Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020, there has been speculation about the impact the pandemic could have on the trajectories of extremist violence. The EU’s counter-terrorism coordinator warned that terrorists and violent extremists exploit major crises to achieve their objectives, and extremist groups adjusted quickly to the online communication platforms used extensively in lockdowns, both in personal and professional capacities. Pro-ISIS groups adapted their efforts to disseminate propaganda material specifically in the English language, and al-Qaeda tried to encourage conversions to Islam using online platforms targeting specifically the ‘Western World.’
However, broader research into the activities of extremist groups suggests this increased online activity has yet to translate into increased violence. Miles Comerford, from the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, noted that despite the fears of extremist groups seeking to exploit the crisis to achieve their objectives, there was a notable reduction in terrorist activities in contexts where terrorism is predominantly an urban phenomenon. Additionally, in settings where terrorism operates within the context of a broader conflict, the pandemic seems to have had relatively little effect on the trajectory of violence. James Wither and Richard Masek, of the George Marshall European Centre for Strategic Studies, also noted that, outside of areas already impacted by armed conflict, there seems not to have been a rise in terrorist attacks during the pandemic.
Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) have been the cause of at least 50% of civilian casualties of explosive weapon use in the last 11 years, according to Action on Armed Violence (AOAV)’s review of English language media sources. The most prolific users of IEDs in that time have been extremist groups, in particular ISIS, the Taliban, and Al Shabaab. In line with the findings of Comerford (2020) and Wither and Masek (2020), based on IED data collected over the last decade, AOAV finds that incidents of IED attacks decreased globally by 12% from 2019 to 2020.
For this report, AOAV has analysed levels of IED violence globally from 2011 to 2021, mapping out the way in which patterns of violence from 2020 – the year the WHO declared a global pandemic – differ from overall patterns over the last decade, in order to discern the potential impact of the COVID 19 pandemic on extremist groups’ use of IEDs.
AOAV has been collecting data on the impacts of explosive weapons, as reported in English-language news sources, since 2010, using a methodology adapted from an incident-based methodology as used by Landmine Action and Medact in 2009. Our data on explosive violence incidents is gathered from English-language media reports on the following factors: the date, time, and location of the incident; the number and circumstances of people killed and injured; the weapon type; the reported user and target; the detonation method and whether displacement or damage to the location was reported. AOAV does not claim to have captured every explosive incident, but the data is comprehensive enough to reveal patterns of harm over time. For the purposes of this report, AOAV is focused on capturing incidents of harm caused by the intentional use of IEDs by extremist groups. The data analysed here, therefore, does not include accidental detonations, explosive weapons that failed to explode as intended and remain in the form of unexploded ordnance (UXOs), or poorly secured or stockpiled explosive weapons that cause unintended harm to civilians.
Based on IED data collected over the last decade, AOAV finds that, globally, incidents of IED attacks decreased by 12% from 2019 to 2020, while populated areas remained a consistent target of IED attacks and accounted for the majority of civilian casualties. Non-specific IEDs remained the most frequently used IEDs across the span of years from 2011 to 2021, and consistently resulted in the majority of civilian casualties – non-specific IEDs caused 48% of civilian casualties of IEDs from 2011 to 2021, and 51% of casualties between 2020 and 2021. Urban residential areas saw the majority, 16%, of civilian casualties of IEDs during the pandemic, compared to markets, 14%, over the past decade.
Islamic State (IS), the Taliban, and Al Shabaab remained the most prolific perpetrators of IED attacks from 2011 to 2021, although Islamic State affiliates in Afghanistan caused more civilian casualties than their counterparts in Syria and Iraq during the pandemic. Additionally, the discursive and active responses of each group to the pandemic differed significantly, illustrating the pluralistic nature of extremist groups. This, along with the diverging patterns of IED violence discernable in different countries, highlights the distinctive ways IEDs are deployed in different contexts: Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan remained the countries most affected by IED violence over the past decade, with distinctive patterns of violence demonstrating the individuality of the IED phenomenon.
As with most data relating to the COVD 19 pandemic, the causal relationship of the pandemic to the pattern of IED attacks is fragile, with limited generalisability. However, the results of AOAV’s analysis reveal distinctive changes in the way IEDs have been used since 2020, and suggest avenues for further research regarding the correlation between lockdowns, the social fabric of armed groups, and access to materials.
REPORTING DURING THE COVID 19 PANDEMIC
AOAV’s methodology is subject to a number of limitations and biases, many relating to the nature of the source material. Data and emerging trends and patterns are contingent on different levels of reporting across regions and countries, and under-reporting is likely in some contexts. In addition, only English-language media reports are used, which does not provide a comprehensive picture of explosive weapon use around the world.
Furthermore, it is likely that the COVID-19 pandemic impacted the reporting patterns on which AOAV is dependent. Reported incidents of explosive weapon use decreased from 2019 to 2021 for other weapon types as well, notably air-launched and ground-launched weapons, while reported incidents involving mines increased in that time, and incidents involving multiple or unclear weapon types remained consistent (fig. 1). The extent to which these patterns are due to reporting dynamics or the impact of COVID 19 lockdowns on explosive violence more generally is a question which raises pertinent avenues for further research: what was the impact of the COVID 19 pandemic on explosive violence perpetrated by state and non-state actors? What was the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on in-person and remote reporting? What was the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the spread of and access to information?