The pandemic has forced governments to enact various measures to limit the spread of the outbreak, a number of these measures had a significant impact on the organized crime landscape as well as the threat from terrorist extremists.
The pandemic renders individuals and society extremely vulnerable in all respects. Criminal organisations, states and state-backed actors seek to exploit the public health crisis to make a profit or advance geopolitical interests.
What is the impact of COVID- 19 on terrorism and organised crime?
The COVID-19-Terrorism Nexus
Efforts to fight COVID-19 are diverting government resources away from militants and criminal organizations, creating opportunities, particularly for terrorist groups and international narcotics traffickers who thrive in vacuums of security.
It is certain that COVID-19 will handicap domestic security and international efforts to counter ISIS, allowing the terrorist group to better prepare terror attacks and escalate insurgency warfare on battlefields worldwide.
ISIS has recently called on its members to intensify their fight against pro-western governments, particularly in Iraq. Boko Haram has also stepped up attacks in West Africa. And even as Iran, which is grappling with a severe COVID-19 outbreak, is supporting its Shia proxies inside Iraq to continue the attack on US bases
The US has expressed its concern over Iran’s inventory of 2,500-3,000 ballistic missiles as coronavirus outbreak makes Tehran more dangerous, US CENTCOM Commander General Kenneth McKenzie.
Western coalition forces, including the UK, France, and Spain, have withdrawn troops from Iraq, amid the risk of contagion. If coalition support, already affected by US-Iran tensions, is further compromised by COVID-19 and Coalition’s tendency to retrench, an Iraqi state is likely to struggle to contain ISIS insurgents.
How criminal organizations exploit the COVID-19 crisis?
“Criminals have quickly seized opportunities to exploit the crisis by adopting their modi operandi or engaging in new criminal activities,” Catherine De Bolle, Executive Director, Europol, said. “Organised crime groups are notoriously flexible and adaptable and their capacity to exploit this crisis means we need to be constantly vigilant and prepared.”
Criminals have been quick to seize opportunities to exploit the crisis by adapting their modi operandi or engaging in new criminal activities.
Lockdowns and border closures are making it harder for Mafia and criminal organizations to conduct trafficking and smuggling – most of which go through legal border crossings – but organized crime is set to make a killing by loan sharking to bankrupting businesses as quarantine ease.
“It is difficult to assess the short-term impact of the current pandemic crisis on drug markets,” Europol told International Insider. “However, it is likely to shift supply-demand dynamics and may disrupt illegal supply channels. Some reporting indicates the stockpiling of certain drugs by consumers and supply shortages in (pre-)precursors and essential chemicals used in drug production in the EU. This will likely impact on production output and prices and could potentially result in an increase of drug-related violence.”
COVID-19 and Cybercrime
The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on cybercrime has been the most visible and striking compared to other criminal activities.
Europol said that the number of cyberattacks against companies, organizations, and individuals is significant and is expected to increase. Criminal organizations have been benefiting from the COVID-19 crisis carrying out social engineering attacks themed around the pandemic to distribute various malware packages.
“With a huge number of people teleworking from home, often with outdated security systems, cybercriminals prey on the opportunity to take advantage of this surreal situation and focus even more on cybercriminal activities,” De Bolle said. “I am very concerned about the rise of child sexual abuse online. Europol is investing resources and capacities to support Member States in countering cyber-dependent crime during this difficult situation”.
Cybercriminals are exploiting an increasing number of attack vectors as a more significant number of employers use telework and allow external connections to their organizations’ systems.
For Example, Czech authorities have recently reported a cyberattack on Brno University Hospital, which forced the hospital to shut down its entire IT network temporarily.
Europol has been monitoring the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the cybercrime landscape since the beginning of the current crisis.
Europol outlook is that “Ransomware has been the most dominant cybercrime threat over the last several years. The current crisis is unlikely to change that dynamic. The pandemic may multiply the damaging impact of a successful attack against certain institutions, which reinforces the necessity for effective cyberresilience. The number of phishing attempts exploiting the crisis is expected to continue to increase. However, we also expect a greater number of inexperienced cybercriminals to deploy ransomware-as-a-service. Not all of these campaigns will result in successful attacks due to the lack of experience and technical skills of the criminals.”
Europol’s European Cybercrime Centre (EC3) is specialised in supporting the prevention and investigation of cyber-attacks, child sexual exploitation, payment fraud and the online trade of illegal commodities through the dark web, becoming a cybercriminal information hub and a platform for cooperation with the private sector and the cybersecurity community.
Europol is supporting a number of law enforcement operations targeting criminals attempting to exploit the pandemic in different ways. A number of cases are related to criminals trafficking counterfeit medicines or abusing the public concerns through large scale scams and frauds.
Europol is currently building an intelligence picture of the different criminal phenomena appearing during this crisis. The agency has released two situation reports outlining the current developments which fall under a number of crime areas (cybercrime, fraud, property crime and counterfeiting).