Terrorism in the COVID-19 pandemic

El Escorial hosted a conference to discuss the phenomenon of jihadist terrorism in the social and health context of the pandemic and its challenges
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The Victims of Terrorism Foundation, together with the Victims of Terrorism Memorial Centre, presented the fourteenth version of the summer course "terrorism and counter-terrorism in times of pandemic and post-pandemic" in El Escorial, as part of the summer courses of the Complutense University of Madrid. This seminar kicks off in a context in which next September will mark the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. The latest attacks are the terrorist attacks in Burkina Faso against two Spanish journalists and in 2019.

Terrorism continues to be a phenomenon that, despite the legislation in force and the effective political and social plans implemented with a view to eradicating this type of radicalism, is still present in our society and continues to pose an international threat that threatens to destabilise the political and social order in terms of international security. 

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In the financial year 2020, the European Union again suffered a number of terrorist attacks that claimed the lives of 39 citizens residing in the Union. Of these, 29 were victims of jihadist terrorism, while the remaining 10 were killed by right-wing extremist terrorism.

 The director of the course and professor at the Autonoma University  Madrid, Luis de la Corte Ibáñez, opened the conference by saying that "we hope that this conference will meet your expectations in terms of broadening your knowledge of a phenomenon that is well known in Spanish and international society". In this sense, "the purpose of this course is to analyse the situation and the immediate future of terrorism". De la corte introduced the subject by stating that "Jihadist terrorism constitutes a series of activities whose aim is the destruction of fundamental rights and freedom terrorism is the greatest threat to freedom and security". 

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On the other hand, the director of the memorial centre for victims of terrorism, Florencio Domínguez, stated that this course is "the sixth that two public organisations have jointly organised". In this way, "the aim of these sessions is to take the pulse of jihadist terrorism, as it is the main violent threat that we have to face". The latest jihadist attacks in Spain 2017, this type of violence has led to the death of Spaniards Burkina faso 2019, 2021.

The inauguration of the conference continued with a statement by the undersecretary of the Ministry of the Interior and head of victim support, Isabel Goicoechea, who said that it was an "honour and satisfaction to be able to present this summer course". In the current context that society is going through in this socio-health crisis, "jihadist terrorism has shown a high capacity for adaptation and development to be present in our daily lives". In addition to this, the undersecretary emphasised the need to "streamline the instruments to curb jihadism, destabilise order and security".

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Goicoechea paid tribute to the victims of terrorism by situating them as an "ethical reference". "We have to fight every day so that this testimony leads us to fight against terrorism, the victims symbolise the symbol of freedom in the face of the terrorist threat and symbols are fundamental in the shaping of a society", he declared. "The victims offer us a generous and painful testimony to continue the fight against this relentless terrorism (...) the voices of the victims are at the heart of the memorial centre. They allow us to better understand the processes of radicalisation and prevent terrorism from growing".

Referring to terrorism, Goicoechea said that "terrorism undermines our democracy and that is what we all have to avoid. In democracy, there is no place for terrorism or violence, there is no place for attacks against life and dignity".

The pandemic, a risk factor for the development of terrorism 

On the other hand, Luis de la Corte Ibáñez gave a presentation in which he explained to what extent the health crisis triggered by the pandemic could have influenced the development of international terrorism. According to Ibañez, "the pandemic is a very important added risk factor in the evolution of the development of terrorism". With the outbreak of the pandemic, an attempt was made to "try to show what experts, on the issue of terrorism in general and jihadism in particular, thought might happen in the first few months once the issue of the spread of COVID-19 became known and the pandemic was recognised on 12 March".

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The research hoped to show how "the pandemic was going to have an impact on the evolution of terrorist jihadism (...) from the end of last year, the UN produced a first document in which many of these forecasts were synthesised in a context in which we are beginning to think about the impact that house arrest can have".

The pandemic has highlighted "new opportunities for terrorism". In the advance of terrorist groups in Africa, the pandemic has highlighted existing vulnerabilities such as cyber-attacks, the virus as a tool to carry out attacks, terrorists could use covid as a weapon by using infected people to infect others", thus executing a kind of biological attack based on the spread of the pandemic. 

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In the short term, terrorists were expected to take advantage of this situation to execute a "propagandistic exploitation of the health crisis, engage in welfare activities to prevent and help people prevent the pandemic and gain credibility with certain audiences and publics". As an example, the researcher explains how in natural disasters such as the earthquake in Pakistan, some of these groups got involved in humanitarian aid for the purpose of propaganda, as well as Hamas in Palestine, which would be providing goods to the population that the Palestinian government cannot offer.

On the other hand, with the confinement measures it was expected that "young people would spend many hours on screens" resulting in "a multiplication of opportunities for young people to be exposed to terrorist propaganda". With a consequent increase in radicalisation and online recruitment for terrorist purposes".

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Broadly speaking, the data show that, irrespective of the pandemic, terrorist attacks have increased. In the Sahel region, 663 terrorist attacks were committed between January and November 2020, 81 attacks were committed in the Middle East, while in Pakistan and Afghanistan the number of attacks increased to 870.

De la Corte concludes that "the methods have remained the same, there has been no change in the modus operandi". In this line, the professor concludes that the pandemic "has had an influence in accentuating the dynamics, but it has not worked as a factor of change". 
 

Jihadist terrorism in the world

The day continued with the holding of a round table discussion comprising the Director of the International Observatory for Terrorism Studies, Carlos Igualada, the Professor of International Relations at the UNED, Carlos Echevarría, and the Head of the National Security Analysis Unit, Colonel Jesús Diez Alcalde, in which the current situation of Jihadist terrorism in different parts of the world was debated.

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The round table began with a speech by Carlos Igualada, who said that "Jihadist terrorism is the terrorism that most affects Europe, made up of individuals who decide to take the step to commit attacks inspired by the ideological influence of terrorist groups". According to Igualada, these attacks take place after having "consumed jihadist propaganda, one of the greatest threats to Europe".

Igualada concluded by stating that between 2018 and half of 2020 "almost 50 attacks have been conceived in prisons or have been committed by individuals already sentenced for terrorism and on their return to society they have committed them again. These attacks "show that prevention and reintegration plans are not working in prison environments, the problem of returnees in Europe is one of the greatest threats". 

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For his part, Carlos Echevarría affirmed that confinement and inactivity represent a stop and an adaptation and a continuation of the effort". Despite the pandemic, in the Maghreb and the Middle East "the fighting has continued in Syria and Libya, so the coronavirus has not paralysed the war".

"In the Maghreb, the situation is so worrying that those who will take advantage of it will be the jihadists, among others, because it is a favourable state for the ideology to spread. Libya is a fertile scenario in terms of consolidating the threat of the Islamic State. Jihadist actors have a huge window of opportunity. Another example would be the enmity between Algeria and Morocco, since "they get along worse than ever, which is good news for jihadism". The professor went on to explain that these "scenarios of chaos and tension "are always exploited by the jihadist enemy".

In the case of Tunisia, "it is a country in the process of crumbling, as "the political and social situation is terrible, which means that these Jihadist roots have a propitious space for their propaganda and dissemination". Furthermore, he points out that Mauritania could be a vulnerable state that acquires this dynamic as part of "a contagion effect of what is happening in the Maghreb and Sahel".

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To conclude the debate, Colonel Jesús Díez Alcalde questioned whether the international response is sufficient. The colonel warns that "jihadism has come to stay, or that is its minimal pretence". Jihadism "has a rigorist and exclusionary interpretation of Islam and has an apocalyptic vision of the world in which it seeks to pit Muslims and other religions against each other".

"The threat is extremely diffuse and complicated because to go into the reasoning of why a jihadist converts is complicated and one cannot generalise, our first big mistake is to try to generalise. Africa has 1.7 billion people, 750 million of whom are young people who want to live their lives without embracing any kind of radicalism. Jihadism is a fight against everyone, it is a tremendously complicated scenario, security measures are not going to be enough" since terrorism "is expanding uncontrollably to the Gulf of Guinea, it has entered the Congo and has opened up a scenario of jihadism in southern Africa, in Mozambique".

In 2016 nobody was talking about jihadism in sub-Saharan Africa and now in the Sahel, in Niger, in the Congo, Mozambique or in Somalia we are talking about the expansion of terrorism and not about recession. In this sense, Díez wondered whether what we are doing is the best thing to do, to which it would be necessary to analyse whether the responses offered are the right ones.

As solutions, and concluding the round table, Colonel Díez advocated "giving societies expectations of life so that they do not embrace jihadism" and supporting the "development of their own security forces and providing a comprehensive approach with which we can begin to glimpse the scourge of jihadism". 
 

 European jihadists displaced to Syria and Iraq

In the second part of the course, the journalist specialising in jihadism, Pilar Cebrián, led the second part of the day's session, focusing on European jihadists displaced to Syria and Iraq. The journalist explained that "Turkey has been the gateway to Daesh. Those of us Europeans who were there saw English people at Istanbul airport wearing niqabs all the way to the Syrian border. We were aware of what was happening and we were witnesses to the construction of the ill-named caliphate (...) Daesh for the first time became a terrorist group that controlled borders and population".

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According to Interpol, 5,000 displaced persons have left Europe for Syria. This ranking is led by France, with 1,900 displaced persons according to the Ministry of the Interior. Germany has reportedly registered 940 displaced persons, according to the Ministry of the Interior. They are followed by the United Kingdom, with 850 displaced persons according to the British authorities, along with Belgium with 500 displaced persons and Spain with 248 according to the national police.

In addition to these figures, there are 73,000 people in the camps of al Hol, which currently has 11,200 foreigners, of whom 1,200 are Europeans. On the other hand, al Roj has 1,700, according to the UN. Cebrián states that in these camps "the jihadists go freely, there is no control, you can see a sort of caliphate in the camp (...) for them jihadism is a response and when they discover this propaganda they believe the idea that the only way to save yourself is to leave your country, which is why European jihadists move towards the caliphate as a way of purging themselves", he concludes.