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Journal Global Security: Health, Science and Policy
An Open Access Journal
Volume 5, 2020 - Issue 1

ABSTRACT

Despite the world鈥檚 overwhelming preoccupation with the COVID-19 pandemic, the threat of international and domestic terrorism is not in decline according to available indicators. The angst that the pandemic induced in millions of people, and the incapacitation of major functions and institutions of world鈥檚 societies are exploited by both jihadist and far-right terror organisations for the spread of conspiracy theories aimed to fuel hate against their alleged nemeses, the encouragement of easy attacks against vulnerable targets, and the spread of bedlam and confusion intended to bring down governments and promote the terrorists鈥 agenda. In this paper, we illustrate and discuss terrorism trends manifest during the COVID-19 pandemic and consider the threat these trends pose to the world鈥檚 security.

Business as usual

Despite the overriding media attention to the COVID-19 pandemic and its near-total eclipse of security issues, the terrorism milieu has hardly taken a pause from its deadly pursuits or suspended the execution of its plans. Just in the week of March 11鈥17, 2020Islamic State (IS) launched significant attacks in seven countries: Egypt, Niger, Nigeria, the Philippines, Somalia, and Yemen (SITE Intelligence Group, 2020e). In April alone, ISIS launched over 100 attacks in Iraq, the highest number in 2020 so far (Clarke, 2020). In Afghanistan, the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) carried out in mid May 2020, a devastating attack in a funeral parlour in Nangahar (24 killed, 68 wounded), another horrific (thus far unclaimed) attack was launched in a maternity ward in Kabul that killed pregnant women and babies (16 dead) (Gannon & Akhgar, 2020). In June and July ISIS resurged also in Syria, Kashmir, Pakistan and the Philippines (SITE Intelligence Group, 2020d). Outside of Kashmir, Pakistani institutions have also been targeted by the nationalist Balochistan Liberation Army, which is alleged by Pakistan to be supported by India (Haroon Janjua, 2020). Al-Qaeda affiliated Al Shabab organisation reported a significant uptick in its operations claiming 37 attacks in Somalia and Kenya claiming 52 dead, and 35 wounded. In Mali, al Qaeda-linked Jama鈥檃t Nasr al-Islam kidnapped a high-profile opposition leader (Columbo & Harris, 2020). Pro-Al Qaeda groups claimed attacks also in Syria, Mali, and Yemen (Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula). The statistics for India, Pakistan, and the Malay Archipelago showed no decline in terrorist attacks in recent months (South Asian Terrorism Portal, 2020; SITE Intelligence Group, 2020b; Yaoren, 2020).

The far-right extremists have not been 鈥榮itting idle鈥 during the pandemic either. In the U.S., there have been 50 vehicle ramming attacks since late May targeting protesters (Allam, 2020). The Boogaloo Boys, a far-right, pro-guns anti-lockdown group has intensified their attacks, feeding off both the anti-lockdown protests and the police brutality protests (Jones et al., 2020). Early in the pandemic, there was a spike in anti-Asian hate crimes (ADL, 2020). In 2020 thus far, the far-right has been responsible for 90% of terrorist attacks in the U.S. compared to 66% in 2019 (Jones et al., 2020). There have also been right-wing attacks against anti-lockdown protests in Germany (Go脽ner, 2020). Finally, even though this has not been attributed to any known extremist groups, during the pandemic there has been a significant worldwide uptick in cyberattacks, mostly targeting hospitals (INTERPOL, 2020).

So, the awe of the pandemic notwithstanding, extremist groups have not ceased sowing their own brand of horror. Far from just keeping up their activity despite the pandemic, they are using the pandemic as an opportunity to grow stronger. As shown below, they are exploiting gaps in security, and the general burdens on societies that the pandemic imposes and are pushing forward their ideologies as a cure for fear, frustration, and panic (Bloom, 2020).

A boost to messaging

Specifically, the widespread upheaval, uncertainty and global anxiety occasioned by the COVID-19 pandemic has been seen by terror organisations as a golden opportunity to tie their messaging to information about the disease and intensify their propaganda for purposes of recruitment and incitement to violence. These objectives are being pursued through a diverse, and, often internally inconsistent, blend of communications including conspiracy theories, claims of the God鈥檚 vengeance against its enemies, exhortation to weaponise the virus, and taking advantage of society鈥檚 weakness by launching widespread attacks wherever and whenever possible.

Though bolstered by the pandemic, the extremist messaging activities are not new, nor at least in the case of ISIS, is tying their messaging to popularly trending news and popular culture hashtags. Terrorist groups have flourished online, with ISIS becoming notorious for their high-quality propaganda videos and content that resulted in the recruitment and travel to Syria of over 40,000 foreign terrorist fighters from over 100 countries around the world. Likewise, far-right groups have flourished online prior to the pandemic. Far-right extremists across the Atlantic share methods and ideology across the Internet and bolster each other鈥檚 hatred online. Likewise, the 鈥榠ncel鈥 ideology, which overlaps a great deal with far-right violent extremism but also praises militant jihadism (Moonshot, 2020), was born and propagated almost entirely online and their misogynistic brand of extremist violence was recently classified as terrorism by Canadian authorities (BBC, 2020). Yet the current situation is qualitatively different from pre-pandemic realities, and entails new vulnerabilities. Now, during lockdowns, people feel alone and disempowered. They are increasingly unemployed, anxious about the future, eager for a sense of community and purpose, and looking for belonging and answers; this makes them perfect prey for terrorist recruiters who already have the skills to develop close bonds over the Internet and to incite people to violence without ever meeting in person (Speckhard & Ellenberg, 2020). Moreover, a report from the United Nations Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate [UN CTED] noted that school closures and the move to distance learning has led to a dramatic increase in unsupervised Internet activity among young people, who could be exposed to terrorist messaging on social media, online chatrooms, or gaming communities (United Nations Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate, 2020).

In what follows, we illustrate the new trends in extremists鈥 online propaganda via specific messaging examples the likes of which are in the many thousands. These continue to elevate the threat of terrorism, keeping up a dangerous level of incitement that societies would do well to prepare for both while the pandemic lasts and in its aftermath.

The jihadist response

The extremist narrative: grievance, culprit, method

To appreciate the potential impact of the terrorists鈥 propaganda stratagems, it is useful to consider them in the context of a paradigmatic extremist narrative that justifies violence against some target. Its three essential elements are those of Grievance, Culprit and Method (Kruglanski et al., 2019; Kruglanski & Fishman, 2006). The Grievance element refers to the harm or injustice that a given group of people suffered, or allegedly suffered. The Culprit is the social entity (nation, state, organisation, ethnic group or religion) deemed responsible for the harm/injustice. Crucially, the Method is the unleashing of violence deemed as both effective and morally justifiable means of punishing the Culprit and achieving glorious victory over the enemy. In jihadist circles, moral justification for unleashing violence is often, if not always, couched in defensive terms with the Culprit blamed for the original grievance and anti-Muslim violence, therefore morally justifying defensive and retributive action to prevent further acts of grievance, as in 鈥榓n eye for an eye鈥. Different elements in the terrorist propaganda have pertained to different elements of this narrative.

Conspiracy theories

In context of the COVID-19 pandemic, a veritable cottage industry of conspiracy theories was put in motion bearing on the Grievance and the Culprit elements of the terrorist narrative. In this regard, the jihadists and far-right have mirrored each other, often repeating the claims made by their seemingly polar opposite and fanning flames of conspiracies about Western governments and their responsibility for the virus. In the case of jihadists, two types of grievance have been articulated: (1) the pandemic itself and (2) former crimes against Muslims by alleged enemies of their faith. In the first category have been claims that the Chinese or the Americans deliberately initiated the spread of the virus. Such conspiracies are widely shared in jihadist chat groups as well as by other elements of mainstream society, some of whom have emulated Western far-right (and U.S. President Trump鈥檚 own) labelling of COVID-19 as 鈥榯he Chinese Virus鈥 (SITE Intelligence Group, 2020b). For instance, Abu Ali al-Askari, a security chief for the Hezbollah Brigades, an Iraqi Shia militia attributed the pandemic, in a 26 February 2020 tweet to 鈥The capitalist countries led by America鈥 whose 鈥Biological weapons are among many tools they use to crush their opponents鈥. Blaming the U.S. as the originator of the virus, he, therefore, enjoined 鈥all on the sincere media, the selfless and those of sound opinion to reveal those killers and expose their violations in order to reduce the danger facing our human world鈥 (SITE Intelligence Group, 2020聽c).

Likewise, on jihadists鈥 Instagram pages, reports of the 鈥楴ew World Order鈥, an oft-used conspiracy theory advanced by the far-right, abound. One meme featured Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Microsoft founder Bill Gates sitting on a couch conspiring to exploit their enemies and gain from the pandemic. A speech bubble above Zuckerberg reads, 鈥業 will delete the post who are exposing us on every platform which belong to us 鈥,鈥 with Gates responding, 鈥楪ood! And I will delete the people鈥檚 through vaccines & viruses. however we are on same mission [sic].鈥 The same poster referred to the pandemic as 鈥極peration COVID-19: A global PSYOP [psychological operation], false flag operation, mass casualty event and series of bioterrorist attacks carried out by NATO and British Crown.鈥 The post鈥檚 author went on to claim that the pandemic was 鈥榩aid for by international banking cartel to expedite the military deployment of 5聽G [鈥 establish a mandatory vaccination requiring immunity certificates and other draconian healthcare mandates.鈥 In jihadist propaganda, this simply reinforces the existing claims that the Western powers are trying to dominate and even eliminate Muslims. Moreover, it feeds sinister fears about the true objective of vaccinations offered by Western governments, after a doctor purporting to be going house to house vaccinating Pakistani children was found to actually be a spy who helped determine the location of Osama bin Laden before he was subjected to a U.S. special forces capture and kill operation (Reardon, 2011). These conspiracy theories of social control are bolstered by government responses to the COVID-19 crisis, including mass surveillance and use of the military in domestic policing (United Nations Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate, 2020).

Allah鈥檚 soldier

In contrast to blaming Western or Chinese powers for creating and spreading the virus as a bioweapon, common among ISIS and Al-Qaeda propagandists is the claim that the coronavirus is a soldier of Allah sent to avenge the Muslim people鈥檚 suffering brought about by the US and its allies. In this narrative, the coronavirus is seen as a type of plague sent by God that will kill the enemies of Allah, sparing the believing Muslims. For instance, ISIS spokesman Abu Hamza al-Qurashi made a speech entitled 鈥楢nd the Disbelievers Will Know who Gets the Good End鈥, released 28 Mayth, 2020, in which he compared the pandemic to the biblical story of Moses cursing Pharaoh with the 10 plagues until he relented and let God鈥檚 people go. Al-Qurashi claimed that the coronavirus of today is a modern-day plague sent by Allah to inflict the U.S. and its allies to demonstrate the righteousness of Muslims and Allah鈥檚 divine power; to turn Western unbelievers them from their disbelief and compel them to repentance. Likewise, he claimed that the pandemic was divine retribution for the deaths in ISIS-held territories in Syria and Iraq caused by the U.S. led coalition, pointing out the similar number of deaths now caused by COVID-19 and the parallel situation of people having to now stay locked in their homes (SITE Intelligence Group, 2020聽j). On 20 March 2020, a user on a pro-ISIS platform made an almost identical claim: 鈥The daily number of deaths and new infections in Europe and North America is running almost equal to the number of daily civilian deaths and injured during coalition bombings in Mosul and Raqqah鈥 to which a fellow user replied: 鈥they are getting payback for their crimes inshallah, now they experience some of the pain experienced by the Ummah鈥 (SITE Intelligence Group, 2020聽g). Two days later on March 22, the first user shared a chart reporting total and new cases of the COVID-19 infections and deaths in America, France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Switzerland and gleefully exclaiming: 鈥榓lhamdullah鈥 (praised be Allah), and the acronym LOL (laughing out loud). Another user tweeted: 鈥#coronavirus is doing the work of the mujihadeen, alhamdullah; Muslims should enjoy how鈥檚 Allah punishing kuffar for their support against Muslims.鈥 (SITE Intelligence Group, 2020聽g), and on 20 March 2020 Gazan Imam Jamil Al-Mutawa sermonised: 鈥(Allah) has sent just one soldier. what would happen had he sent 50 like the corona virus? He has sent just one soldier and it has hit all 50 (American) states 鈥 They talk about 25 million infected people in just one of the 50 states (California). Allah be praised鈥 (MEMRI, 2020). Other clerics pointed to the virus鈥檚 initial epicentre in Wuhan, China, as evidence that the virus was sent by Allah to punish China for its severe persecution of Uighur Muslims (Hanna, 2020).

It was not only ISIS and al-Qaeda referring to the coronavirus as the soldier of Allah. A New York-based Muslim Brotherhood activist called on Egyptians infected with the virus to forgo hospitalisation and instead visit as many secular government officials and headquarters as possible to act as a human vector for spreading the widely spreading the infection to perceived government oppressors. This fits with the jihadist idea of 鈥榤artyrdom鈥 and sacrificing oneself by attacking and dying for the good of the Muslim community (Al Arabiya English, 2020).

The idea that the coronavirus was sent as 鈥楢llah鈥檚 soldier鈥 resonates deeply with people of faith who already have accepted claims about atrocities carried out by the global world powers against Muslims worldwide: Russia鈥檚 carpet bombing of Chechnya, China鈥檚 oppression of Uighurs, Myanmar鈥檚 rape and genocidal killing of Rohingya, and the U.S. coalition bombardments and killings of Muslim civilian populations in Syria and Iraq. The 鈥楢llah鈥檚 soldier鈥 theory, however, puts Muslims in danger as it claims that true believers will be spared, as were the followers of Moses from the ancient Biblical plagues. In that vein, Iranian Shia pilgrims, perhaps believing they would be divinely protected, streamed into Iraq during the holy days, carrying the virus with them as they gathered in close quarters and kissed relics in succession, spreading the disease among themselves and into Iraq.

Conspiracy theories鈥 widespread appeal, beyond fringe extremists, is due to their provision of clarity in times of troubling uncertainty and the guidance for action required under the circumstances (Graumann & Moscovici, 1987). As demonstrated by the use of the 鈥楢llah鈥檚 Soldier鈥 narrative as well as the conspiracy theories propagated by terror groups, extremists are often able to frame situations in a way that promotes their ideology. Logically, however, a disease sent by Allah to punish infidels cannot be simultaneously be created by Bill Gates and the New World Order; the fact that ISIS supporters have put forward both narratives 鈥 might lend itself to exploitation in CVE messaging efforts.

A call to action

Consistent with identification of the Grievance/harm (the pandemic, anti-Muslim violence) and the Culprit (China, the US and its allies) is the recommended Method of restoring dignity and significance to the injured (cf. Kruglanski et al., 2019), namely unmitigated violence aimed to (1) exploit the weakness and discombobulation of the enemy allowing the mujihadeen to hit them hard and with impunity, (2) developing a bio-weapon of one鈥檚 own given its spectacular lethality. Relevant to the first theme, the ISIS editorial in the ISIS magazine NABA 226 titled 鈥The Worst Nightmares of the Crusaders stated: 鈥Their houses are shuttered, their markets and activities disrupted 鈥 Do not have mercy on the disbelievers and the apostates even when they are at the height of their affliction. Exacerbate the stress on them, so that they become weaker 鈥 (in) their ability to fight the mujahideen鈥 (The Stabilization Network, 2020). And on 18 March 2020, ISIS Maldivian supporters posted on a Dhivehi and English Telegraph Channel the posting: 鈥Today we are witnessing the start and the spread of a new and dangerous disease which has shaken the world, and thrown all the governments into panic. Their attention is diverted 鈥 and even if they wanted to redirect their focus against us 鈥 the bitter truth is that they cannot afford to do that no matter how much they wanted 鈥 So, take advantage! And carry out Amaliyat (operations) 鈥 according to your capability. Do something good which will benefit you and others with you 鈥 for the sake of Allah (SITE Intelligence Group, 2020聽h). Less than a month later, a major attack occurred in the Maldives, the first terror attack in the country to be claimed by ISIS (Zahir, 2020).

Furthermore, a concern has been raised that the jihadists will learn from the horrific world impact of COVID 19 and intensify their efforts to switch from the use of complicated devices, bombs, and suicide attacks to biological warfare, and bioterrorism. The interest of terror groups in the use of biological weapons is longstanding and it has waxed and waned over the years (Guarrieri & Meisel, 2019). Yet recently (in 2018), the British MI5 received information that returning British jihadists from Syria and Iraq were trained in developing basic bio-weapons like ricin and anthrax. Likewise, researchers at the International Centre for the Study of Violent Extremism at Georgetown University (ICSVE) recently interviewed doctoral-level scientists who had been recruited by ISIS to study scientific journals around the world in multiple languages about biological and chemical advancements and from these compile for ISIS instructions on what to buy and how to create weapons of mass destruction in a lab they were running in Erbil, Iraq (Speckhard & Shajkovci, 2019). Al-Qaeda also experimented with anthrax and ricin even exposing dogs to bioweaponry in attempts to test lethality. These trends raise the possibility that the devastating health impact of the coronavirus, and its potential for societal and economic disruption would tempt terror organisations and revive their interest in pursuing the bio-weapons option (Jayaratne, 2020).

While development of unconventional weapons would take serious time to develop and likely require state sponsorship to come to full fruition, terrorists are already taking advantage of security gaps produced by the pandemic. At the simplest level, security forces all over the world will be depleted when servicemembers get sick, and they are also being redeployed as a result in a shift in priorities and the interest of safety. In Iraq, American forces shifted focus in early 2020 to focus on Iran and Iranian-funded militias and aircraft carriers of naval soldiers have seen serious spread of infection while on worldwide patrol. Concerns over the spread of COVID-19 in Iraq as well as attacks by Iranian militias caused relocations, consolidations and depletions of the American presence as troops were cautiously withdrawn. Coalition allies also removed many of their troops from Iraq in the face of the pandemic. Western countries such as the United Kingdom have delayed deployments to Africa in order to focus on fighting the virus, leaving local security forces more vulnerable to jihadist attacks (Campbell, 2020). ISIS urged its followers to take advantage of the power vacuum, directly referencing the pandemic by pronouncing, 鈥楩ear of this contagion has affected them more than the contagion itself鈥 (Magid, 2020).

Indirect initiatives (1) Proselytisation for Islam

Beyond the glee and celebration of the coronavirus as ally in the jihadist fight, a 鈥楽oldier of Allah鈥, extremist organisations recognised the danger that COVID 19 poses to believers, and urged Muslims to repent and embrace their religion. On 22 March 2020, the Afghan Taliban urged Muslims and others to realise that humans are weak and should commit, therefore, to the service of Allah. Specifically, the message stated:鈥 Humans distinct from Islam must consider this tribulation as time for reflection and change while the Muslims in general must also return back to Allah by seeking forgiveness for their sins, and renewing their commitment to religious principles. As much as coronavirus is a calamity and plague it is also an exemplary lesson and an admonitory tribulation鈥 (SITE Intelligence Group, 2020聽f).

Similarly, Al-Qaeda Central in a statement published on 31 March 2020 exhorted: 鈥In this crisis, we would like to remind people of knowledge and callers to Allah to intensify their efforts to call people to Allah and invite them to repent sincerely. Now is the time to spread the correct Aqeedah, call people to Jihad in the Way of Allah and revolt against oppression and oppressors. We also call upon rich Muslims to step forward and show mercy towards the poor and deprived segments of society so that they may find some solace in these distressing times. There is a dire need today to take care of the orphans, widows, families of the prisoners and to support the sincere Mujahideen鈥 (SITE Intelligence Group, 2020i).

And in a call to non-Muslims, the same proclamation stated 鈥O鈥 people of the Western World! Allah (swt), the Creator, has revealed the brittleness and vulnerability of your material strength. It is now clear for all to see that it was but a deception that could not stand the test of the smallest soldier of God on the face of the earth 鈥 reflect on the phenomenon that is Covid-19 and carefully consider its deeper causes. this pandemic is a punishment from the Lord of the Worlds for the injustice and oppression committed against Muslims specifically and mankind generally by governments you elect. Your rulers have spread wars, destruction, and famines. They have stolen the resources and wealth of poor nations and, to advance this vile cause, propped up despotic rulers all over Muslim lands鈥 (SITE Intelligence Group, 2020i).

Consistent with the notion that the pandemic represents Allah鈥檚 vengeance against corrupt infidels and apostates, embracement of true Islam was thought to offer a protection from the plague, and in the worst case 鈥 secure martyrdom. On 9 March 2020, a user of a pro-ISIS platform quipped: 鈥Notice, how coronavirus only affects the kuffar, rafidah and murtadeen (apostates)鈥 (SITE Intelligence Group, 2020e), and on March 20, the Gazan Imam Jamil al-Mutawa exclaimed: 鈥Look how empty their streets are, and how crowded this mosque is. Who is it that has given us security and terrified them? Who is it that protected us and harmed them? Allah鈥 (MEMRI, 2020). On March 19, the Thabaat News Agency published a piece by Khalid al Saba-i, who stated 鈥And if he (the believer) 鈥 is infected and dies as a result, he is a martyr, Allah permitting鈥 (TRAC, 2020). And in the Philippines, an account linked to the Bagsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighter (BIFF) organisation released a series of videos urging Muslims to disregard the government鈥檚 mandate to close the Mosques and keep at home. On 27 March 2020, BIFF faction leader Muhidin Animbang mocked religious leaders for obeying President Duterte鈥檚 exhortation to refrain from fighting. Specifically, he stated: 鈥When Duterte declared that we shouldn鈥檛 be praying (in Mosques) our religious leaders believed and followed his order. You know that not performing prayers on Friday is tantamount for a person to be called a Munafiq鈥 (SITE Intelligence Group, 2020a). Similarly, on Mach 30, 2020, another BIFF cleric stated in a video 鈥You children, parents (and congregational followers), please believe that the one that prevents us to pray is not the virus but the infidels who are always finding ways to destroy us and Islam as a whole鈥 (SITE Intelligence Group, 2020a). Finally, on 10 April 2020, in another video the commander Muhidin Animbang exclaimed: 鈥Us mujahideen if we die inside the mosque then Alhamdullah, we are in the guidance of Allah. I wish that we stand firm in going and worshipping inside the mosque. Do not listen to the kuffar. This is just a virus鈥 (SITE Intelligence Group, 2020a).

Humanitarian assistance to affected Muslims

Some postings acknowledge the danger that COVID-19 poses to Muslim, and in particular to jihadists in prisons and refugee camps (in Syria). A poster in an Indonesian pro-ISIS chat group wrote specifically: 鈥there are reports that (the virus) has spread to the Al-Hol (that) contains thousands of Muslim families who had merely resided in ISIS areas or are suspected to be ISIS family members. Oh brothers don鈥檛 forget to pray for your brothers and sisters鈥 (The Stabilization Network, 2020). And a March 19 editorial published in al Naba called for action to 鈥榝ree the Muslim prisoners in the prisons of the idolaters and the camps of humiliation in which they are threatened by disease鈥 (ibid).

Humanitarian and preventative actions are now being carried out by extremist groups on behalf of those suffering from the pandemic, stepping into areas that governments neglected. These actions serve a practical purpose in the battle for hearts and minds. For groups that aim to establish shariah governments, the virus has provided an opportunity to prove their ability to respond effectively to a wide-scale crisis in stark contrast to governments that defaulted on their duty in this regard. This contrast also serves to foment further distrust in the official governments, leading to anti-State violence. Opportunities for such violence are also strengthened by the strain on resources causing United Nations member states to withdraw troops previously supporting those official governments (United Nations Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate, 2020). In Idlib, HTS鈥檚 civilian front known as the Salvation Government took a number of steps to prevent and contain the spread among Muslims, despite HTS鈥檚 contradictory claims that the virus was punishment for unbelievers. Nevertheless, the steps, presumably taken with HTS leadership鈥檚 approval, included releasing informational videos, conducting body-temperature checks at border crossings, educating clerics, setting up isolation centres, closing markets, and instituting remote schooling. Their actions, along with those of the Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration in Northeast Syria, stand in stark contrast to Syria鈥檚 official government鈥檚 repeated denial that the virus has taken a major toll on the population (Zelin & Alrifai, 2020).

In Gaza, Hamas banned public gatherings and directed its fighters to focus on sanitisation of crowded areas and in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood launched their 鈥極ne People鈥 campaign to help the population deal with the economic repercussions of the pandemic. Perhaps one of the most notable responses came from Hezbollah in Lebanon, a group which has long been known for competing successfully with the government in providing services to the people. Hezbollah sent 25,000 healthcare professionals and 100 emergency vehicles to assist patients and transformed an area of a hospital previously used to treat its fighters to accommodate COVID patients. Hezbollah fighters also offered humanitarian services to Iran and rented hotels to be used for quarantine (Perry & Bassam, 2020). All these actions serve to advance jihadist groups鈥 claims that their strict Islamist system of government is superior to the inept secular or moderate Islamic governments, and better equipped to deal with emergencies. In many parts of Africa, governments already struggle to gain the trust of the citizenry; their failure to effectively deal with the pandemic provides opportunities for groups like al Shabaab in Somalia to enter the services vacuum, emphasising to the Somali people the superiority of shariah governance (Campbell, 2020).

The far-right domain

Violent extremism on the far right has been on the rise in Western societies. The data speak for themselves: Far-right terrorist attacks increased by 320% between 2014 and 2019 according to the 2019 Global Terrorism Index (Weimann & Masri, 2020). In 2018 alone, far-right terrorist attacks made up 17.2% of all terrorist incidents in the West, compared to Islamic groups which made up 6.28% of all attacks. How did the far-right domain respond to the COVID-19 pandemic? Its reaction has been intense and widespread. Typically, its supporters seized on the opportunity that this unprecedented situation afforded for spreading their narrative and mobilising followers for a new type of violence against their perceived nemeses. These comprised the traditional targets of far-right hate: Jews, minorities, foreigners, the government and more generally anyone outside the White supremacist milieu. Far-right rhetoric has been rampant on the various social media; it has comprised (1) a plethora of conspiracy theories, (2) concrete calls for violent action including both conventional attacks and deliberate spreading of the virus; (3) disinformation initiatives designed to promulgate chaos and panic.

Conspiracy theories

Far-right conspiracy theories that dominated the online chatter alleged that (1) COVID-19 was weaponised by the Jews or by the Chinese, and (2) it is an Asian disease, a 鈥楥hinese virus鈥, caused by the Chinese poor hygiene, or (3) indeed by 鈥榝ilthy Jews鈥. The first type of 鈥榯heory鈥 is exemplified by a tweet from @CEOErickHayden whereby: 鈥A Jewish scientist at Harvard was caught working with Chinese nationals who were smuggling biological materials to China. Now Israel has the vaccine before everyone鈥 and facetiously: 鈥How many are ill from coronavirus in Israel?鈥 (Katz, 2020).

In this vein, far-right extremists have propagated the theory that the virus is a tool of the New World Order, led by the 鈥榰sual suspects鈥, far-right scapegoats George Soros and Jacob Rothschild. A photo posted on Instagram featured Rothschild with the words, 鈥楩irst we spread the disease, put the planet on lockdown, bankrupt the planet, invoke martial law, then BOOM, the third temple emerges.鈥 Numerous other posts suggested that Soros was funding the people protesting police brutality in Minneapolis, Minnesota in order to start a race war when the pandemic failed to 鈥榳ork鈥. These posts often referenced a viral video entitled, 鈥楶landemic鈥, which featured a discredited scientist claiming that global elites, a nonexistent cabal of which Soros is the face, were using the virus and future vaccine as a means of social control. The video was viewed millions of times after being shared first by far-right conspiracy theories on QAnon and then by a well-known anti-vaccination physician, a professional mixed martial arts fighter, and a Republican politician from Ohio. The video was eventually removed from YouTube and Facebook, and many posts on Instagram with the hashtag 鈥楶landemic鈥 having been deleted for spreading misinformation, but extremists had already been validated by their mainstream popularity. By then, they were able to frame any discreditation of the video as censorship and efforts by the elites to silence and control those who dared to tell the truth (Frenkel et al., 2020).

Timothy Wilson, a Neo Nazi who was planning to bomb a hospital in Missouri, stated: 鈥the Zionist operated government is using it (COVID 19) as an excuse to destroy our people. They scar people and have society break down. Mark my words, it is coming. I hope people are ready鈥 (Martin, 2020). And 鈥楴ordic Resistance Movement鈥, a Swedish Neo Nazi group tied together the Jews, the Chinese and African Americans in the following conspiracy theoretic message: 鈥This Jewish made coronavirus is affecting the international stock market because our manufacturing is our sourced, this is all relied upon by China so we are in this position because of globalisation because of the Jews. You watch they will now use our collapsing economies by importing African infinity niggers鈥 (Katz, 2020).

The second type of theory is illustrated by a 13 March 2020 blog that stated, 鈥the world has finally realized that Asians are a plague 鈥 and spread the virus to the whites.鈥 Similarly, the French neo-Nazi blog Blanche Europe opined: 鈥the Chinese unlike the Japanese have no concern for hygiene.鈥 The Misanthropic Division, a section of the far-right organisation Azov Battalion posted a footage allegedly showing Jewish shamans summoning the coronavirus to attack non-Jews. And a 鈥榙iejewdie鈥檜ser of the Gab platform tweeted 鈥楿nless we deport these filthy Jews, this pandemic is never gonna stop鈥 (Katz, 2020). Identification of the Jews as culprits for the pandemic is sad reminder of the massive persecutions and massacres of Jews in the middle ages based on the conspiracy theory that it was Jews who propagated the Black Death plague in Europe between 1348 and 1351 (Cohn, 2007).

Calls for violent action

The far-right online chatter hardly has stopped at the propagation of conspiracy theories that attribute the pandemic to minorities and foreigners. In a sinister exploitation of the possibility of contagion, calls on the far right have been repeatedly urging supporters to deliberately spread the coronavirus to alleged enemies of America, the Jews in particular. In the past, far-right extremists did not shrink from the desire to use CBRN weapons in order to advance their 鈥榬evolution.鈥 This led to several CBRN plots by the far right in Western countries, the U.S., in particular that, fortunately, failed (Koehler & Popella, 2018). The current pandemic offered, therefore, a 鈥榣ow hanging fruit鈥 kind of opportunity for biological violence against hated groups. A post on the 8chan board 1 stated 鈥if you get infected with the corona virus, go visit your local synagogue and hug as many Jews as possible, cough on all the door knobs, rails, pens, etc.鈥 A Telegram channel 鈥楥oronawaffen鈥 posted a poll asking respondents 鈥業f I get sick where should I go鈥. The most popular answer given by 76% of the participants was 鈥榮ynagogue鈥 with 鈥楶arliament Hill鈥, a remote second at 10%. A section of the Telegram channel called 鈥極nly White People Go to Heaven鈥 recommends that anyone infected with the virus 鈥travel to more ethnic parts of town, including mosques and synagogues, etc.鈥 (Katz, 2020).

Calls have also proliferated on far-right chat rooms to exploit the public鈥檚 preoccupation with the pandemic in order to carry out devastating conventional attacks with impunity. A call inciting sympathisers to rob a non-profit organisation gleefully asserted: 鈥the best part is, everyone is already wearing masks! Even if they did report you it is not like the cops can spare resources in the midst of an epidemic break.鈥 A similar message on the Telegram platform counselled would be far-right attackers to 鈥wear a breathing mask, they won鈥檛 question it鈥 all that in order to 鈥cut the powerlines, climb on grocery stores, and cut the cooling systems hit rocks into rich neighbourhoods with tennis rackets, tip watertowers, blow up bridges, railroads and sewage treatment plants most power stations are completely unprotected, it is legal to open carry an RPG just cover your face and you won鈥檛 get caught鈥 (Katz, 2020).

Some of the calls have come to fruition. In the United States, reports of verbal harassment of Asian-Americans, anti-Semitic and xenophobic vandalism abound. In New Jersey, a girl was charged with bias-related crimes for yelling racial slurs at an Asian woman and punching her in the back of the head. In Manhattan, a woman was charged with hate crime assault after she spat in the face of an Asian woman and pulled some of her hair out, and another woman verbally harassed and punched a Korean woman before fleeing the scene. In Texas, a 19-year-old man attempted to murder an Asian-American family, including a 6-year-old and 2-year-old, by stabbing them in a parking lot, and in Los Angeles, a teenager was brutally assaulted (ADL, 2020).

Promoting Chaos. Terrorist (the likes of the German Red Army Faction leader Andreas Baeder or the Brazilian Communist Carlos Marighela) have long believed that their function is to create a disintegration of the civic order by provoking the authorities to excessive response to attacks that would undermine the public trust in government and prepare the society for a revolution. In like fashion the accelerationist theory promoted by far-right movements aims at creating havoc and confusion which would lead to a collapse of the state, and pave the road to desired change. In this vein, the media group 鈥楾errorwave Refined鈥 affiliated with the far-right group AWD (Atomic Waffen Division) urged subscribers to augment the panic by spreading disquieting, deliberately forged lies, specifically directing them to 鈥Make social media posts .about some Chinese guy who was in the grocery store coughing in the fruit, and use a burner phone to cold call police and journalists to tell them you鈥檙e about to enter significant crowder areas while infected with the coronavirus. A 20 March 2020 from the blog of 鈥楽lovak鈥檚 Siege Shock鈥 counselled readers to 鈥spread rumors about troop deployment in urban areas鈥 feigning horror about the infringement on freedom these entail. Using CDC and World Health Organisation logos, far-right propagandists cynically encouraged people to (1) frequent mosques and synagogues allegedly to benefit from these venues鈥 high hygienic standards, (2) spend time in ethnic neighbourhoods allegedly to augment one鈥檚 immune system and (3) utilise the public transport system as it is 鈥榤ade with anti-bacterial material鈥 (Katz, 2020).

Far-right extremists have also been able to sow chaos through their actions in virtual and physical gatherings. During the first weeks of shelter-in-place in American cities, the video chatting platform, Zoom, gained immense popularity, allowing for meetings, classes, and family events to occur while socially distancing. Not yet protesting the lockdown orders in front of statehouses, far-right extremists infiltrated Zoom calls and shared their screens, projecting violent and graphic imagery such as swastikas and pornography into the homes of unsuspecting attendees and making it impossible for schools to rely on Zoom for home-based lessons. Such actions, known as 鈥榋oombombing鈥, were eventually curtailed by Zoom features requiring hosts to admit people into Zoom meetings as a default setting with an option to opt-out (Lorenz, 2020).

Later, as ordinary citizens grew weary of staying home, extremist views of the lockdowns as acts of tyranny and fascism spread, leading to armed protests in Michigan, North Carolina, Colorado, and elsewhere. There is evidence that the virus was spread among protesters, but public support from right-wing politicians, including President Trump, was more meaningful for the extremists yearning for significance and relevance (Wilson, 2020). Frequently seen at these lockdown protests, wearing Hawaiian shirts and holding semi-automatic weapons, are 鈥楤oogaloos鈥, who for a long time flew under the radar in the far-right world. The Boogaloo movement started online and promotes civil war against law enforcement. In contrast to other far-right movements, the civil war anticipated by Boogaloos is not divided by race, making their brand of violent extremism more palatable to those protesting the lockdowns who do not want to be associated with neo-Nazis (Evans & Wilson, 2020). In the wake of COVID-19, it appears that far-right extremists have discovered the extent of people鈥檚 fear of social control and loss of liberty, and have realised how easily they can manipulate citizens, who may not normally subscribe to the extreme ideology, into joining their cause.

Conclusions

The uncertainty and confusion caused by the COVID-19 pandemic are being widely exploited by international and domestic terror groups for spinning a plethora of sinister schemes portending a potential new tide of violence against people and governments. The terrorists鈥 propaganda unexceptionally included the grievance-culprit-method elements characteristic of violence justifying narratives. The specific contents of these elements differed across the different groups. The jihadis have contended that the West has been on a campaign to subdue Islam, and the far right has claimed that Jews, Chinese, people of colour and governments who support them, have been trying to deprive white Aryans of their freedoms and exploit them. For both the jihadists and the far righters, the pandemic has offered new opportunities and methods for unleashing violence against the objects of their hate.

In the realm of messaging, portraying the pandemic as God鈥檚 punishment against evil actors, and/or identifying specific ethnic, religious or national groups as deliberate creators of the plague may boost the recruitment to extremist organisations whose simplistic 鈥榖lack and white鈥 narratives offer certainty and guidance for millions of anxious people in dire need of clarity. Likewise, with the intimacy of Internet connections and the widespread lockdowns, Internet recruitment of vulnerable people, youth particularly, isolated during lockdown are making online recruitment to extremist groups much easier.

The pandemic has created an opportunity for extremist groups to pin the responsibility for the virulent disease on their hated nemeses. Mixed messages regarding the origin of the virus aside, militant jihadist groups in Africa and the Middle East have taken the opportunity to provide services to civilians, highlighting the ineptitude of secular or moderate governments and the benefits of the 鈥榯rue鈥 Islam, untainted by democracy. Lockdowns, contact tracing, and vaccinations have allowed the far-right to emerge from the depths of the Internet to congratulate themselves for having known the truth, that an evil cabal of Zionist elites have been planning to surveil and ultimately destroy ordinary citizens in pursuit of a New World Order. Militant jihadists and far-right extremists have both used such 鈥榩roof鈥 to reinvigorate their loyal followers as well as attract new ones.

There is no question that violent extremist groups鈥 explanations of and reactions to COVID-19 are dangerous in many ways, but even non-violent fundamentalists can offer false security in a time of panic, posing a major threat to public health. An element that the jihadi narrative shares with other religious rhetoric across the board is an attitude of fatalism and surrender, the faith that religious piety guarantees God鈥檚 protection and deliverance from this modern-day plague. In India, the Tablighi Jammat, a non-political Sunni evangelical movement is now known as the largest viral vector of COVID-19 in South Asia after its preacher ignored India鈥檚 quarantine laws (ThePrint Team, 2020). Several evangelical clergy members in the U.S. similarly defied the authorities鈥 exhortations to practice social distancing. Bishop Gerald Glenn of the New Deliverance Church in Virginia exclaimed 鈥業 firmly believe that God is larger than this dreaded virus鈥, and that he was going to keep on preaching 鈥榰nless I鈥檓 in jail or in the hospital鈥. Soon thereafter he died of the virus (King, 2020). In Israel, prominent ultra-orthodox rabbis refused to comply with government directives regarding the closing of schools and yeshivas. Rabbi Kaniewski of the Ponovitz yeshiva in Bnei Brak even opined that 鈥榗anceling Torah study is more dangerous than corona鈥 (Sokol, 2020).

What can be done when religious fundamentalism and political extremism provide so much clarity in times of high uncertainty, anger and anxiety? Beside allotting the necessary resources for increased vigilance and effective thwarting of plotted assaults, world leaders must offer an alternative coherence, one based on science and rationality and must disavow their own supporters who promote bigoted conspiracy theories under the guise of liberty. The peaceful Muslim community must speak in a clear voice and condemn as blasphemous the 鈥楽oldier of Allah鈥 portrayal of COVID-19 and remind their followers that disease can be spread to one and all alike unless protective measures are taken. Ulama who represent the voice of reason must be heard. As the common saying goes, 鈥楪od helps those who help themselves.鈥 After all, it was the Prophet (PBUH), according to the Hadith, who recommended to fear God yet at the same time be cautious about Earthly dangers. 鈥楶ray to God but tie the camel tight,鈥 counselled the Prophet to a Bedouin who entered the mosque without securing his animal. Furthermore, it is told of the second Caliph, Omar, who on the way from Medina to Syria met fellow travellers who alerted him to a pandemic in which thousands have died. Omar immediately discontinued the journey and when later challenged to explain why he was running from God鈥檚 decree, he answered, 鈥業 am going from one of God鈥檚 decrees to another of God鈥檚 decree.鈥

Raising the voices of ex-far-right extremists is also useful to discredit their messages of hate. Likewise, online platforms need to work effectively as they did in identifying terrorists鈥 content and implementing take down policies. A recent controversy with Facebook and Twitter concerning the President鈥檚 own posts seeming to incite violence in the face of protests against racism make clear that when it comes to the far-right and politicians who benefit from their support this won鈥檛 be an easy or noncontentious task.

Far from uniting humanity against a common threat, the global uncertainty and vulnerability caused by the COVID-19 pandemic is being widely exploited by international and domestic terror groups and violent extremists. Presenting the pandemic as God鈥檚 punishment against evil actors, and/or portraying given ethnic, religious or national groups as perpetrators of the plague may boost the recruitment to extremist organisations whose simplistic narratives offer certainty and guidance for millions of anxious people. Though everyone鈥檚 attention is naturally drawn to the immense health and economic challenges that the pandemic poses, we cannot ignore the potential storm of intensified world terrorism that seems to be gathering in its shadows.

Disclosure statement

No potential conflict of interest was reported by the authors.

Additional information

Notes on contributors

Arie W. Kruglanski

Arie W. Kruglanski is Distinguished University Professor of Psychology at the University of Maryland. He has served as editor of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology: Attitudes and Social Cognition, and as editor of the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, and as Associate Editor of the American Psychologist. He has also served as President of the Society for the Study of Motivation. His interests have been in the domains of human judgment and decision making, the motivation-cognition interface, group and intergroup processes, the psychology of human goals, and the social psychological aspects of terrorism.

Rohan Gunaratna

Rohan Gunaratna is Professor of Security Studies at the Nanyang Technology University, and founder of the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research, Singapore. He received his Masters from the University of Notre Dame in the US where he was Hesburgh Scholar and his doctorate from the University of St Andrews in the UK where he was British Chevening Scholar. A former Senior Fellow at the Combating Terrorism Centre at the United States Military Academy at West Point and at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Gunaratna was invited to testify on the structure of al Qaeda before the 9/11 Commission. The author of 16 books including Inside al Qaeda: Global Network of Terror (University of Columbia Press), Gunaratna edited the Insurgency and Terrorism Series of the Imperial College Press, London. He is a trainer for national security agencies, law enforcement authorities and military counter terrorism units, interviewed terrorists and insurgents in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, Saudi Arabia and other conflict zones. For advancing international security cooperation, Gunaratna received the Major General Ralph H. Van Deman Award.

Molly Ellenberg

Molly Ellenberg is a Ph.D. student at the University of Maryland and a research fellow at the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism. She has a B.S. in Psychology with a Specialization in Clinical Psychology from聽UC San Diego and an M.A. in Forensic Psychology from the George Washington University. Her research focuses on terrorism, the motivational underpinnings of extreme behavior, uncertainty, and the quest for significance. Molly's research has been published in the聽Journal of Child and Adolescent Trauma, the聽Journal of Strategic Security, the聽Journal of Human Security, and the聽International Studies Journal.

Anne Speckhard

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D., is Director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE) and serves as an Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University School of Medicine. She has interviewed over 700 terrorists, their family members and supporters in various parts of the world including in Western Europe, the Balkans, Central Asia, the Former Soviet Union and the Middle East. In the past five years, she has interviewed 248 ISIS defectors, returnees and prisoners as well as 16 al Shabaab cadres and their family members (n=25) as well as ideologues (n=2), studying their trajectories into and out of terrorism, their experiences inside ISIS (and al Shabaab), as well as developing the Breaking the ISIS Brand Counter Narrative Project materials from these interviews which includes over 200 short counter narrative videos of terrorists denouncing their groups as un-Islamic, corrupt and brutal which have been used in over 150 Facebook and Instagram campaigns globally. Dr. Speckhard has given consultations and police trainings to U.S., German, UK, Dutch, Austrian, Swiss, Belgian, Danish, Iraqi, Jordanian and Thai national police and security officials, among others, as well as trainings to elite hostage negotiation teams. She also consults to foreign governments on issues of terrorist prevention and interventions and repatriation and rehabilitation of ISIS foreign fighters, wives and children. In 2007, she was responsible for designing the psychological and Islamic challenge aspects of the Detainee Rehabilitation Program in Iraq to be applied to 20,000 + detainees and 800 juveniles. She is a sought after counterterrorism expert and has consulted to NATO, OSCE, the EU Commission and EU Parliament, European and other foreign governments and to the U.S. Senate & House, Departments of State, Defense, Justice, Homeland Security, Health & Human Services, CIA, and FBI. She is the author of several books, including Talking to Terrorists, Bride of ISIS, Undercover Jihadi聽and聽ISIS Defectors: Inside Stories of the Terrorist Caliphate.

Notes

1. an imageboard website composed of user-created message boards, with minimal interference from the administration.

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