The coronavirus pandemic has impacted terrorism worldwide like any other area of human activity. Public health restrictions seem to have played a key role in shaping the threat in 2020, mainly by limiting it. Outside of conflict zones, incidents that have occurred have most commonly been lone attackers, reflecting a more situationally suppressed threat.
Several trends in 2020 reveal how the pandemic has shaped terrorist activity. But they also show the extent to which COVID-19 has been less relevant than political developments for the larger and more organised militant groups. Perhaps the most surprising trend is that while attacks by nearly every ideological grouping of perpetrators fell in 2020, jihadist violence actually rose by nearly 20% worldwide. Conflict zones, notably Iraq, Syria and Mali, accounted for much of this increase. Iraq, for example, saw a surge in violence with coalition force reductions in March and April. The impact of COVID-19 on these fragile states was probably a factor, leaving the authorities less able to counter the threat. But the intensification of these conflicts was probable in any case, notwithstanding the pandemic.
Outside of conflicts, the picture has been more mixed. Jihadist attacks and plots rose in Europe by 113% in 2020, with increased activity when COVID-19 restrictions eased. The number of plots equalled that of attacks from March, pointing to sustained levels of intent and ongoing counter-terrorism activity. The majority of incidents in 2020 involved bladed weapons, with only two bomb plots reported in Europe.
Figure 1 Attacks by ideology
“Several trends in 2020 reveal how the pandemic has shaped terrorist activity. But they also show the extent to which COVID-19 has been less relevant than political developments for the larger and more organised militant groups.”
The analysis reinforces that, where there is weakened governance and rule of law, the momentum for jihadist groups to expand attacks is sustained, as well as an ideology that drives many attacks outside these areas. The rise of left-wing extremist plots and attacks targeting businesses in Europe indicates some organisations, that may not consider themselves particular targets for jihadist groups, will find themselves exposed to this threat. Wherever there is a cross-over of people concentrations and potential for a targeted attack, organisations should review casualty programmes to ensure they will respond as anticipated; there is a growing expectation for good risk management and decreasing tolerance for what can be considered a foreseeable risk and where either the preparation or response is shown to be poorly implemented. Rates for terrorism & political violence insurance are likely to be affected by local changes in threat, regardless of losses. Rating changes from losses are likely to be quarantined by geography and occupancy, allowing the terrorism and political violence market to avoid the general hardening seen in the property market over the last 18 months; there remain opportunities for competitive pricing even in distressed geographies, and there can be great value in demonstrating the quality of risk management in this space, where it limits the potential for being targeted, and reduces the duration and impact from an attack. The expectation that attacks by these ideologies, and those from right-wing extremist terrorists targeting groups in political or cultural opposition, will increase as restrictions decrease, underlines the continued need to manage the risk, whether through mitigation and/or risk transfer and the expectation of refining exposure, risk appetite and budgets is more vital now with many organisations financially challenged. Using detailed analysis and data around the peril allows for detailed planning for defendable strategies, and ultimately improving the value of risk management in this space.
Tony Day Head of Political Violence and Terrorism Global Broking Centre, Aon
Terrorist threats from both the far-right and left extremists fell overall. In Western countries, we saw a 53% drop in 2020 of far-right extremist terrorist incidents and an even greater fall in the number of casualties from attacks, suggesting a lack of targeting means and opportunities due to COVID-19 restrictions. However, an increase in foiled plots and far-right extremist propaganda online suggests this relative respite will probably not last. Attacks by far-left extremist terrorist groups fell in South Asia (-35%), Latin America (-46%) and Asia Pacific (-12%). This may partly be due to lockdowns, but ceasefires in Colombia and the Philippines were significant factors. Conversely, in Europe, far-left extremist incidents increased by 42%, with the proportion targeting businesses rising from 35% in 2019 to more than 50% in 2020. The incidence of terrorist attacks looks likely to rise in more developed countries, as mass vaccinations help governments ease local and international restrictions globally. Pent-up grievances, online radicalisation, a desire for groups to re-establish themselves, and more targeting opportunities all look likely to combine into a worsening threat landscape in the latter half of 2021.