Terrorism under Covid-19

Updated May 18 2020

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The writer is a security analyst.
The writer is a security analyst.

WHILE the world continues its struggle against the pandemic, nations and organisations are also evaluating its human, economic and socio-psychological costs. The security threat matrix is increasingly being oriented around the perils of the virus, placing less focus on other non-traditional security challenges. Though the threat of terrorism has not shown any visible retreat — in some places it has even enlarged such as in Afghanistan — the world is failing to give it the consideration it did prior to the pandemic.

Also read: Extremists using Covid-19 to recruit online youths, says UN chief

Experts have indicated that terrorist groups could use the pandemic as an opportunity to increase attacks with a view to adding to the crisis and undermining governments. However, thus far, the intensity and frequency of attacks have not changed much, except with some variations in Afghanistan and parts of Africa. Pronouncing Covid-19 a ‘punishment’ from God, the militant IS group and Al Qaeda have urged their followers to take care of themselves and advised non-Muslims to utilise their time under lockdown to learn about Islam.

Terrorists have time and again proved they are unpredictable. IS has managed many surprise attacks in the last two years, including the Colombo Easter Friday bombings. As long as terrorist networks remain intact, nothing can be predicted of them with certainty.

After the US-Taliban Doha peace deal in February, hopes were high that Afghanistan would experience a significant reduction in violence. Sadly, that did not happen. The attack on a Kabul maternity hospital on May 12 was the most horrific and sickening incident in a recent wave of violence; not even newborns were spared. Human Rights Watch has rightly called it an apparent war crime. The increasing chaos in Afghanistan is alarming, and has eclipsed prospects of any breakthrough, at least for now. Initiation of direct talks between Kabul and the Taliban may contribute towards restoring confidence in the broader intra-Afghan dialogue and settling other issues including a faster prisoner swap; chaos will hurt regional stability and global security, and continue to feed terrorist networks.

Experts have indicated that terrorists could use the pandemic as an opportunity to increase attacks.

Pakistan has also seen a slight surge in terrorist attacks in the last two months, though it cannot be linked to the pandemic as there is no major shift from the pre-virus trends. The merged tribal districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and some parts of Balochistan have been hotspots of insecurity and violence for several months now. There have been concerns about the growing presence and activities of militants in parts of the tribal districts, mainly North and South Waziristan. Most security incidents, including militant attacks, in recent weeks have been reported from areas closer to the Pak-Afghan border, such as Datta Khel. Militants may also be expanding their areas of presence and operation. Reportedly, the TTP and other militants were trying to hit their native towns to reclaim their lost influence. Outfits like Jamaatul Ahrar could also try to regroup in their towns of origin, including Bajaur and Orakzai.

Questions are also being raised about the possible return of Pakistani Taliban militants sheltering across the border in Afghanistan who may want to relocate to their native towns in the tribal districts. One recent BBC report claimed that some 9,000 of these militants wanted to return to their native towns in KP after seeking forgiveness and promising to quit violence. Local accounts from Waziristan suggest some have returned to areas that in the past were attached to militant groups. Most, however, are living discreetly in bordering areas and avoiding public appearances. According to the report, the government has apparently pardoned some of these militants from Waziristan, but the tribesmen are not willing to accept them back. As vengeance is a strong local tradition, people see the militants’ reintegration into society as a difficult task, even if the government develops a pardon and reintegration plan.

Not all the Taliban in these areas, however, were attached to the TTP; nor are they strong enough to challenge the state’s writ as they were before Operation Zarb-i-Azb in 2014. Still, the government and local administrations will have to develop a policy on how to deal with the militants, including those operating discretely in tribal districts and those wishing to come back from Afghanistan.

In a positive sign, terrorism in Balochistan has been on the decline for some months. However, last week, BLA militants attacked security forces in Buleda (Kech), claiming the lives of five army officials including a major. Such attacks against security forces, although sporadic and less frequent, indicate that violent separatists still pose a potent threat. To their operational advantage, they have also established networks in areas closer to the Pak-Iran border. Army chief Gen Qamar Bajwa had spoken to the Iranian chief of armed forces Maj Gen Mohammad Bagheri to express his concern over the attack. Both countries are in regular contact to address border security and common terrorist threats, but no conclusive outcome has been seen yet.

The nature of the Baloch insurgency is very different and insurgents take time to perpetrate a major attack. During intervals between relatively large-scale attacks, they continue to engage security forces through low-intensity attacks. Balochistan’s security is also crucial to CPEC, and the government will have to expand its options to restore peace there beyond the traditional use of force.

If, as reported, the government can pardon TTP militants and allow them to come back, a similar concession can be offered to Baloch insurgents. Self-exiled Baloch insurgent leaders have almost become irrelevant, and a new leadership is emerging from within their ranks. It is an opportunity for the government to engage them before it is too late. There are spoilers and exploiters all around the region contributing to keeping the insurgency alive. Reconciliation will not only reduce security threats and expenditures but will also create a conducive environment for CPEC and provincial development.

The UN has called for a global ceasefire during the pandemic to save hundreds of thousands of lives in conflict areas, especially children who have become even more vulnerable. However, dialogue and reconciliation can be given an equal chance both in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The writer is a security analyst.

Published in Dawn, May 17th, 2020