COVID-19 has demonstrated the need for greater strategic and operational integration between public health and national security agencies. It has also illustrated the need to build health security intelligence arrangements to put in place effective early warning mechanisms to prevent potential future bioweapon attacks.
The pandemic has not just resulted in a staggering loss of life globally – it has also impacted the international economic global order and existing geopolitical norms in ways not yet fully understood. Unemployment, death, extended lockdowns and health policy failures are just a few factors resulting in citizens questioning the competency and legitimacy of governments to manage the pandemic effectively. The Australian Government has seen relative success so far at containing the public health crisis, but nonetheless is also confronted with an ongoing economic emergency that is exacerbating societal fault lines.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, agencies within Australia’s intelligence community and their counterparts in other Five Eyes countries have noted how the economic and social instability arising from COVID-19 has allowed terrorists of all ilk to flourish. These terrorists have seized the opportunity to influence and exploit the vulnerable and disaffected, using modern communications as their main weapon. However, terrorist groups are also recognising the destructive power that can be wrought as a result of a global health emergency.
We have seen Sunni jihadists claiming COVID-19 was plotted by Islam’s enemies and Al-Qaeda and Islamic State (IS) painting the pandemic as an example of Allah’s wrath against corrupt non-believers. Similarly, right-wing extremist groups in the US, UK and Australia have leveraged the pandemic to scapegoat ethnic groups and promote anti-Semitic messaging, propagating conspiracy theories about the legitimacy of COVID-19’s existence. And the pandemic has proved a boon for established Islamic terrorist groups across the world, especially in Africa, the Middle East and South East Asia. These groups have increased recruitment, achieved organisational growth and bolstered operational activity as US and local government forces (e.g. in Africa, Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria) have had to reduce counter-terrorism efforts due to COVID-19.
What is less clear is how terror groups will view COVID-19 from a strategic perspective. There is a clear impetus for these groups to explore the value of developing bioweapons after witnessing the havoc wreaked by the pandemic. At a tactical level, Islamic jihadists and right-wing extremist groups have already discussed becoming purposively infected with COVID-19 to spread the virus to first responders, using the virus as a bioweapon. While there is no clear evidence such attacks have been carried out, if they were to occur it would be difficult to attribute them to specific terrorist groups.
On a more complex level, there have been exponential developments in synthetic biology and biotechnology, including techniques like gene editing (e.g. CRISPR), where a hyper-virulent bacteria or virus could be manufactured. Could a terrorist group use an insider to steal the IP for an in-development vaccine, only to weaken its virility or install malware into a biotechnology company to impact their ability to conduct vaccine research? Furthermore, given the large number of people employed in Australia’s biotechnology sector, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that we might see a ‘bio-Unabomber’ emerge – a disgruntled bio-terrorist motivated by money, experiencing mental health issues or fueled by disparate ideologies – who produces a dangerous pathogen designed to be released into the public. Similar scenarios have already occurred. In 2001, senior microbiologist Dr Bruce Ivins, employed by a US military biodefence lab (USAMRID), mailed congressional and media outlets highly aerolisable anthrax. The FBI investigation into Ivins revealed his longstanding mental health issues.
The point is not to overplay the intent or capability of terrorists to develop bio-weapons post COVID-19. However, the pandemic illustrates Australia and other Five Eyes countries may not be sufficiently equipped to handle emerging bio-terror threats and risks, exposing vulnerabilities in pandemic prevention, detection and response mechanisms. Bio-terrorism attacks will likely remain low probability/high impact threats – after all, terrorists have simpler, more accessible options at their disposal. However, the pandemic has underscored how Australia might be underprepared. The more coordinated and integrated Australian public health officials and security agencies become, the more resilient to such threats our nation will be.
A starting point for Australia should be a national health security strategy that clearly articulates how the intelligence community and public health authorities could share knowledge and information before, during and after a pandemic. Such a strategy should also articulate which Australian intelligence community agencies should ‘own’ health security, both at a strategic and tactical level. At a strategic level, health security should be the responsibility of the key intelligence assessment and coordination agency – the Office of National Intelligence. At an operational level, it is less clear which agency should take the lead.
Earlier in 2020, the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission used its extensive big data analytics capabilities to help various state-based health agencies identify COVID-19 clusters. Moving ahead, there is merit in establishing an independent national health security intelligence or disease intelligence advisory centre – comprising public health officials, scientists and intelligence officials. Its remit would include fusing real-time health security knowledge and data, improving early warning measures for both bioterrorism and natural pandemics in the future. The UK government recently established the Joint Biosecurity Centre, which modelled itself after the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre (JTAC), perhaps a model Australia could look to consider.
Patrick F. Walsh, Ph.D., is a former intelligence analyst who has worked in Australian national security and law enforcement agencies. He is an associate professor, intelligence and security studies at the Australian Graduate School of Policing and Security, Charles Sturt University, Australia. He is the author of Intelligence and Intelligence Analysis, Routledge, UK 2011; Intelligence, Biosecurity and Bioterrorism, Palgrave Macmillan, UK, 2018; and the forthcoming, Intelligence Leadership and Governance. Building Effective Intelligence Communities in the 21st Century, Routledge (due November 2020).