The World on Two Fronts: The Impact of the Pandemic on the Fight Against Terrorism

As the second wave of the corona-virus deals heavy blows to nations and health systems around the world, terrorist attacks are also still occurring.  On Monday November 2, 2020, a terrorist attack in Vienna, Austria left one dead and 15 injured.  On the same day, at least 22 were killed in a terrorist attack at Afghanistan’s largest university in Kabul when gunmen stormed the campus and opened fire. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has claimed responsibility for the attacks.             

Covid-19 and terrorism have a lot in common. One similarity, pointed out by UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, is the fact that: “Like the virus, terrorism does not respect national borders”. While this observation by the world’s top diplomat is true, it gives us just a glimpse of the full picture as far as the array of similarities between the two lethal counterparts is concerned.  

US Army staff at Kabul Training Center, Afghanistan (photo by U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Joseph Swafford)

Other similarities between Covid-19 and terrorism include large scale suffering, pain, sorrow, loss of loved ones, health workers scrambling to save lives, fear, blighted economies… the list seems endless. The greatest common factor that stands out in the midst of all this is the need for global concerted effort to combat both corona-virus and terrorism. Several questions linger in this regard: Is the international community still actively combating terrorism as they combat the Covid-19 pandemic? If so, what are some of the challenges posed by the Covid-19 pandemic to the world’s counter-terrorism efforts? Is there still a threat of terrorism?  If so, how grave are those threats?  This article attempts to address these questions by placing the spotlight on the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Syria) ISIL, ISIS or Da’esh, referred to as ISIS or ISIL from now on.

In his latest report to the UN Security Council, Vladimir Voronkov, Head of the UN Office of Counter-Terrorism, gave global as well as regional updates of the threats posed by terrorism, especially ISIS, amidst the fight against Covid-19. He also outlined efforts the United Nations is making to help member states counter those threats. He stressed that the global coronavirus crisis underscores the challenges involved in eliminating terrorism. 

Peace, Security and the Humanitarian Situation

“This pandemic environment raises several strategic and practical challenges for counter-terrorism”, Mr. Voronkov told Security Council members.  Among those challenges, he stated that fear of Covid-19 has destabilized camps and prisons holding people with suspected links to ISIS,  those held in camps include women and children,detainees and camp residents are fearful of contracting the virus. The already existing problems of escapes and other uncontrolled departures have been compounded.  As a result of the corona-virus, there is very slow progress in overcoming legal, political and practical hurdles to repatriation.

Mr Vladimir Voronkov, Under-Secretary General, United Nations Office in Counter Terrorism (Photo: IAEA Imagebank/Wikimedia Commons)

Mr. Voronkov added that due to the pandemic, limited resources have been diverted to address the above issues. Access to and transportation from holding facilities has also become a complicated matter. On a rather sombre note, the UN Counter-terrorism chief warned: “The global threat from ISIL is likely to increase in the medium to long term if the international community fails to meet this challenge.”  

Mr. Voronkov reported that ISIL has continued to consolidate in some of the areas previously under its control and to operate increasingly confidently and openly. The year 2020 has witnessed a higher number of attacks in Syria and Iraq as compared to 2019.  

The report reveals that public health measures such as lockdowns, curfews and travel restrictions have made it more difficult for terrorists to plan, move, recruit, raise funds and mount large attacks. Measures taken to contain the virus have also reduced the number of potential terrorist targets such as crowded streets, public transport and venues. Faced with such impediments to the launch of sophisticated attacks, for the time being, terrorists have resorted to individual and smaller scale attacks like the ones described above.   

The pandemic could compound the threats in fragile and conflict-affected states, where governments face challenges in asserting their authority, especially in remote areas and border regions. Furthermore, the pandemic has strained government resources, and travel restrictions have further hampered the provision of services to local populations.  


In 2019, the European Union Internet Referral Unit launched an operation which disrupted and took down terrorist content. But ISIS has quickly adapted, finding other means to reach audiences who may be sympathetic to their cause. Their new strategies include the use of smaller platforms and file sharing. People confined at home owing to COVID-19 have offered a large and captive audience for ISIS. Mr. Vladimir Voronkov predicted that if the group’s propaganda efforts are successful, it could inspire a spike in attacks once public mobility and assembly resume and targets once again present themselves. 

With ISIL overshadowed in the news by COVID-19, there is a risk of appearing irrelevant. This, the UN Counter-terrorism Chief feared, could present an opportunity for ISIL to attack.  It will also motivate them to accelerate the revival of their external operations capability.  The situation of the current terrorist threats around the world is described below.

Middle East and Asia

More than 10,000 ISIL fighters are reported to be active between Iraq and Syria, moving freely between the two countries.  Despite territorial losses and the arrest of some of its leaders, ISIS is trying to work through their affiliates in Afghanistan to spread their influence in the region.  Key on their agenda is to recruit fighters opposed to the peace agreement between the Taliban and the United States.   


ISIL has about 3,500 members in the West Africa region and this segment is the “major focus of ISIS global propaganda”.  Known as Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, this is the most dangerous group in the tri-border region of Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger.  ISIL could expand its operation in West and North Africa if the conflicts and crises there continue, especially in Mali and Libya. Corona-virus has further damaged the already weak and impoverished economies of these countries.  Without international intervention and assistance, dealing with the double impact of terrorism and Covid-19 on their territories will prove an illusion.     


The main threat in Europe is internet-driven homegrown terrorists.  The release of prisoners with terrorist background is also a cause for concern.  In some European countries, there has been a rise of right-wing violent extremism, causing intelligence services to turn their priorities away from ISIS.    

Against the foregoing backgrounds, the UN Office of Counter-Terrorism (OCT) and its partners, together with the Security Council, are implementing more than 300 counter-terrorism capacity-building projects around the world, including 50 overseen by the Office of Counter-Terrorism. Seventy-two countries are benefiting from the initiative. 

The world has always fought and overcome outbreaks of diseases while fighting terrorism. But never in the 75-year history of the United Nations has the world been confronted with a disease of such huge proportions and overwhelming consequences.  Combating the Covid-19 pandemic and terrorism at the same time has proved a mammoth task for the global community. 

Timothy Lincoln Reeves, Jr.

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