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COVID-19, Terrorist Targeting and Remembering 9/11

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Ygnacio Flores, Tracy Rickman, and Don Mason
August 9, 2020

As the United States prepares to return, even in a slow methodic fashion, back to life in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, terrorists still desire to capitalize on the fears of many to incite the use of violence in America. The May 2020 attack at the Naval Air Station in Corpus Christi, Texas provides a reminder that the threat of terrorism continues to be persistent as terrorists continue their pursuit of attacking American interests. The targets of terrorists and the reasoning behind their activity has not changed since the attacks of September 11, 2001. The terrorists’ desire to use the media to achieve their goals is linked to the selection of their targets. Whether domestic or international, homegrown or other, terrorists aim to seize the best opportunity to promote uncertainty and fear in the societies they attack. With more people working from home and a limited ability to have large gatherings, we need to recognize that the decrease in terrorist activity is temporary. Opening society in the wake of COVID-19 will provide opportunity to those that would do us harm. As we approach the anniversary of September 11, we need to review policy, directives and preparedness standards in a new light since many employees are now working from home. Home-based offices can facilitate a rich environment to exploit vulnerabilities in cybersecurity.  

Security professionals must consider how the COVID-19 pandemic is being used to review the list of targets they would like to attack. Will the wearing of face masks and social distancing provide a vulnerability to both hard and soft targets? How will the new normal affect the development of new tactics and strategies to support their mission? This article serves as a reminder that as the world is focused on social distancing and development of a vaccination for COVID-19, there is a terrorist element dedicated to committing acts that instill fear in a society already consumed with the anxiety of the virus’ unknowns.

As an event, COVID-19 has already reshaped society as many people deal with the deaths of loved ones and the fear of being infected. Administrators need to ensure their view of security does not become narrowly focused on only one threat. Vigilance about all hazards is still germane as a primary responsibility for leaders. 

How will the emerging culture of wearing a face mask affect facial recognition technology? This vulnerability can and has been utilized by criminals and terrorists to commit crimes or seek targets that will do the most damage to the largest group of people. As the COVID-19 virus is starting to rise before the expected second wave starts later this year in the fall, the act of not wearing a mask or coughing on another is considered a criminal act. The reality is that an increase in cases across this country has many leaders now considering additional means to mitigate the spread of the virus.

As the United States moves forward to combat COVID-19, we must remain vigilant in our efforts to reduce the possibilities of an attack, especially with locations that are soft targets. Sports arenas, restaurants, bars, and shopping malls—places people have missed for months—need to be reviewed and realigned with soft target practices to counter terrorism in mind. Citizens can be more concerned about maintaining social distancing while terrorists focus on injuring and killing others. Any gathering of people presents a terrorist with an opportunity. When the quarantines end there will be a rush to establish normalcy by engaging in habitual social activities on a mass scale. The euphoria of reestablishing an engaging society will come at the cost of lowered awareness of the threats we face. This can be seen as politicization of the face mask and the re-closing of public areas once opened with a false confidence.

Targets such as airports may still be a target of terrorist organizations, though they are not expected to regain full business capacity for many years to come. This will cause soft targets to become preferred targets as people return to a normal life of visiting stores, shopping, entertainment and sporting events.

With the surge in COVID-19 cases, administrators need to consider how the separation of citizens can support or enhance the objectives of a terrorist. The fact that we are distancing ourselves from one another, limiting gatherings and staying home may indeed support the reduction of violence at a terrorist level. To conflate this with other crimes that have recently increased may not be applicable. As the attacks of September 11 remind us, disregarding potential threats can be costly. As the country divides along the political hemispheres of COVID-19, the concept of security is being tested under the adage of, “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.

Administrators, focused on the virus as we are today, should use the upcoming anniversary of September 11 to review policies tied to best practices for a pandemic while maintaining good habits of safety and security for the employees. Let us not forget.


Tracy Rickman
Ygnacio “Nash” Flores
Don Mason
All serve as faculty in Rio Hondo College’s Public Safety Department.

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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