Arlington, VA

Arlington, Va. — COVID-19 has dramatically increased global instability and chaos, making it a prime example of a nontraditional security threat – one that current US counterterrorism infrastructure was not designed to address. This gap in counterterrorism planning is one that Violent Extremist Organizations (VEOs) may exploit for their own benefit, according to new analysis from CNA. The study identifies five key areas where VEOs benefitted from the pandemic: Environment; Operations; Resources; Recruitment; and Strategy.

The focus of US leaders and policymakers on addressing the immediate dangers posed by the virus may have unanticipated long-term impacts, but may also present unique opportunities to reconsider US counterterrorism policy, according to “Viral Extremism: COVID-19, Nontraditional Threats, and US Counterterrorism Policy,” a new study from CNA’s Center for Stability and Development.

“This study identifies actions US policymakers can take now to incorporate nontraditional threats into counterterrorism planning, in the midst of what is still a very new and evolving conversation happening in real time with US national security policy,” said lead author Pamela Faber.

Four retired flag officers – General James T. Conway, USMC (Ret.); Lieutenant General Mike Nagata, USA (Ret.); Vice Admiral Frank Pandolfe, USN (Ret.); and Lieutenant General Thomas J. Trask, USAF (Ret.) — collaborated with a team of CNA experts to produce the report’s findings. Recommendations include:

  • Link nontraditional and traditional threats in US counterterrorism planning.
  • Amplify the role of prevention in the US counterterrorism strategy.
  • Restructure pandemic response protocols to include both counterterrorism and prevention and countering violent extremism components; incorporate nontraditional threats such as pandemics into US counterterrorism policy.
  • Recognize and plan for the impact of pandemics on VEO activities.
  • Adapt US counterterrorism strategy and policy to reflect the growing threat of domestic terrorism, including both extremists solely originating in the US and those influenced by groups outside the US.

“This study makes clear that prevailing definitions of national security are too narrow. Covid-19 has created huge opportunities for VEOs and other adversaries, and we need to take actions to ensure the US and its allies are better prepared with strategies that incorporate these non-traditional threats,” said co-author Megan McBride.