How coronavirus helps terrorists, traffickers, and militants

How coronavirus helps terrorists, traffickers, and militants

For much of the world, the rapidly expanding coronavirus pandemic is the worst global crisis in generations. Not so for terrorists, traffickers, and militant groups.

Efforts to fight coronavirus are diverting government attention and resources away from militants and gangs, creating huge opportunities, particularly for transnational terrorist groups who thrive in vacuums of security and political power, says Ali Soufan, founder of the Soufan Group, a leading authority on global terrorist organizations.

ISIS, for example, has recently called on its followers to intensify their jihad against governments in the West and in the Muslim world, particularly in Iraq. (Though they also issued a travel advisory against heading to Europe right now, which we imagined here.)

The jihadists of Boko Haram have stepped up strikes against weak governments in West Africa. And even as Iran grapples with one of the worst COVID-19 outbreaks in the world, its Shia proxies inside Iraq are continuing to attack US bases there as Washington withdraws troops from the country over coronavirus concerns.


What's more, the economic fallout of the crisis will also create good opportunities for bad actors. Coronavirus-related lockdowns and trade interruptions could plunge as many as half a billion people into poverty, according to a new Oxfam study. That's a godsend for groups that prey upon societies' most vulnerable and desperate people.

"This pandemic is worsening factors that lead to trafficking, like lack of education, violence, unemployment, and poverty" says Agnes Odhiambo, who follows human trafficking in Africa for Human Rights Watch.

A similar dynamic is at play in Italy, according to researchers from the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project. Quarantines and border closures make it harder for Italian criminal organizations to conduct their usual business of trafficking and smuggling – most of which goes through legal border crossings anyway – but they are set to make a killing by loan sharking to nearly bankrupt businesses as lockdowns ease.

Still, some militants are on the public health frontlines themselves. Groups that control large swathes of territory of their own – say, Hamas in Gaza, Hezbollah in Lebanon, or the Houthis in Yemen – are now on the hook for dealing with COVID-19 themselves, if it comes. These groups now face "the same demands and requirements that a state actor would face," Robert Malley, the president and CEO of International Crisis Group told GZERO. Hezbollah, for example, recently mobilized some 25,000 health care workers to tackle the coronavirus outbreak. (No word on how much personal protective equipment it has.) A world away, the powerful drug gangs of Rio de Janeiro have assumed responsibility for quarantines in the city's hilltop favelas, where the Brazilian government has little sway. The gangs of El Salvador, one of the most violent countries on earth, are doing the same, to dramatic effect.

The ceasefire silver lining. In some cases, the challenge of dealing with coronavirus may open up fresh opportunities for peace. In late March, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres called for armed groups around the world to lay down their arms so that governments and insurgents alike could focus on stopping the pandemic. Most have ignored that plea, but some have listened.

In Colombia, the ELN, the largest remaining leftist guerilla insurgency in the country, declared a unilateral ceasefire for the entire month of April. In the Philippines, the government and communist guerillas declared a coronavirus ceasefire in a decades-long conflict that has killed more than 40,000 people. One of the smaller Anglophone separatist militias in Cameroon has done the same. The warring gangs of South Africa's Cape Town have declared a truce.

And earlier this week, the Saudi-led coalition fighting the Houthi rebels in Yemen announced a unilateral two week ceasefire. Tenuous though it may be, it's still the first of its kind in a five-year civil war that has created the world's worst humanitarian catastrophe. In all these cases, it's the threat from coronavirus that has stopped the fighting, at least for now.

Bottom line: It will be a long time before governments and international institutions can dial back their focus on COVID-19. In the meantime, the coronavirus will create huge opportunities for groups that exploit vulnerable people and vacuums in state power.

A sector that's rapidly expanding, domotics - domus (home) plus robotics - are smart houses that manage temperature and lighting to minimize wasted electricity. For example, smart thermostats sense your presence and set the temperature according to your needs, saving 20% a year on heating bills. Watch this episode of Eni's Energy Shot series to learn how domotics save money and increase a home's value.

Even if the US, Europe, China, and India reduce carbon emissions at the rate they've promised, much climate damage has already been done. That shouldn't stop these and other countries from doing all they can to meet their net-zero emissions targets, but they also better start preparing for a world of people on the move.

Climate change will displace an unprecedented number of people in coming years, creating not just a series of humanitarian crises in many parts of the world, but lasting political, economic, and social upheaval as those of us who live on higher ground try to find a sustainable place for these climate refugees to live.

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When will it be safe for the world's children to be vaccinated against COVID-19? The World Health Organization's chief scientist, Dr. Soumya Swaminathan, says that vaccines are being tested in children down to the age of six or even lower, and promises that data on children will be shared as soon as it's available. She also notes that there are not enough studies on transmission in schools, and the WHO has advised governments to prioritize schools "over other things like shopping malls or cinema halls or pubs." Dr. Swaminathan spoke with Ian Bremmer in an interview on GZERO World, airing on US public television stations starting April 9. Check local listings.

Watch the episode: Vaccine nationalism could prolong the pandemic

Over the past half century, climate change has had an immense impact on the farmers who produce the food we eat. A new study by Cornell University shows that global warming has knocked 21 percent off of global agriculture productivity growth since 1965, equivalent to seven years of normal growth if humans had not polluted the planet. But not all countries have been affected in the same say. Farmers in warmer parts of the world have been hit hard as conditions grow more arid, but sub-polar regions in Canada or Siberia are now actually better for agriculture because they are not as cold as they used to be. Here we take a look at how climate has affected farming productivity growth around the world.

On Tuesday, a major US intelligence report said the top threat to America right now is China. A day later, John Kerry, the Biden administration's "climate czar," got on a plane to... China.

Such is the drama of ties between the world's two largest economies these days.

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A Castro-less Cuba: Raúl Castro, younger brother of the late Fidel, is expected to retire on Friday as secretary-general of Cuba's ruling communist party. When he does, it'll mark the first time since the 1959 revolution that none of Cuba's leaders is named Castro. The development is largely symbolic since Castro, 89, handed over day-to-day affairs to President Miguel Díaz-Canel in 2018. It's worth noting that US sanctions laws do specify that one of the conditions for normalizing ties with Cuba is that any transitional government there cannot include either of the Castro brothers. So that's one less box to tick in case there is a future rapprochement across the Straits of Florida. But more immediately, we're watching to see whether a new generation of leaders headed by Díaz-Canel will bring any serious reforms to Cuba. COVID has killed the tourism industry, plunging the island into an economic crisis that's brought back food shortages and dollar stores reminiscent of the early 1990s.

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16: Brazil's new plan to save the Amazon promises to curb deforestation, but not too much. Although it would reduce annual forest loss to the average recorded over the past five years, next year's target is still 16 percent higher than the Amazon's total deforestation in 2018, the year before President Jair Bolsonaro — who favors economic development of the rainforest — took office.

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Should the Biden administration "reverse course on China" in the hope of establishing a friendlier relationship, as diplomat Kishore Mahbubani argues in a recent Financial Times op-ed? Ian Bremmer and Eurasia Group analyst Michael Hirson take out the Red Pen to explain why it's not that simple.

And today, we are talking about the United States and China. The relationship between the two most powerful nations in the world is the worst it's been since the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. Pundits and policymakers alike all around the world are trying to figure out how Washington and Beijing can at least stop the bleeding because a reset is nowhere in the cards.

That's the topic of the op-ed that we are looking at today. It's from the Financial Times, written by Singaporean diplomat Kishore Mahbubani, and the title summarizes the key argument: "Biden should summon the courage to reverse course on China." Meaning, he should throw out the Trump era approach and open the door to more cooperation and kinder, gentler relations.

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