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.

This week, the market value of Tencent, China's biggest video game company, nosedived after a state media outlet suggested that online gaming was as addictive and destructive as opium. Tencent immediately pledged to cap the number of hours people can play, and to keep minors off its platforms.

It's the latest example of a months-long crackdown on major Chinese technology firms that until recently were viewed as some of the world's most powerful and successful companies, as well as a source of national pride. Beijing's about-face on its own tech titans could have big implications for China, and beyond.

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On GZERO World, Ian Bremmer takes a look at the yin and the yang of alcohol's role in high-level diplomacy and society at large. Alcohol can bring people together just as easily as it can tear them apart. From a 1995 Clinton/Yeltsin Summit where a drunk Yeltsin almost derailed Bosnian peace talks, to Obama's Beer Summit and the recent G7 Summit, booze plays a part in how world leaders interact. Globally, alcohol consumption has been steadily increasing, by over 70 percent between 1990 and 2017, according to one report. . Low and middle-income nations like Vietnam, India, and China are a driving force behind that trend, with drinking in Southeast Asia rising by over 34 percent between 2010 and 2017. And yet, amidst this global booze boom, the world has only grown more and more divided.

Watch the episode: The (political) power of alcohol

Equestrian jumpers, and their horses, are disciplined species. They don't appreciate surprises very much.

But many participants were caught off guard during this week's individual jumping qualifiers in Tokyo by a very daunting statue of a sumo wrestler on the hurdle course (which is dotted with statues paying homage to traditional Japanese culture, like geisha kimonos, cherry blossoms, and taiko drums).

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For Dick Pound, the longest serving member of the International Olympic Committee, protesting at the Games is fine — as long as it doesn't "interfere" with the competition itself or awards ceremonies. The Olympics, in his view, are an oasis of calm in the middle of an increasingly tense world, and "we shouldn't be spoiling that by pointing out the obvious , which is that there are social and political problems." Watch his interview with Ian Bremmer on the latest episode of GZERO World on US public television.

India's rape problem: Hundreds of protesters have flocked to the streets of New Delhi for four days straight after a 9-year old girl was raped and murdered in a small village outside the capital while going to fetch water for her family. Some demonstrators burned effigies of India's PM Narendra Modi, saying that the government has not done enough — or anything, really — to address the country's abysmal rape problem: there were more than 32,000 rapes recorded in 2019, certainly a vast undercount given the stigma associated with reporting sexual assaults in India. The scourge of sexual violence against women and girls in India was brought to light in 2012 when a 23-year-old woman was gang raped and murdered while traveling on a bus in the nation's capital, prompting international outrage. Four men have been arrested in connection with this week's attack, though they have not been charged. The city of New Delhi, meanwhile, has ordered an inquiry to probe events surrounding the young girl's death, though Indians who have been sounding the alarm on violence against women for decades aren't expecting much to come of it.

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It's been 365 days since twin blasts at a Beirut port decimated Lebanon's capital. More than 200 people were killed and some 7,000 were injured, yet accountability has been scarce. There is ample evidence that multiple Lebanese officials knew that ammonium nitrate was being improperly stored at the port. Four high-ranking politicians, including former PM Hassan Diab, have been charged by a Lebanese judge, but they all refuse to cooperate with the ongoing investigation.

Since then, Lebanon's already-dire economic and financial crises have only intensified. The Lebanese pound, the national currency, has plummeted, losing 90 percent of its value since 2019, when the country's economic crisis erupted. And more than 50 percent of the population is now living below the poverty line.

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20,200: As the super contagious delta variant continues to spread, Thailand is now a COVID hotspot, recording more than 20,200 new COVID cases Wednesday, the highest daily toll since the pandemic began. Authorities imposed new restrictions in Bangkok and other provinces as the vaccine rollout remains sluggish; just 5.8 percent of Thailand's 66 million people are fully vaccinated.

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