The head of the World Health Organization is warning that the COVID-19 pandemic is speeding up, and he criticized governments that have failed to establish reliable contact tracing to stop the spread of the coronavirus. According to the latest tally from Johns Hopkins University, there have been more than 10 million confirmed coronavirus infections worldwide since the virus was first identified in China in late 2019, with more than a half-million deaths. The United States alone accounts for more than one-quarter of all confirmed cases with nearly 126,000 deaths. Currently, the U.S. leads the world in both coronavirus infections and COVID-19 deaths. Brazil ranks second in the number of infections, followed by Russia, India and the United Kingdom. The rising COVID-19 threat is also fuelling rioting and terrorism activities as terrorists are trying to exploit the vulnerability of government who are engaged in fighting uphill battle against the growing pandemic cases.
In recent US racial riots, three self-proclaimed members of the far-right “boogaloo” movement were held on domestic terrorism charges after federal prosecutors accused them of trying to spark violence during police brutality protests in Las Vegas. The “boogaloo” movement was defined in the charging document as “a term used by extremists to signify coming civil war and/or fall of civilization.” The three men previously served in the US Navy, Army, and Air Force, according to the filing. Each defendant was charged with conspiracy to damage and destroy by using fire and explosives, and possession of an unregistered firearm.
Cyber attacks have increased along with the rapid worldwide spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. Online crimes reported to the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) have roughly quadrupled since the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic, a senior cybersecurity official said in a webinar hosted by the Aspen Institute in April 2020. The number of cybersecurity complaints to the IC3 in the last four months has spiked from 1,000 daily before the pandemic to as many as 4,000 incidents in a day, said Tonya Ugoretz, the deputy assistant director of the FBI’s cyber wing, The Hill reported.
In particular, foreign nation-state hackers are going after organizations, such as healthcare institutions and research facilities, working on treatments for Covid-19, Ugoretz said. (via Reuters) “We certainly have seen reconnaissance activity, and some intrusions, into some of those institutions, especially those that have publicly identified themselves as working on COVID-related research,” she said. While it’s not uncommon for nation state hackers to target the biopharmaceutical industry, “it’s certainly heightened during this crisis,” the FBI official said. Organizations researching potential drugs to treat or vaccinate Covid-19 victims are now more in the public eye, which “kind of makes them a mark for other nation-states that are interested in gleaning details about what exactly they’re doing and maybe even stealing proprietary information that those institutions have,” Ugoretz said. “Countries have a very high interest…” in information on a vaccine.” The World Health Organization (WHO) and the U.S. Health and Human Services Department (HHS) have also not been spared by hackers. Iran-backed nation-state phishers were said to be involved in an attempted hijack of the personal email accounts of a number of WHO staffers.
Social engineering campaigns that preyed upon fear over the virus began appearing in late January and have spread as quickly as the disease. Malicious actors typically pose as a trusted organization (banks, merchants) or individual (co-worker, manager, IT administrator). The volume of malicious emails has rocketed, according to Proofpoint, a cybersecurity company monitoring virus-related cybercrime. Business email compromise (BEC) scams are designed to trick victims into transferring sensitive data or funds — personal or corporate — to threat actors’ accounts. They also aim to steal credentials so they can infiltrate organizations and compromise information systems, especially corporate payment systems, as well as the quality of services. If successful, the attacks can open the doors to more fraud.
Telecommuting, which increases during public health crises, inadvertently can lead to cybercrime. CISA (Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency) has just issued an alert regarding vulnerabilities caused by remote access to organizations’ computer systems. A proliferation of cloud-based apps makes it easier for bad actors to exploit holes in network. Many organizations are enabling work-from-home at an unprecedented pace to ensure business continuity.
The pandemic is also exacerbating many factors known to enhance terrorism. The lockdowns and widespread losses have led to food insecurity – the lack of both financial and physical access to nutritious food, which leads to malnutrition and undernourishment in a population – makes citizens angry at their governments. This anger gives terrorist groups opportunities to recruit new members by providing them a violent outlet for venting their frustrations. In 2019, about 55 countries from regions in Africa, Latin America and the Middle East and Asia were in food crisis. This food scarcity has led to protests in Abuja and food stampedes to collect food supplies from the government in Lagos, Nigeria. People are frustrated with the government’s response in dealing with the pandemic and its inability to provide essential food for all who need it. The coronavirus pandemic is causing political and economic problems even in wealthy countries.
Terrorist organizations such as Boko Haram, an organization dedicated to the creation of an Islamic state within Nigeria, are actively using the grief caused by the coronavirus to strengthen their campaigns of violence. These efforts have resulted in renewed violence across the Lake Chad region, where a recent Boko Haram attack against the Nigerian military killed 47. In neighboring Chad, the group ambushed a large group of Chadian soldiers, killing 92. It was the deadliest attack ever on Chad’s military. The worsening conditions in Pakistan brought on by the coronavirus are causing an increase in terrorism.
The home terrorism is also leading to enhanced cross border terrorism. The Pakistani-based terrorist groups Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammad are currently approaching people who have been affected by the coronavirus and offering to provide essential services and assistance. In return, they gain the loyalty of local populations and access to a new pool of recruits for their efforts to set up an Islamist government in the contested territory of Kashmir.
Pakistan-based terrorists have tried to take advantage of India’s national lockdown to foment trouble in the Indian J&K’sValley. Indian intelligence sources also indicate that the groups, along with their ally Hizbul Mujahideen, may send terrorists into northern India in an effort to seize the contested land from the Indian government. In fact, there were reports in 36-37 days, since lockdown was announced, that terrorists have come out of their bunkers, from inside the jungles as they were asked to intensify attacks against security forces, according to an official involved in counter-insurgency operations. Zulfiqar Hassan, special director-general, CRPF (Jammu & Kashmir), said, “Terrorists have tried to take advantage of the lockdown but intelligence-based counter-terror operations are continuing in full swing and there is great synergy among all the forces.”
In Turkey, Islamic State recruiters are targeting migrants from Turkmenistan who have lost their jobs as a result of the pandemic. The Islamic State frequently recruits unemployed and disillusioned individuals to join its efforts to create an independent state dedicated to the teachings of its extremist brand of Sunni Islam.
As COVID-19 continues to disrupt the world’s health systems, economies and local communities, the UN Secretary-General in July 2020 highlighted how the pandemic has laid bare vulnerabilities to “new and emerging forms of terrorism”, such as cyberattacks, bioterrorism and the misuse of digital technology. Acknowledging that it is “too early to fully assess the implications of COVID-19 on the terrorism landscape” the UN chief told the first of series of virtual interactive discussions on strategic and practical challenges of countering terrorism during a global pandemic that ISIL, Al-Qaida, neo-Nazis and other hate groups “seek to exploit divisions, local conflicts, governance failures and grievances to advance their objectives”.
Mr. Guterres highlighted five areas to guide counter terrorism, beginning with keeping up the momentum. “This includes continuing to invest in national, regional and global counter-terrorism capabilities, especially for countries most in need of assistance”, he said. Evolving terrorist threats and trends must also be closely monitored and met with innovative responses that have not only the right technology, tools and concepts to stay ahead of terrorists but that are gender sensitive and recognize that violent misogyny lies at the heart of many groups. “Full compliance with international humanitarian, human rights and refugee law is essential, the Secretary-General stated, adding, “the fight against terrorism must uphold these values or it will never succeed”.
His fourth point flagged the need to tackle the spread of terrorist narratives through pandemic-sensitive, holistic approaches, and he said that non-State actors must not be allowed to exploit the “fissures and fragilities” of rising psycho-social, economic and political stresses, related to the coronavirus. Throughout the upcoming discussions, victims’ voices will be heard to help prevent violent extremism and build inclusive, resilient societies, said Mr. Guterres. And finally, he stressed the importance of strengthening information sharing to learn from the experiences and good practices of others in the COVID-19 security landscape, saying that “quality capacity-building assistance to Member States will remain an important pillar” of UN counter-terrorism work. “We must commit to do more and better”, stated the UN chief. “As in every other area of our mission, our work should be assessed by the difference we make in people’s lives.
Meanwhile, Vladimir Voronkov, the UN Counter-Terrorism chief, stressed in his opening remarks that although the number of terrorist attacks and fatalities has been declining since its peak during the rise of ISIL, terrorism remains “a major threat to international peace and security” as some groups are extending their reach into new areas. With this is mind and amid the expanding work of the UN Office of Counter-Terrorism (OCT) and its partners, as well as that of the Security Council, he said the UN is implementing more than 300 counter-terrorism capacity-building projects around the world, including 50 overseen by his Office, benefitting 72 countries.
“I think it is therefore safe to say that the United Nations is contributing to the efforts of many Member States and international actors to effectively address the threat of terrorism,” Mr. Vonkov stated. And while he said COVID-19 has not changed this positive trend, he cautioned that “we must stay vigilant as terrorists are using innovative tactics and tools to exploit vulnerabilities and conditions conducive to terrorism, many of which have been exacerbated by the pandemic.”
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