Government lockdowns may have been terrible for diagnosing disease and the mental health of kids but it reduced terrorism, according to a new paper. If no one can travel, government agents helping fifth columnists do their damage are useless. When the pandemic struck, terrorists vowed to increase their attacks and create a tipping point but that did not happen.

Instead, government-imposed curfews and travel bans instituted to protect public health in Iraq, Syria, and Egypt were significantly associated with a reduction in ISIS attacks, especially in urban areas and locations near their bases of operations. It likely meant fewer attacks by al-Qaeda, and Boko Haram also.

The authors do not argue that curfews and bans are good, rather that bad things sometimes have good results. With fewer ways to easily terrorize civilian targets and sow dissent, they also had less access to money to buy weapons and bombs. 

The authors focused on ISIS due to the group’s explicit pledge to accelerate violence during the pandemic and because its large financial reserves, rural base, and preference for targeting government installations over civilians make it less vulnerable to the effects of curfews and travel restrictions. They analyzed data on more than 1,500 ISIS-initiated violent events in Iraq, Syria, and Egypt — the countries where the group launches most of its attacks — compiled by the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project covering a 78-week period between Dec. 31, 2018, and June 28, 2020. The researchers also mapped the number and location of ISIS attacks within and across Iraq’s governorates using geographic information system (GIS).

During that analysis period, in March of 2020, pandemic-related curfews and travel bans were imposed in all three countries. Lockdowns significantly reduced violence, especially in cities and areas near the militant group’s rural bases. The number of violent events was about 30% lower in Iraq and 15% lower in Syria when COVID-19 related curfews were in place in those countries.  

The researchers found that the higher a governorate’s population, the more effective curfews were in reducing violence. For example, the number of ISIS-initiated violent events in Baghdad, which has a population of 8.1 million, was 11% lower when the curfews were in place. There was no change in the Najaf (one center of Muslim pilgrimage), which has a population of 1.5 million people. 

Based on interviews with government officials, military leaders, policy experts, and residents of places covered in the study, the researchers concluded that the curfews and travel restrictions reduced the number of high-value civilian targets and made it more difficult for ISIS militants to move about without being noticed. While there is evidence that the public health measures also strained the group’s financial resources — for instance, by limiting its ability to collect money from locals or operate its commercial businesses — the group’s financial reserves, which amount to hundreds of millions of dollars by most estimates, likely allowed it to keep funding its cells, the researchers concluded.