europe will continue to look broadly how it does currently. Flare-ups will occur from the far-left, far-right, and various other fringe ideologies. But the primary threat to life will continue to be from Islamists, who now have been targeting Europe with some determination and some success for a quarter of a century. They had been doing so with such success that Europeans were being warned that terrorism was simply the “new normal” they would have to learn to live with.

Of course, the same has been said about the coronavirus. So as new coronavirus outbreaks emerge and fears of a second wave persist, and with terrorism an enduring problem, Europeans will likely be asked to reconcile themselves to the specter of these two new normals grimly coexisting.

That is already a big ask for Europe, jolted as it has been in recent years by the eurozone crisis, a huge influx of asylum-seekers and economic migrants, and a string of electoral successes for nativist or populist political parties. Add in the post-lockdown economic catastrophe that is widely believed to be imminent, and the tensions that have been brought to bear by the killing of George Floyd in the United States, there is no guarantee that it stands ready to meet the challenge.

Robin Simcox is a counterterrorism analyst. Twitter: @RobinSimcox