The Bussola Institute in Brussels hosted a timely event on 14 January about the consequences of the coronavirus pandemic on extremism and terrorism.
Since it is now reasonably well-established that the pandemic has brought new opportunities for extremists to gather support and recruits for their ideologies by exploiting discontent and uncertainty, the crucial research question for the speakers joining the webinar was whether COVID-19 is responsible for facilitating extremism and terrorism or not.
Mr. John Dennehy, Bussola Institute Secretary General notes that the recent events in the U.S., with the crowd of Donald Trump supporters storming the Capitol Building, point to the extent to which conspiracy theories foster extremism and violence and warns that government measures to limit the spread of the virus may have limited the options for radicals but, within the series of national and regional restrictions, they also may have contributed to increase the number of extremist narratives spread with the use of the internet and on social media.
People everywhere are suffering isolation and difficult economic conditions because of COVID-19, two additional factors that represent the breeding ground for further radicalization.
In Mr. Dennehy’s perspective, COVID has not caused more terrorism, but we are seeing an increase in the foundational factors that lead to terrorism: polarization, radicalization, conspiracy theories and their globalization, and the spread of false information.
The ability of extremists to take advantage of any uncertainty is a lasting factor in the world.
Dr. Richard Burchill, Senior Research Fellow at Bussola Institute, illustrates how extremists exploit circumstances such as distrust, dissatisfaction, and collective grievances, to gain more support for their ideology and actions, and to reinforce with further justifications the extremist beliefs of those who have already been recruited.
Distrust, dissatisfaction, and grievances fuel the emotional feelings that people are experiencing and, therefore, we can state that COVID-19 does facilitate extremism.
In particular, Dr. Burchill mentions the isolation and hardship factors enumerated before, as well as the tendency of many prospective recruits to be stuck in the very same echo chambers.
In the second part of his contribution, Dr. Burchill focuses on the evolution of the radical narratives related to the pandemic.
In the initial phase, the patterns were typical, with radical groups of all kinds blaming the pandemic to their enemies.
Soon, however, it became clear that everyone was being impacted, so this narrative inevitably lost part of its power and started to be accompanied by the attempt to convey the idea based on which only radical values can keep people safe: “national systems have been ineffective, so if you follow us you will be in a better position.”
During the pandemic, narratives are increasing in intensity, breath, and depth, which makes things worse, as now the audience can pick and choose more.
Later on, Dr. Burchill, whose profile is characterized by a deep knowledge of the Gulf region, was asked if he sees ways in which stronger partnership between the European Union and the Gulf Cooperation Council could foster better cooperation against extremism. The expert highlighted that both the EU and the GCC are strongly committed to multilateralism, and this is a crucial resource.
Moreover, both the international institutions are closely monitoring the issues related to overseas development aid as a bulwark against radicalization, especially when seeing groups and movements such as Hezbollah or Boko Haram becoming more legitimate because of their ability to provide services and some sort of governance on a number of areas. Violent radical groups doing so, represents a severe threat and the EU should increase the cooperation with the GCC in contrasting this trend.
Dr. Orla Lynch, senior lecturer in criminology and board member of RAN, agrees, stating that extremism taking place during the COVID-19 pandemic has a set of implications in terms of evolving symbolism, conspiracy theories, propaganda, and strategies. Interestingly, however, she says we do not necessarily know if COVID-19 is contributing to extremism or simply highlighting issues and divisions that already existed.
Ms. Sara Zeiger, a Senior Research Analyst at Hedayah, contributed to the discussion by illustrating the important differences between misinformation, disinformation, fake news, and propaganda. Some scientific evidence shows that lies spread faster than truth, especially online and this is one of the main reasons why understanding the consequences of the pandemic on radical narratives is so crucial.