Ambassador Jeffrey DeLaurentis
Senior Advisor for Special Political Affairs
New York, New York
June 16, 2021
Thanks to Tunisia and to you, Mr. Chairman, for bringing us together today, to focus on this critical topic.
Terrorism is an ever-evolving threat that requires equal flexibility and adaptability in our response. While the world grapples with the threat of COVID-19, terrorists are not resting, and taking advantage of this global crisis. Even in the best of times, terrorist recruiters prey on the vulnerable and feed them a steady diet of conspiracies, misinformation and disinformation, distorted interpretations of religion and ideology that spurs people along the path from radicalization to violence.
The COVID-19 pandemic provides additional opportunities for terrorists to use public fears to further radicalize and to recruit. They are exploiting this crisis to disseminate disinformation and garner support for their violent agendas. For example, the social isolation associated with COVID-19 creates new opportunities for radicalization and mobilization to violence, especially through the Internet and Internet-enabled platforms. It is important for us to recognize and address how the fear, anxiety, and isolation associated with COVID-19 pandemic can create fertile ground for recruitment by racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists.
Further, terrorist organizations such as ISIS and al-Qaida are evaluating the extent to which governments are more vulnerable due to the impact of COVID-19. Based on their analysis, these terrorist organizations are adapting their messaging to undermine public confidence, threaten legitimate governance, and provoke violence that advances their agendas. With many people now working and socializing more extensively online, the COVID-19 pandemic has expanded opportunities for these extremist groups and movements to spread conspiracy theories and disinformation on social media platforms aimed at mobilizing likeminded individuals to violence.
Extremist actors also leverage the COVID virus to propagate narratives with anti-establishment, anti-immigrant, and racist themes, as well as anti-Semitic and racist conspiracy theories. In response, the United States is working through its partnerships with governments, civil society, and the private sector, to counter COVID-related disinformation and terrorist narratives across the platforms on which they are spread. We do this by amplifying fact-based information. One example is through the State Department’s Global Engagement Center and its engagement of private sector entities in West Africa and East Asia. We are also seeing the impact of COVID on judicial proceedings for terrorism cases, subjecting victims of terrorism to lengthy delays in cases, and communication challenges if a victim does not have knowledge of – or access to – technology.
As governments we must be adaptable – including with technology – in finding ways to provide legal and other critical services so terrorist groups are unable to fill the void or exploit government shortcomings. We have seen in some countries that law enforcement lacks essential tools, policy, and training necessary to effectively manage a crisis pandemic response. As a result, law enforcement agencies face extraordinary challenges in maintaining core services, providing adequate staffing, or personnel protective equipment to protect their workforces, and adequately protecting vulnerable populations.
The United States has also worked to try and address this. For example, in one country last year, the U.S. government provided funding to procure 40,000 PPE masks for this country’s border police unit during the initial COVID surge. The police unit outfitted their force and then distributed the rest of those protective materials to communities they served, building a bond between the police and the communities. We know that technical assistance and law enforcement cooperation are critical to addressing these challenges.
Though the pandemic may have restricted our ability to deliver some capacity building and assistance programs, we have adapted and maintained support for our partners. We must work together to continue to develop new means of delivering assistance, and look forward to opportunities to restart other programming and assistance that was put on hold due to the pandemic. Now – especially as COVID has uncovered even more vulnerabilities – we all must collectively adapt and redouble our efforts to counter the scourge of terrorism.