The Geneva Centre for Security Policy (GCSP) hosted a Webinar on 23 April on the subject: “The Impact of the COVID-19 Virus on Global Terrorism and Violent Extremism”. In introductory remarks it was noted that Salafi-jihadists have tried to exploit the situation to encourage people at home to convert to (their version of) Islam, while encouraging their own supporters to take advantage of stretched security resources in Western states. Some have already done so: Abdel-Majed Abdel Bary, once believed to be the killer behind the “Jihadi John” mask for the Islamic State (ISIS), slipped into Europe under the cover of the coronavirus distraction, wearing a face mask to avoid detection. Meanwhile, in the U.S. there has been a notable spike in online searches for far-Right content and the far-Left is using the situation to incite against the political and economic pillars of Western societies, which it paints as tyrannical. In this frightful situation, a series of experts offered some insights.
Dr. Andreea Stoian Karadeli, a visiting researcher at the University of South Wales and associate fellow at GCSP, argued that the lack of trust and fear caused by the coronavirus is worse than the virus itself—and this is something that groups like ISIS have worked out. All three extremist categories—jihadists, far-Right, and far-Left—have used this moment to reinforce their ideology, often using fake news and conspiracy theories.
In the case of ISIS, it was to say that the virus is a punishment for infidels. The far-Right has targeted Asians and foreigners more generally as the source of the virus, as well as Jews, who are, everywhere and always, a target. The far-Left has blamed the nature of the capitalist system and claimed that the lockdowns, implemented to create social distance so the spread of the virus is slowed and healthcare systems are not overwhelmed, are in fact government plots to take away liberties. With this premise, the far-Left has been active in calling for attacks on capitalist symbols.
What is notable, said Karadeli, is that while these three extremist forces are nominal opponents, they all align in rhetoric and strategic intent, namely to spread disinformation that distorts the nature of reality, to exacerbate pre-existing problems, including resource-distribution domestically and state-to-state cooperation internationally, and to sow disorder.
Karadeli concludes that all three must be treated alike; that better metrics are needed for measuring domestic terrorism; that a crackdown on disinformation will be necessary; and better multidisciplinary research will be needed to detect the links between these groups.
Dr. Christina Schori Liang, the head of terrorism and preventing violent extremism (PVE) at GCSP, focused on the far-Right threat, which she noted had been on the rise since 2011 in the U.S., Europe, and Oceania—becoming a global threat—and had now been made more serious by the pandemic. The global spread of the far-Right has been enabled by the increasing availability of social media and cheap travel, as well as world events, from the election of Barack Obama and Donald Trump, Brexit, the ISIS attacks in the West, and the tidal wave of refugees into Europe in 2015.
The far-Right has developed an almost stereotyped model for its attacks, with a manifesto, an attempt to film the event, and after-action reports on message boards—pointing out what went wrong and incite further, worse attacks. The characteristics of these environments are fairly recognisable by now, too, from the nihilism to the juvenile humour, the belief in white supremacy, and of late a conviction that the virus might help them get to the race war they yearn for.
Dr. Liang highlights two broad means of countering the far-Right, one temporal and one virtual. Given that the far-Right—openly—desires to attack “soft targets” like hospitals and houses of worship, these can be hardened, and the record of doing so, in Britain, France, and Sweden, is rather good. Countering the narratives that the far-Right uses to recruit is much less simple, but a combination of education in internet literacy, counter-disinformation operations, fact-checkers, and increasing surveillance of the dark web can help.
Christian Picciolini leads the Free Radicals Project, which helps American youths disengage from far-Right extremist groups. Picciolini was recruited into the Chicago Area Skinheads (CASH) at age-14 in 1987. CASH was the first organized neo-Nazi group in the United States, and he stayed in the organization for eight years, until he was 23. In 1990-91, he also set up a racist music band. Picciolini says it was a search for identity, community, and purpose that drew him into CASH—not ideology. And in the Free Radicals’ work, Picciolini says he often finds it is the same.
In terms of deradicalization, Picciolini advocates treating extremism as a public health issue and “repair[ing] the foundation under people”, through therapy, job training, life coaching, and so on. For Picciolini, what brought him out of the extremist group—an atmosphere that is similar to a cult in its distrust of external sources—was his contact with “out-groups” that he thought he hated, and seeing their humanity through his efforts to demonize them. This has allowed the Free Radicals to disengage 300 people from far-Right extremism, says Picciolini.
The coronavirus has provided a “perfect storm for extremist groups”, with its uncertainty and fear, Picciolini says. There are already activists and propagandists beginning to get to work, calling the pandemic the “Chinese virus”, which Picciolini regards as a racial slur rather than a description of its origins, and the far-Right is also using the same narrative as the Leftist extremists about the U.S. government taking their rights away.
Some of those who have begun far-Right agitation are of negligible threat in a terrorism sense, like the prominent gadfly Alex Jones, others pose a threat of political violence that is more in the character of rioting (usually in symbiosis with the far-Left) such as the Proud Boys, and then there are the Militia-type groups like the Oath Keepers to Three Percenters (3%ers), who are potentially more of a problem, since they come armed to their protests and actively try to intimidate those surrounding them.
Picciolini concludes by noting that all of the far-Right groups are bound by a virulent antisemitism, which in the most recent case has taken the form of saying that Jews are the real plague and displaying rats with Stars of David. And these groups are branching out in their recruitment strategies, looking on gaming sites and even medical websites, particularly for autistic people.
Jean-Paul Rouiller, the head of the Terrorism-Joint Analysis Group (T-JAG) within GCSP, spoke about communication, which is “the life-blood of terrorist groups”. The various messaging strategies have been very interesting.
Al-Qaeda “central” released a document that is addressed to its own cadres and to outsiders, offering a fundamentally religious worldview, explaining that the virus has afflicted the non-believers. ISIS, in its weekly newspaper Al-Naba, said much the same thing and offered advice on dealing with the pandemic. Rouiller notes that along with these official statements, there are unofficial “disseminators” and even creators. And again this applies to all.
The far-Right have told their supporters to buy axes or pepper spray, and circulated instructions for a 3D printout of a firearm. The far-Left, meanwhile, has told its supporters that “the fight isn’t quarantined” and continued pushing their seditious narratives that seek to scapegoat the societies that give them shelter, rather than—as the far-Right does—outsiders.
For all of these groups, they have had to try to craft a message that can incite and inspire people; they have had to figure out how to communicate with people so as to train them in the online space; and all of them push messaging intended to instil fear and bring society to chaos and collapse.
Jean-Pierre Keller, the deputy and senior analyst in T-JAG at GCSP, focused particularly on northeast Syria, where 600,000 people are still displaced after the destruction of the caliphate, and the Kurdish forces—themselves political extremists—are holding 10,000 ISIS prisoners, as well as many tens of thousands of innocent people, at Al-Hol and Al-Roj camps.
There are 40 ventilators in the whole zone, conditions are crowded, and there was panic when the virus started to spread because inter alia it was difficult to keep good hygiene before all of this began. ISIS, seeing opportunity, encouraged an escalation of insurgent activity, exploiting the corrupt and inadequate conditions the Kurdish militias have created, and, as the West steps back to cope with its internal turmoil, fill the void—infiltrate local communities, stage jihadist jailbreaks, and erode what remains of Western intelligence-gathering capacity.
Keller concludes that it is unclear where ISIS will go overall, since its foreign wilayats (“provinces” or branches) might well suffer a lack of communications because of the need of ISIS’s leaders to distance themselves, or possibly it will take the course of Africa, where ISIS has intensified its pressure on the states opposing it during their time of fragility and chaos.
Munir Zamir, a counter-terrorism and countering violent extremism (CVE) consultant and PhD Candidate at the University of South Wales, concluded the session by speaking about how particularly jihadist and Islamist networks are looking to the future—to the point when the coronavirus crisis is over. For now, the violent non-state actors have been caught as off-guard as the Western democracies they seek to destroy, but they are smaller and thus are likely to find altering their strategy easier than large bureaucracies.
That said, the extremist groups have work to do just to maintain their ground. They have to explain how their cause relates to the coronavirus in order to keep their audience engaged. The use of conspiracy theories, narratives of grievance and oppression, and in some cases “action narratives”, i.e. terrorist acts, will be among the options. Some groups will repurpose in part or in whole, if the virus has interrupted their plans, logistics, recruitment efforts, and/or media capacity; the group might have to go through a wholesale rebranding.
The extremist groups do not only have to manage institutional considerations. Individuals count as well, and the groups have to cope with their realities at some level. If sympathisers and members are fearful for their lives every day, the group has to take this into account when engaging them and working on or with their motivation and support, whether passive or active. In short, extremist groups are made up of humans, too.