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The nature of domestic and international terrorist threats may be changing due to the global COVID-19 pandemic.
In the US, the potential terrorist threat environment has changed, with public gathering areas shifting to new targets. The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, a division within the Department of Homeland Security, issued a nationwide notice warning grocery stores, gas stations, and even COVID-19 testing sites to be aware that they could be targeted by terrorists.
The alert noted that while “there are currently no imminent or credible threats, there has been an increase in online hate speech intended to incite violence and/or use the ongoing situation as an excuse to inflict hate.”
“Now is the time to engage community businesses and other stakeholders to encourage vigilance and awareness,” the Department of Homeland Security’s assistant director for infrastructure protection, Brian Harrell told abcnews.go.com.
It was the second such warning in as many weeks. The FBI, DHS and National Counterterrorism Center issued a joint intelligence bulletin that similarly mentioned grocery stores and still-operational businesses as potential targets.
The recent alerts are among many coronavirus-related warnings that U.S. counterterrorism agencies have distributed in the past two months, with the pandemic posing new challenges for authorities to protect communities.
“Unfortunately, during circumstances such as a pandemic, individuals may be triggered by stressors (e.g., isolation, layoff, etc.) caused by the pandemic to … commit attacks,” the second alert said.
In the global arena, terrorists are trying to use the resulting chaos to their benefit. In fact, with so many people home and on the Internet all day, jihadist groups see this as an opportunity for recruitment and radicalization.
Yoram Schweitzer of the Tel Aviv-based Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) and a former senior military intelligence officer in Israel, believes that Salafist-jihadist organizations are outright mocking the West for its supposed weakness and ignorance. “Al-Qa’ida and Islamic State have emphasized the futile reliance by the West on its economic might,” Schweitzer told themedialine.org.
A senior State Department official who kept his anonymity said: “While we cannot comment on specifics, terrorist groups like ISIS, al-Qa’ida and others will take advantage of whatever tools and opportunities they perceive in order to harm the United States and its allies.”