Main Image Credit A protest against COVID-19 vaccines in London in September 2021. Courtesy of Mx Granger / Wikimedia Commons / CC0 1.0
The pandemic has seen both an exacerbation of existing threats and the emergence of new ones.
Just over two years ago, one day after the UK announced a national lockdown to counter the spread of COVID-19, Keith Ditcham explored the likely implications of the pandemic for organised crime and the agencies seeking to counter it. In the intervening years, the pandemic has had a striking impact, both in the UK and globally, and has altered the threat landscape as fraud and cybercrime soar and the anti-vax movement opens new avenues to extremism.
Despite a sharp decrease in drug seizures in many countries, and the expectation that border closures could lead to a shortage of the chemicals needed to produce many drugs, criminal groups adapted quickly. Large cocaine reserves allowed Latin American traffickers to avoid shortages, while coca cultivation and production in South America remained at near-record levels. In Europe, traffickers switched to maritime routes, and illegal drug production on the continent remained steady. Similarly, Africa’s role as a vital transit point continued as the number of local drug labs increased and the pandemic’s impact on the formal economy pushed people into illicit trades.
In the early months of the pandemic, border closures led to upheaval among human trafficking networks, with thousands of people stranded across Africa having been abandoned by traffickers. However, in the longer term, migrants became more reliant on human traffickers and more vulnerable to violence and exploitation as legitimate routes remained closed.
New Ways of Working
The pandemic presented a wealth of opportunities for criminal groups and opportunistic individuals, many facilitated by the internet.
In the UK, listings for illegal drugs on the dark web increased by almost 500% in the first few months of the pandemic as supply shifted online, with a similar pattern seen in continental Europe. Criminal groups similarly adapted their on-the-ground operations: Interpol warned that food delivery services were being used to transport drugs; the use of ‘drug drops’ increased; and the National Crime Agency said criminal groups were exploiting the pandemic by hiding drugs in deliveries of personal protective equipment.
True to Keith Ditcham’s prediction in 2020, there has been a considerable increase in various types of cybercrime during the pandemic. In the UK there was a massive increase in impersonation scams, including fraudsters pretending to be the government, the NHS, delivery companies or the bank as people became more reliant on online services. Cyber attacks also increased during the pandemic, many of which were linked to hostile actors including Russia and China. Hospitals and vaccine research centres were particularly vulnerable and made up 20% of the organisations supported by the UK’s National Cyber Security Centre during 2021.
COVID-19 support schemes have likewise proven bountiful for criminals as governments forewent checks and balances in the hope of shoring up the economy. In the UK, up to £16 billion was lost due to fraud and error in COVID-19 loan schemes. Self-certified, taxpayer-guaranteed loans with minimal oversight provided ample opportunity for career criminals and opportunists to defraud the system, leading to widespread criticism of the UK’s lax approach to fraud. However, support schemes were similarly defrauded in the US, while Europol pre-emptively launched Operation Sentinel to target fraud against EU COVID-19 recovery fund schemes.
The pandemic has given organised crime groups the opportunity to demonstrate their adaptability and resilience
Finally, school closures globally have exacerbated children’s vulnerability. From Colombia to the Central African Republic, the recruitment of children into armed groups has increased. Children not in school are also more vulnerable to human traffickers, while those spending more time indoors and online were at increased risk of online sexual abuse. To illustrate this, it was estimated that 4.5 million of Uganda’s 15 million school-aged children would not return to education when schools reopened in February 2022. The country’s teen pregnancy rates soared during the pandemic, while many children had to start working to support their families or slipped under the influence of local gangs.
While some of these ways of working are likely to return to previous patterns as the threat of the pandemic diminishes, others are likely to stay. The pandemic has reaffirmed the dark web as a useful and under-policed facilitator of illicit trades, while the increasing tensions internationally mean that incidents like the SolarWinds cyber attack are unlikely to be confined to the pandemic era.
Governments globally will also need to do more to identify children who have slipped through the net during the pandemic. People with limited education and work opportunities are particularly vulnerable to the overtures of organised criminal and extremist groups, raising the possibility that without sufficient support the forgotten children of the COVID-19 pandemic could become the security threats of tomorrow.
Thankfully, concerns that police may be restricted to only handling loss of life incidents in a worst-case scenario did not come to pass. Nevertheless, UK police forces have been stretched at times and COVID-19 has added an extra layer of complication, especially during large, high-security events such as 2021’s G7 Summit and COP26.
The UK police have also struggled with a more existential threat to their role in society, due to a perception that the police took a heavy-handed approach to enforcing COVID-19 restrictions. This was exacerbated by the decision to break up a vigil for Sarah Everard by force, after her murder by a serving police officer who may have used COVID-19 regulations as a pretence to falsely arrest and kidnap her. The police handling of allegations that 10 Downing Street held parties during lockdowns has also garnered widespread criticism and likely contributed to the recent resignation of Commissioner Dame Cressida Dick.
Amnesty International has found that law enforcement agencies in 60 countries committed human rights abuses in the name of tackling COVID-19 in the first few months of the pandemic, suggesting that police in the UK and globally may face an uphill battle to regain public trust.
An Emerging Threat
Perhaps the newest threat to have emerged during the pandemic is the widespread, large-scale galvanisation of the previously relatively fringe anti-vax movement. Prompted by vaccine mandates and COVID-19 restrictions, the movement has been able to weaponise social media to spread vaccine misinformation, disinformation and conspiracy theories. These range from relatively mundane – though still potentially life-threatening – recommendations for alternative remedies to prevent and treat COVID-19 infection, to alarmist conspiracy theories that the vaccine is a bioweapon or part of a ‘global genocide’.
Governments, the media and society should avoid villainising people with legitimate health concerns and instead seek to educate them on their terms
As well as engaging in low-level sabotage, anti-vaxxers have harassed politicians and have been arrested for posting bomb threats to schools and raiding COVID-19 testing centres. Anti-vax protesters in London were filmed calling for medical personnel to be executed for their role in the vaccine rollout, raising concerns that the rising abuse of healthcare staff globally could result in deaths.
This darker side of the anti-vax movement should not be underestimated. Far-right groups have been using online anti-vax groups and protests against COVID-19 restrictions as a recruiting ground, harnessing pandemic-related fear and paranoia to nudge people towards extremist views. Recent ‘Freedom Convoy’ protests in France, New Zealand and Canada have featured extreme anti-vax and far-right messaging side by side. Given that the far right is now considered by some to present the biggest terrorist risk in the US and UK, as well as the ongoing links between far-right groups and organised crime, there should be a renewed focus on addressing anti-vax sentiment before it reaches such extremes.
A pre-pandemic study found that emphasising the dangers of a disease rather than the safety of its corresponding vaccine helped change parents’ minds about vaccinating their children, and anecdotal evidence suggests that gentle persuasion based around trends, freedom of choice and correcting misinformation can help convince people to get vaccinated against COVID-19. It is therefore important not to conflate vaccine scepticism with anti-vax extremism, and governments, the media and society should avoid villainising people with legitimate health concerns and instead seek to educate them on their terms.
The pandemic has given organised crime groups the opportunity to demonstrate their adaptability and resilience. Whether a new, more dangerous variant emerges, or Omicron proves to be the last hurdle in reaching an endemic state, the pressure is on law enforcement agencies to be similarly agile in their approach to tackling crime in all its forms – illicit trades, fraud, online abuse or otherwise – while remaining on the right side of the law (and public opinion) themselves.
The biggest uncertainty relates to the future of the anti-vax movement. Will it wane with the virus? Will it be absorbed into the far right? The recent ‘Freedom Convoy’ protests and their wider anti-government rhetoric suggest that the anti-vax movement is already broadening its scope to encompass a host of narratives that could present future security risks. What was once a fringe movement has now been embraced by many politicians, celebrities and the general public. Whether such a movement can be restrained having gathered so much momentum during the pandemic remains to be seen.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
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Organised Crime and Policing