As the novel coronavirus reshapes virtually every facet of American life, it’s also coloring how aspiring terrorists plot attacks. And that shift has caught the attention of American national security officials.
Law enforcement and intelligence officials are watching the virus’s impact on potential terrorist threats — how it is accelerating the plans of some would-be attackers, while presenting macabre new targets of opportunity to others.
It isn’t hypothetical. Earlier this week, the FBI stopped a man named Timothy Wilson who was planning to bomb a Missouri hospital treating COVID-19 patients. Wilson had been planning an attack for months, according to a statement from the FBI’s Kansas City Division, which said he “decided to accelerate his plan” and to target the hospital because of the pandemic. The Bureau also said he was “motivated by racial, religious, and anti-government animus.” When law enforcement officials tried to arrest Wilson, he sustained injuries that proved lethal, according to the release.
Homegrown violent extremists are a particular worry. In an interview, John Demers, the assistant attorney general for national security at the Justice Department, said the department and the FBI are closely monitoring how the virus is shaping their plans.
“They do get ideas about, ‘How can I try to weaponize this virus?’” he said. “It’s something we’re focused on, together with the FBI — and making sure on the intel side that we’re on top of whatever’s showing up.”
Officials are also tracking the way the pandemic could influence terrorists’ strategies on timing and targets for more conventional attacks, Demers said.
“Are they going to accelerate any of their plans?” he said. “Are they going to see windows of opportunities? Obviously a lot of public places are less crowded, but others, like hospitals, are more crowded. Are they going to see these windows of opportunity to take advantage of?”
International travel has gotten particularly complicated because of the pandemic, with the U.S. closing its borders to a host of countries and airlines slashing their flight schedules as demand plummets. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) data shows it checked one-tenth as many travelers on Thursday as it did a year earlier.
“We still have a few cases of people who want to travel to other countries and engage in terrorist activities,” Demers said. “How is this impacting travel plans? Is it accelerating them or deferring them for folks as flights shut down?”
The questions aren’t merely theoretical, according to Demers, who suggested that authorities are already observing terrorists change their behavior as the virus alters transportation patterns.
“The same way it impacts all of our lives, it does impact some of the planning that we’re seeing people doing and the way they’re thinking about it,” Demers said. “Sometimes in conflicting ways: Some people are putting off plans, and other people are saying, ‘Well I’ve got to accelerate this because maybe all the borders will be shut down soon.’”
The Justice Department last week charged a Pakistani doctor with trying to help ISIS. The doctor, who was temporarily working in the U.S., initially planned to get to Syria by flying into Amman, Jordan. But, according to a DOJ press release, his plans changed when Jordan closed its borders because of the pandemic. He then decided to fly to Los Angeles and, from there, travel to Syria on a cargo ship. He was arrested at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport on March 19.
Demers said the virus could also give terrorists new ways to attack.
“There are worries that people could try to weaponize their own illness by trying to infect other people,” he said.
Joshua Geltzer, a terrorism expert who previously worked in the National Security Division and is now at Georgetown Law, concurred that the virus may provoke threats in new ways.
Social distancing might raise the risk of homegrown radicalization, he noted, as isolated people with loads of free time get pulled down disinformation rabbit holes online.
“The idea that that can lead to particularly deranged interpretations of events and generate an extreme response, even violent action –– I think that threat gets magnified given the social isolation that we as a country are understandably adopting,” Geltzer said. “I feel like the past month and this virus have taken a dangerous information environment and really ratcheted up how lethal, how directly lethal it can be.”