Categories: Rise to Peace blog

Terrorism or Testing: Will COVID-19 Reduce Counterterrorism Efforts?

In the wake of the global pandemic, concerns about public health dominate the political sphere, enough so that issues related to public security and defense against terrorist activities no longer appear in the headlines. As government expenditures to divert economic damages and bolster public health measures increase, defense budgets are likely to experience cuts to balance the budget. Such a response makes sense given the scope of stimulus packages and widespread unemployment.

Countries like France, Spain, and the United Kingdom decided to withdraw all troops from Iraq because of the risks posed by COVID-19. This raises the question: Does there remain a need to combat terrorist activity in the same way in a post-quarantine world?

Government officials, researchers, and the Islamic State themselves say yes. Lawmakers and researchers warn that terrorist actors are increasingly threatening global security as they have exploited the pandemic not only to increase their operations, but also their influence in countries with weak governments struggling to confront the virus.

For instance, Gilles de Kerchove, the counterterrorism coordinator for the European Union, in stressing the importance of not detracting from security spending said that, “we must prevent the one crisis from producing another.” Additionally, terrorist activity and attacks in the Middle East and Africa increased in recent months despite the pandemic. ISIL is using the virus’ crippling impact on the West and its online newspaper “Al-Naba” as a method to recruit more fighters to its cause. Further, it is increasing its militant activities in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. Likewise, Boko Haram has used the global focus on the pandemic to launch multiple attacks against government forces in recent months, killing well over a hundred soldiers in Nigeria alone.

To date, neither the United States nor European governments signaled that they plan to leave the Middle East entirely (though as previously mentioned some US partners are leaving Iraq), but the pandemic provides both an excuse and economic incentive to do so. States with large military expenditures like the US will likely be able to continue their operations and smaller countries may not be able to afford these expenses even if they wanted to remain engaged in the region.

US policymakers face a tough decision as the de-facto leader in military engagement in the Middle East. Will the US continue the strategy of deep engagement, utilizing drone strikes as they have in the past, for the purpose of countering Iranian influence and terrorism in the region? Or will the US pursue an “America First” policy that focuses on rebuilding the US economy, which has been President Trump’s major policy objective and source of support? While either outcome could be normally expected, the aftermath of COVID-19 is likely to be anything but normal.

Likely, the US will pursue a sort of middle ground.  The level of activity in the Middle East will decline in some areas (especially helpful to this goal is the US withdrawal from Afghanistan), but remain constant in areas deemed critical security threats.  For example, the US is unlikely to limit funding for countering Iranian aggression, but find other budgets to cut to focus on the economy.

While the retreat of foreign forces from the Middle East, like the US, is unlikely to be met, the future of military engagement in the region will undoubtedly change as world leaders confront the lack of resources to continue their past strategies. Countries with little to lose and smaller levels of commitment will be more incentivized to withdraw and benefit from the continued engagement of the world’s military leaders on some level.

– Cameron Hoffman

Cameron Hoffman

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