The wide-ranging impacts of COVID-19 have the potential to exacerbate grievances, undermine social cohesion and fuel conflict, creating the conditions conducive to the spread of terrorism and violent extremism. Terrorists are exploiting the disruption, uncertainty and economic hardships caused by COVID-19 to spread fear, hate and division and radicalize and recruit new followers.
While governments around the world are focused on combating the virus, ISIL and al-Qaida have adapted to the new context, aimed to reassert themselves online and offline, and urged on its followers and affiliates to ramp up attacks. The pandemic has also highlighted vulnerabilities to new violent extremist narratives conducive to terrorism, as well as emerging forms of terrorism, including cyberattacks against healthcare institutions.
Deadly global threats such as terrorism and COVID-19 require us to act together, with a renewed sense of unity and solidarity. As the United Nations marks its 75th anniversary this year, multilateralism is as essential now as it was at the end of the Second World War.
To play our part, the United Nations has just held a ‘Virtual Counter-Terrorism Week’ consisting of ten interactive discussions to assess the strategic and practical challenges of countering terrorism in a global pandemic environment. It brought together governments, civil society organizations and representatives from the private sector, youth and regional organizations from around the world to share their expert analysis, exchange innovative ideas and strengthen international counter-terrorism cooperation.
So what were the key takeaways from the week? We heard how terrorist threats are likely to continue to diversify with the possibility of attacks involving cyber disruption of critical infrastructure, biological agents, the weaponization of deadly diseases and hate speech. There was broad agreement that the huge stresses and strains caused by COVID-19 will severely test the resilience and cohesion of our societies over the next few years. This underlined the importance of preventive measures and the involvement of all parts of society, especially women and young people, in developing and implementing counter-terrorism policies and programmes.
It also reinforced the Secretary-General’s call for a global ceasefire to fight the virus, alleviate human suffering and break the cycle of violence in which terrorism can thrive. There was broad consensus among speakers that it is more critical than ever that counter-terrorism responses fully protect and promote human rights and the rule of law, as their potential abuse is higher in a COVID-19 context. Freedom of expression and the right to privacy are cases in point. The dire situation in the camps and places of detention holding suspected foreign terrorist fighters and thousands of associated women and children in Syria and Iraq, another topic discussed during the Virtual Counter-Terrorism Week, remains a challenge.
We all have a responsibility to urgently repatriate as many of these people as possible to provide, as appropriate, fair prosecution, rehabilitation and reintegration in society. Children should come first and be repatriated without delay.
Terrorists have adapted to the new COVID-19 world and so must we. The United Nations has been nimble in changing the way it works to better support the efforts of countries and local communities to prevent and counter terrorism around the world. More and more, we are using e-learning tools to shift our training programmes online and utilizing modern communication platforms to engage with new audiences, especially young people.
Over the past week, we launched a Virtual Expo involving interactive maps, compelling stories and informative videos to showcase the impactful capacity-building work of the United Nations Counter-Terrorism Centre within the UN Office of Counter-Terrorism, confirming its reputation as a global Centre of Excellence. This work is only possible thanks to the generous financial contributions from a wide range of donor countries.
As we celebrated on 26 June the 75th anniversary of the adoption of the United Nations Charter, Secretary-General António Guterres stressed how the COVID-19 pandemic, an unprecedented human crisis in our lifetime, “has underscored the world’s fragilities.” We require an unprecedented response to prevent terrorists from taking advantage of those fragilities. We must work together to ensure that COVID-19 does not become the catalyst for a surge in global terrorism and violent extremism that exploits the long-standing social, political and economic inequalities, and discontent exposed by the virus. We must continually review, adapt and strengthen our counter-terrorism efforts to stay one step ahead of those who seek to do us harm. Supporting victims of terrorism and preventing more innocents to become one of them must be our priority.
The virtual discussions over the last week have shown that today, in the midst of a global pandemic, it is more important than ever to work collectively, with common purpose and determination, to build resilient societies and rid the world of terrorism.