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Cybercrime and terrorism profit off pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic is being exploited to radicalize would-be terrorists and to target vulnerable networks used by hospitals and healthcare systems.

UNITED NATIONS (AN) — The COVID-19 pandemic is being exploited to radicalize would-be terrorists and to target vulnerable computer networks used by hospitals and health care systems around the world, the U.N. counterterrorism chief said on Thursday.

Phishing websites, many targeting hospitals and health care systems, spiked by 350% during the first quarter of this year, Vladimir Voronkov, a Russian diplomat and undersecretary-general of the United Nations Office of Counterterrorism, or UNOCT, told the U.N. Security Council.

"The pandemic has the potential to act as a catalyst in the spread of terrorism and violent extremism by exacerbating inequalities, undermining social cohesion and fueling local conflicts," said Voronkov.

"We must continue our fight against terrorist groups and criminal networks to deny them the opportunity to exploit the COVID-19 crisis," he said. "Collective action and international cooperation are needed now more than ever."

The 15-nation council, the world body's most powerful arm, met to discuss ties between terrorists and organized criminals — and their new opportunities to exploit nations' struggles to suppress the coronavirus.

Voronkov said terrorists have been "generating funds from illicit trafficking in drugs, goods, natural resources and antiquities, as well as kidnapping for ransom, extorting and committing other heinous crimes."

Many of these digital attacks are hindering public health efforts to respond to the pandemic, said Voronkov, citing the conclusions from among more than 1,000 participants with 134 nations and 175 organizations at the July 6 to 10 Virtual Counterterrorism Week sponsored by the world body.

"We are yet to fully understand the impact and consequences of the pandemic on global peace and security, and more specifically on organized crime and terrorism," he said in a statement.

"We know that terrorists are exploiting the significant disruption and economic hardships caused by COVID-19 to spread fear, hate and division and radicalize and recruit new followers," Voronkov said. "The increase in internet usage and cybercrime during the pandemic further compounds the problem."

'New vulnerabilities'

Ghada Waly, executive director of the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, or UNODC, in Vienna, t0ld the Security Council the links between terrorism and organized crime are "complex and multifaceted, posing a serious threat to international peace and security," but the COVID-19 crisis adds a new set of challenges.

"Organized criminal groups and terrorists may seek to capitalize on and exploit new vulnerabilities, and transit patterns are shifting in view of travel restrictions and lockdown measures, adding further challenges for border security," said Waly, an Egyptian diplomat educated in the United States.

Waly said the report to the Security Council from UNOCT and UNODC shows terrorism financing often comes from organized crime, but some nations lack "investigative capacities" to confirm it.

"Linkages between terrorism and organized crime may be opportunistic, based upon shared territory or other mutual interest," she said in her statement. "Alliances may also draw on personal connections, possibly developed in prisons in cases where terrorists have prior criminal backgrounds."

Many nations with investigative capacities said they grapple with migrant smuggling, robbery, kidnapping for ransom and trafficking in people, drugs, firearms and cultural artifacts. In some instances, returning foreign terrorist fighters turned to organized crime to get across borders.

Yet Waly said criminal organizations appear "increasingly disinterested in cooperating with terrorist groups, potentially to avoid additional scrutiny from national authorities" that crack down on them. Cooperation with countries and organizations like Interpol is a discouraging factor.

"Targeting entire organized criminal or terrorist networks when building criminal cases should also be a priority," she added. "More support is needed to comprehensively address all forms of trafficking in persons, including when such crimes are committed by terrorist groups."