Covid and the Taliban drive diverse terrorist threats | RiskMap 2022


Covid and the Taliban drive diverse terrorist threats 

 Jonathan Wood | Director & Arsla Jawaid | Analyst

Terrorism in 2022 and beyond will be shaped by two major developments: the COVID pandemic and the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan. These two developments pose different kinds of threats, but both are contributing to an increasingly diverse threat landscape. Companies must use lessons learned to effectively monitor and mitigate terrorism threats in 2022. 

Long COVID radicalisation 

The COVID pandemic has had several overlapping impacts on the terrorism threat landscape worldwide. Economic damage and social disruption aggravated grievances and divisions driving conflict, terrorism and violent extremism. Many of the countries most impacted by terrorism were also among those least able to mount an effective nationwide public health response. The crisis distracted and detracted from counterterrorism efforts through operational disruption, redirection of resources and political attention, and attrition and absenteeism within security services. Heading into 2022, governments are grappling with the lingering public health crisis and often precarious political situations, increasing the risk that security threats go unaddressed.

In addition, the pandemic aggravated mental health, financial, relationship and other personal stressors preyed upon by terrorist recruiters and sometimes implicated in violent and extremist activity. This coincided with a surge in online activity in lieu of in-person social activities, putting vast new audiences within reach of increasingly savvy propagandists, from jihadists to right-wing extremists seeking to exploit opposition to lockdowns and vaccines. In 2022, the fillip to anti-government and anti-authority sentiment during the pandemic – part of a broader loss of trust in governance – is likely to contribute to right- and left-wing extremism.

At the same time, border closures, entry restrictions and curfews made it harder for terrorist groups to move, communicate and operate. Socio-economic shutdowns reduced the prevalence of crowded soft targets, limiting the potential for mass casualty attacks. This suggests that increased social mobility in 2022 is likely to restore some of both the capability and opportunity of terrorist groups and radicalised violent extremists. Violent extremists also continue to embrace low-tech, low-cost tactics like improvised explosive devices (IEDs), shooting attacks, and vehicle ramming that often defy detection and disruption. 

The post-Afghanistan landscape 

The precipitous US withdrawal from Afghanistan, meanwhile, revives the threat of a renewed safe haven for internationally-minded terrorist groups, especially al-Qaida but also Islamic State (IS), and ethno-sectarian groups focused on the surrounding region. The UN estimates that around 8,000 to 10,000 foreign terrorist fighters were present in Afghanistan as of mid-2021 in a constellation of groups.

For many of these groups, like the beleaguered al-Qaida, Afghanistan is already much safer now than when it was patrolled by US drones and special forces. Indeed, the Taliban takeover is already inspiring increased attack activity in north-west Pakistan; groups focused on Central Asia and China will also try to exploit the new Afghan landscape, potentially shifting their centres of gravity back from Syria. 

Foreign terrorist group presence in Afghanistan, 2021 (UN Security Council 1988 Monitoring Group)

  • TTP: Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (Pakistani Taliban)
  • TIP: Turkistan Islamic Party (also known as East Turkistan Islamic Movement/ETIM)
  • IMU: Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan
  • ISK: Islamic State Khorasan
  • IJG: Islamic Jihad Group
  • KIB: Khatiba Imam al-Bukhari

The Taliban is under significant international pressure to contain such groups, but it remains unclear if it can or will do so. The Taliban’s factional structure and decentralised command-and-control will make any proscription of specific militant groups difficult to enforce. Even aligned groups, like the Haqqani Network or Islamic Movement in Uzbekistan (IMU), may gain influence and autonomy where the Taliban struggles to assert control. Meanwhile, terrorist attacks against civilians by rival Islamic State – Khorasan (IS-K) – mainly comprised of disgruntled Taliban fighters – undermine the Taliban’s ability to provide security.

Beyond Afghanistan, Islamist extremist groups are likely to view the Taliban takeover as a model, especially in the Sahel region of West Africa, north-west Syria, and Yemen: patiently cultivate local influence, avoid provocative attacks, and outlast domestic and international adversaries. This may limit or reduce these groups’ intent to conduct transnational attacks in 2022, especially against Western countries, but is likely to drive more concerted local campaigns (taking advantage of post-COVID gaps in state capacity).

The withdrawal also draws a curtain on a geopolitical era defined substantially by counterterrorism while opening one of great power competition. The strategic value to global powers of counterterrorism cooperation with regional players is likely to decline in favour of alignment in other areas, like trade and technology. Unmoored from the “long war”, governments from the Sahel to Central Asia will start to re-evaluate their partnerships and patrons to reflect the emerging world order. Already, despite general consensus on the need to contain transnational terrorism, there is limited appetite for hosting new “over the horizon” capabilities.

Non-state militant groups may become even more valuable as proxies and force multipliers in geopolitical competition. Pakistan’s support of the Taliban, for example, seeks to secure stability on its western front to balance against rivalry with India. In addition, militant groups control or influence key economic assets in Syria, eastern DRC and Venezuela, making them potential powerbrokers or partners for less scrupulous geopolitical players.  

Business risk mitigation 

Business in 2022 will need to account for the dual risk drivers of the pandemic and Taliban takeover. If the pandemic is driving more diversity in ideology and tactics, events in Afghanistan are likely to revive the potential for transnational terrorism.

For many companies, this means at a minimum carefully reviewing threat, vulnerability and risk assessments for exposure to changes in the terrorism threat landscape. Foreign Islamist extremist groups remain wedded to small-scale, less predictable attacks; a safe haven in Afghanistan would likely enhance their capability to influence and recruit sympathizers. But it could also create space away from diligent counter-terrorism eyes to plan more sophisticated operations.

Concurrently, as a result of the pandemic, many companies that previously focused on location-specific terrorism threats (like a corporate headquarters) now manage more dispersed, diverse footprints (including hybrid workforces). Major commercial centres will remain most attractive to terrorism threat actors, but companies also need to consider where and how critical assets and personnel could be impacted elsewhere.

Like the IS-fuelled shift in mass casualty terrorism towards downtown entertainment districts, the shift to hybrid working is likely to further expand corporate duty-of-care to off-premise, non-work activities. This can become a value-add for companies in a competitive labour market. Control Risks is already working with clients keen to supply remote employees with training and situational awareness that fits their location and changed pattern of life.

At the same time, pandemic drivers are increasing the call on insider threat and radicalization monitoring programmes, while increasing the need for tools and practices that can adapt to hybrid workforces.

The evolving terrorism threat landscape also imposes new compliance burdens on business. Companies must prevent abuse and diversion of their products and platforms by terrorist groups operating in Afghanistan. With fewer or less effective kinetic options, governments will rely even more on enforcing sanctions and countering the financing of terrorism (CFT) rules to deprive terrorist groups of resources. In many countries, this increasingly extends to transactions with newly-designated domestic groups, especially right- and left-wing extremists.

In many ways, the terrorism threat in 2022 is likely to feel familiar to that of recent years: smaller-scale, less predictable and increasingly diverse. The biggest challenge for many companies may be adapting post-pandemic ways of working to the evolving threat landscape.  


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