Nations Need to Counter terrorism Threats Elevated by COVID-19, Duterte Says

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The urgency of confronting the deadly coronavirus prompted governments worldwide to shift resources toward dealing with the global pandemic, but Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte reminded leaders not to lose sight of the ongoing threats of terrorism.

“Even as we are navigating ourselves out of this pandemic, the Philippines continues to confront security threats,” Duterte said in September 2020 during the Aqaba Process Virtual Meeting, an initiative of the king of Jordan to enhance cooperation among world leaders. “Indeed, COVID-19 has not quarantined terrorists.”

Local terrorist organizations, including Abu Sayyaf Group, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters and the New People’s Army of the Communist Party of the Philippines, were “emboldened” by the pandemic, Duterte said. “They exploit the situation to serve their nefarious activities,” he added.

“Now, more than ever, our resolve is stronger,” Duterte said. “We will not let up in our fight against terrorism. And we will not allow COVID-19 to bring our people to their knees.” 

Unlike COVID-19, terrorist threats are nothing new for governments. They have, however, not figured as prominently in conversations and priorities as the coronavirus spread, some experts contend. Furthermore, media focus on the global pandemic has meant less news coverage about the ongoing threats from violent extremist organizations (VEOs), warned the United Nations Security Council Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate (CTED) in a June 2020 report. Other shifts have also occurred that VEOs may try to exploit to their advantage.

For example, the pandemic forced more than 1 billion students globally to take classes online as the risks associated with the virus prevented them from attending school in person, according to the U.N. The increased number of young people engaging in unsupervised internet usage, including gaming platforms, gives terrorist groups an opportunity to expose more people to radical ideology, the CTED report noted, “although the relationship between online activity and radicalization to violence is not fully understood.” 

Extremists have integrated COVID-19 into their narratives and propaganda to exploit current events and amplify divisions and weaknesses among their enemies, according to the CTED report, titled “The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on terrorism, counter-terrorism and countering violent extremism.” Researchers have called the pandemic the perfect storm for the spread of misinformation and disinformation. 

“Although some states have mounted a response, including by charging individuals for spreading COVID-19-related mis/disinformation, much of the responsibility for addressing this situation has fallen to the private sector (as in counter-terrorism),” the CTED report said. “However, despite the actions of many major social media platforms, who have de-platformed individuals and organizations, promoted authoritative voices, increased the use of verification mechanisms and banned adverts using misinformation to sell medical products, significant challenges remain.”

Many individuals will experience lingering uncertainty, isolation and political instability, increasing the likelihood of ongoing attempts by violent extremist actors to exploit vulnerabilities, the CTED report said. The agency vowed, however, to continue monitoring the impacts of COVID-19 on terrorism and counterterrorism efforts and offer assessments and recommendations as governments navigate these latest challenges.

Duterte encouraged nations to put aside differences to meet new and ongoing threats because of the coronavirus. He pledged that the Philippines would enhance cooperation with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and the U.N., among others, to face what he called “monumental challenges under present circumstances.”

“The COVID-19 pandemic compels us to break with the past. Insisting on the old ways that have perpetuated inequalities within and between nations is simply untenable,” Duterte said. “Let us seize this historic opportunity to build a new order — one that is more secure, just and humane — where there is no room for barbarity of terrorists and extremist forces.”

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