Terror threats evolve during pandemic, watchdog says

By Jackson Graham

January 18, 2022

Extremists incorporating the pandemic into their narratives. (GorodenkoffAdobe)

Risks of low-level terror attacks facing Australia are continuing to evolve during the COVID-19 pandemic, the national security legislation watchdog says.

Social isolation exposing vulnerable people to propaganda, weak medical care distracting some governments, and extremists incorporating the pandemic into their narratives are among several shifts internationally.

“Security agencies advise that the terrorism threat faced by Australia continues to evolve,” the Independent National Security Legislation Monitor’s Grant Donaldson said in an annual report tabled in parliament on Friday.

“There is a continued risk of low-level attacks, conducted by individuals or small groups, most likely targeting crowded places. Target choice could be affected by ongoing COVID-19 restrictions.” 

Donaldson notes the national terrorism threat levels remains “probable” and that level has not changed since 2015. 

Since Donaldson’s 2019-20 report there has been one additional attack and three more major counter-terrorism operations in response to potential attack planning in Australia. 

Overall, there have been nine attacks and 21 major counter-terrorism operations since September 2014. 

Donaldson refers to the Taliban control of Afghanistan from late 2021 as likely to benefit al-Qaeda but says the impact on Australia’s national security and counterterrorism laws will become clearer in the year ahead. 

He also says while ISIL’s caliphate ended in early 2019, foreign fighters associated with the group “remain an enduring counter-terrorism challenge.” 

Restrictions on travel and pandemic responses have an impact on terrorist activity, Donaldson adds. 

“Many terrorist groups operate in parts of the world where the central government is weak and medical care is poor. In some cases, terrorists have benefited from the distraction of local counter-terrorism efforts by pandemic responses,” he says. 

“Terrorist targeting has been impacted by restrictions on travel. Social isolation caused by lockdowns exposes vulnerable individuals to terrorist propaganda. Both jihadists and IMVEs have increased their propaganda during this period.”

Jihadists and the extreme right have also incorporated the pandemic into their worldview. 

For the former, it is a divine punishment inflicted on its enemies and a test for the faithful,” Donaldson says. “For the latter, it is variously styled as a plague spread by its enemies, a hoax designed to erode freedoms or an opportunity to accelerate societal collapse.” 

He says global counter-terrorism responses need to evolve to respond to lone actor or small group attacks and an expanding use of encrypted communications.


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