While the world struggles with containing the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic and races towards finding effective means of containment and inoculation, many view the first real global crisis of the current century under a positive light. Unlike wars, pandemics can have a metaphysical undertone stemming from past plagues and religious framing, such as a form of punishment for humanity imposed by a wrathful deity.
However, as in wars, where specific sections of an economy can profit, some can view the chaos a pandemic unleashes as an opportunity. With terrorism, the metaphysical and opportunistic elements mesh. Combined with catalysts, such as purposeful disinformation and a lack of trust in institutions, the current situation is viewed within extremists’ circles – religious or ideological – as both a validation of their world views and as an opportunity to effect systematic change through an intensification of the chaos.
This text explores how terrorists and extremists are framing their propaganda and their calls to action within the opportunities they perceive in the current crisis, and how disinformation campaigns and conspiracy theories reinforce this propaganda. It also discusses how the current circumstances, nudged by deliberate extremist propaganda, could push borderline terrorists into action.
COVID-19 pandemic: A validation of extremist views
To use an expression by Thérèse Delpech in 2002, the actions and views of religious-based extremist groups, like those of ISIS and Al Qaida or extremist Christian fundamentalist groups, are rooted is the metaphysical. The “new world”, “new societies” or “new orders” they wish to bring about are focused around the will and the scriptures of the metaphysical beings they worship. Their societal views are framed by what they believe to be the will and desires of those beings, who reward those loyal to their faith and its principles and punish those that stray from an ordained path.
Religious history, which still greatly influences how we deal with tragedy – exemplified simply by “Pray for” messages of sympathy following a terrorist attack – is full of stories about how plagues decimated populations living in sin or destroyed armies of infidels opposed to armies representing “God’s will”. The “seven plagues of Egypt” story of the bible is common knowledge, either religiously or metaphorically, and as such sustains a link between plagues and vengeance, the idea of a punishment from above.
It is therefore not surprising that proponents of religious terrorism interpret the COVID-19 pandemic as a form of divine intervention supporting their views. The best example of this interpretation is provided by ISIS, who did not hesitate to describe the virus as a “Soldier of the Prophet”, praising its effects in the West. The same can be said of many Al Qaida linked groups, who also see in the chaos the pandemic unleashed the work of the Prophet’s Soldier.
Similarly, Christian fundamentalists see the current pandemic as “God’s work” and as an extension – most notably in the American cases – of God’s support for Donald Trump. While the coronavirus doesn’t appear to be described as a soldier in Christian extremist circles, it is clearly described in classic biblical terms as divine punishment for non-believers and the sinful or as the “devil’s work”. While seemingly opposed, those espousing extremist views of Christianity and Islam share the same interpretation of the pandemic and its effects, and both feel reinforced in their faiths by the current situation.
Ideologically, extremist groups of the far-right and the far-left also see a confirmation of their political views in the pandemic. For many on the far-left, the destructive nature of capitalism – the aggressive expansion of markets and means of production or globalisation among other factors – is the source of the virus’ spread and societies’ difficulties in coping with it. The “system” also enables greed and hoarding – well embodied by the western “toilet paper crisis” – to develop at the expense of poorer strands of our societies, thereby further enhancing social divides. Finally, the containment measures enacted to combat the pandemic are interpreted as an opportunity to take away liberties and impose authoritarian rule, often described as fascist policies. Hence, the current crisis confirms both their worst fears and what they’ve advocated for years.
For many on the far-right, the pandemic validates numerous conspiracy theories, from the mundane to the more eccentric, such as the United Kingdom’s Prince Charles’ positive COVID-19 test. The pandemic is a result of the deep state, and therefore the measures and information are to be neither implemented nor believed. Perhaps of greater concern are the interpretations of the virus as being foreign, brought by foreigners into western countries and created by a foreign power to decimate western civilisation. This interpretation has led to an increase of attacks on “foreigners”, notably of Asian heritage, and in some more extremist circles even to suggestions of a “cleansing” of western societies. Branded as such, the far-right’s anti-foreigner, anti-immigration rhetoric is seen by them as justified, as is the failure of the neo-liberal system.
Hence, regardless of the extremist position – ideological or religious – the pandemic acts as means of reinforcing these positions within their specific interpretations. This further underlines the “you see what you want to see” extremist interpretations of religious or political texts, where the goal is not to seek better understanding of a topic but the strengthening of one’s own position. While this issue was well-known and understood within CVE and counter-terrorism circles, the dramatic developments of the pandemic are making it more obvious.
What also stands out in the rhetoric, even within very small samples provided here, is the opportunity for change. Religious extremists see their work supported by divine intervention, while ideological extremists see the opportunity for systemic change, and all see the chaos caused by the pandemic as an opportunity to accelerate these changes. The result is an increasing amount of calls to action within extremist circles.
Chaos as an opportunity for change
Even if some organisations dispense cautionary advice to their supporters on how to deal with the virus, terrorist and extremist groups urge their supporters to act and use the chaos to their advantage. This chaos is mostly interpreted as a weakening of critical infrastructure, such as overworked healthcare personnel and increasingly limited resources; the weakening of economies, making them even more vulnerable to the costs of terrorism; the weakening of the security apparatus, mostly due to the containment measures; and of course social tensions brought about by fear and distrust.
It is worth noting that terrorist and extremist organisations did not immediately call on their supporters to act. On the contrary, the developments linked to the pandemic were closely monitored until the very serious consequences were visible. Already in February, ISIS and Al Qaida circles, as well as various far-right groups, were analysing and discussing what the consequences could be, how such a virus could be weaponised, and how the situation could be exploited. Once the impact of the pandemic around the world became visible during the first two weeks of March, the calls for action became prominent.
ISIS and Al Qaida affiliated material did not suggest any new attack methods but rather focused on the opportunities that were presented to their soldiers. No need for something special, business as usual should be enough to enhance the damage done by the virus. In far-left circles, calls for plunder or the destruction of businesses are made to accelerate capitalism’s downfall. The logic being that if people become needy enough, the oppression of capitalist societies will become obvious and in turn, the oppressed will demand and impose a more just system. Whereas the far-right’s calls to actions have focused on the mass infection of traitors and foreigners or targeting those it views as responsible for the pandemic. Like with the far-left, the far-right calls to action also aim at accelerating the demise of the current liberal system and implementing a new order aligned with their views.
An intriguing particularity of the far-right’s calls to action thus far has been to encourage spreading the virus to specific groups, whether by coughing deliberately at people or contaminating goods in stores with saliva. This is a sharp contrast to other extremists’ positions, who rather ask their supporters to be cautious and avoid becoming infected. This tactic appears motivated by a dismissal of the coronavirus’ effects (“just the flu”) for specific groups or a “survival of the fittest” mentality. Worryingly, numerous individuals – mostly men – are acting on these calls, contaminating goods in supermarkets or coughing at people, while claiming to be infected. This is a clear weaponisation of the coronavirus, even at its most primitive (and natural) and further demonstrates that the use of “bio-weaponry” doesn’t need to be sophisticated to be dangerous. As the recent history of terrorism further underlines, effectiveness can be found in the simplest methods.
So far, we have seen that extremists can easily use the current pandemic for “positive reinforcement” and indoctrination, benefitting their strategic aims and tactics. However, beyond the calls to action it is often circumstantial factors that can both act as incubator and nudge for extremist violence. In the case of the current crisis, disinformation plays a huge role in polarisation, fear and fostering emotional insecurity. All of which play a huge role in the “defensive” interpretation of violent actions by extremists.
Disinformation as an incubator for extremism
Since 2015, we have seen a growing number of cases where disinformation – not to be understood solely as fake news but the deliberate framing of a topic or information for subjective purposes – was a significant factor in triggering individuals that could be described as “borderline terrorists”, i.e. persons who transfer their extremist positions into action. Some of these incidents include the murder of British MP Jo Cox during the Brexit campaign in 2016, the attacks on German mayors Henriette Reker (2015) and Andreas Holstein (2017) or the plot to bomb Minnesota mosques during the US presidential campaign in 2016. In these cases, the mood and the ensuing polarisation were catalysts for the attackers’ or plotters’ actions.
Currently, disinformation, deliberate or otherwise, abounds. From the “real” symptoms and the origin of the coronavirus, the “cures”, the “real” data on the infection and death rates to the framing of the containment measures put in place, consumers are flooded with rumours and misleading information. Combined with an overwhelming amount of information produces by recognised mediums and institutions, this flood of information creates confusion and inadvertently heightens the need for reliable, trustworthy information.
This need is less about objective data than emotional security, which is usually centred around the confirmation of biases. Hence, as extremists interpret the pandemic to match their views, likewise information consumers look for and validate information that matches their own, regardless of whether the sources are a formally recognised institution or alternative sources they consider to be more trustworthy.
Perhaps more important in this disinformation process is how formal actors and institutions frame the topics. Whether it’s describing the coronavirus as a “China virus”, blaming an enemy for being the source of the pandemic or framing social distancing and lock-down policies as “house arrests”, all of these examples play into the hands of extremists and their propaganda, fuelling further distrust and frustration and providing momentum to conspiracy theories.
Combined with deliberate attempts at pure disinformation through hacking, impersonation or fake news, all of these factors coalesce to create an environment in which fear and insecurity thrive. This environment plays a substantial role in the strengthening and multiplication of grievances that lead to extremism and terrorism, thereby reinforcing the “defensive narratives” which frame their actions. So, some will feel the need to “do something” and proceed to “defend” their communities against those they believe to be responsible for the threat, as the highly polarised environments surrounding Brexit or the “refugee crisis” have clearly shown in recent years.
Although the current coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic could suggest that very little else is going on, reality does dictate otherwise. The wars and other conflicts haven’t stopped and terrorism, despite the minimal coverage attacks receive, still occurs. Even more importantly, extremists and terrorists see in the current crisis not only a validation of their views but a reason to act on them, an opportunity to accelerate their goals, whether metaphysical or ideological.
This perceived opportunity is based on the chaos and fears the pandemic has unleashed. Economies are battered; critical infrastructures like healthcare and security are vulnerable due to the overwhelming amount of work and the restrictions imposed on them, and social divisions are exacerbated by fear, lack of access and care. Combined with an information environment currently more conducive to confusion and insecurity, in which fear and grievances can grow, terrorists feel they have the “perfect storm”, in which to act and achieve their goals.
As the amount of attacks carried out by “single attackers” have demonstrated in recent years, the main concern is less about what larger and major extremist organisations can achieve than how individuals are incidentally or deliberately prodded into action. It’s how these overlooked and underestimated actors feel compelled to act or themselves see the opportunity to act on their ideas that could fuel a likely increase in terrorist attacks over the next months.
Unfortunately, we must consider the COVID-19 pandemic a catalyst for extremist and terrorist behaviour, rather than a mitigating factor. Just how – not if – the current situation affects the number of attacks in the coming months, either directly triggered by the situation or incidentally due to the damages caused to the security apparatus, remains to be seen. Either way, it is a threat that we cannot afford to overlook, even as our societies try to deal with much more urgent and tangible threats, with the hope of a quick return to normalcy.