By Stevie Kiesel, Biodefense PhD Student
It has become a cliché to point out the massive scale of change being wrought by COVID-19. From the toll in human lives to economic hardship to the impact on mental health, life has changed immensely since earlier this year. There are so many questions about how we recover and what changes are permanent. Even as COVID-19 looms as a threat to global health, other security issues cannot be overlooked. Therefore, I will examine how extremist groups understand and exploit the pandemic and how their operations have changed because of it. In April 2020, the Tony Blair Institute acknowledged that “extremist groups are beginning to recognize the scale of the COVID-19 pandemic, seeing opportunities to exploit fears, exacerbate tensions and mobilize supporters while government are occupied with trying to address COVID-19.” Extremists across the ideological spectrum have incorporated the pandemic into their messaging and their operations, though groups have differed on just what COVID-19 means and how to best exploit the pandemic and its resultant unrest.
Jihadist groups have primarily seen the pandemic as an opportunity to regain territory and expand their influence while governments are consumed with pandemic response and a rapidly deteriorating economic situation, according to European Union Counter-Terrorism Coordinator Gilles de Kerchove. However, there has been one incident of a jihadist plot to use the coronavirus as a biological weapon. Two men were arrested in Tunisia for encouraging men infected with COVID-19 to gain access to Tunisian security forces and cough, sneeze, or spit on them. One man admitted that he attempted to carry out this plan, but he was thwarted by security measures. There have also been isolated incidents of discussion about intentionally spreading coronavirus, either with live vectors or corpses, but overall COVID-19’s main operational impact on jihadist groups appears to be the opportunity it presents to strike at government forces while their resources are already stretched thin.
Far-right extremists (FREs) have “gone much further in directly exploiting the COVID-19 pandemic.” For example, FREs on social media have suggested that anyone who becomes infected with COVID-19 should attempt to spread the virus at synagogues, law enforcement offices and other government buildings, public transportation, retail stores, and neighborhoods with high minority populations. Suggested methods of spreading the virus include coughing, sneezing, and spitting on people or inanimate objects (like door handles and elevator buttons) and collecting bodily fluids in a spray bottle then spraying the fluids on frequently touched objects.
FREs have also viewed stay-at-home orders and other government-mandated pandemic prevention measures as unacceptable violations of their liberty. An inconsistent and oftentimes incoherent federal messaging strategy encouraged the proliferation of conspiracy theories of either the implementation of an authoritarian government regime or a coup orchestrated by the President’s political opponents, depending on who you ask. Indeed, some FREs have called the stay-at-home orders “medical martial law.” In this vein, Bradley Bunn was arrested by the FBI for possession of four pipe bombs while on his way to an armed protest against public health restrictions at the Colorado State Capitol. He later told investigators that he planned to use the bombs against anyone who tried to take his weapons.
Just as some messaging and recruitment tactics among jihadis and FREs share similarities, so, too, have these groups showed similar themes in their rhetoric and activities surrounding COVID-19. For example, both groups have espoused a great deal of antisemitism as it relates to the pandemic. The Pakistani Taliban and US far-right conspiracy theorists have both argued that COVID-19 was engineered by Jewish people as part of a plot to achieve world domination.
Another point of ideological consistency between these two groups lies in the philosophy of accelerationism. Broadly and as it applies to political extremism, accelerationist thinkers disavow non-violent political processes as a means to achieve change; the ends they seek often involve a dramatic reimagining of society, and incremental change will never accomplish these ends. For jihadis, this means tearing down existing governments and replacing them with a caliphate. Since March 2020, the Islamic State has increased its armed activities in areas where it believes governments are weak and encouraged recruits to “capitalize on the fear, ensuing chaos, and stress caused by COVID-19 by conducting attacks throughout afflicted and vulnerable populations in Europe and the United States.” Far-right accelerationists similarly believe that society must be fundamentally destroyed and replaced. The most popular accelerationist ideology among the far right posits that a genocidal race war will be waged, resulting in the creation of a white ethno-state. While some believe that this race war is inevitable and will come about on its own, others believe that they must spark the race war through violence.
Far-right accelerationist ideology inspired a March 2020 attack that was fortunately thwarted while the suspect was en route to his target. Timothy Wilson had been planning a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (IED) attack before the pandemic; he had considered targets such as a nuclear plant, an Islamic Center, a synagogue, and Walmart headquarters. However, Wilson ultimately moved up the date for the planned attack and changed his target to a Missouri hospital center. According to an FBI joint intelligence bulletin, Wilson “cited the likely increased impact and media attention on the health sector during the coronavirus pandemic as a reason to accelerate the timing and selection of a healthcare facility.” The modern extreme right is characterized by a decentralized structure, with individuals often “operating alone but…tied together through virtual communities on the Internet.” Wilson had been active in a number of communities that espoused accelerationist and neo-Nazi ideologies; he had communicated with members of the now-defunct neo-Nazi group Atomwaffen Division and expressed sympathies for a similar group, The Base.
A final noteworthy similarity between jihadist and far-right groups is the impact the pandemic has had on their recruitment and radicalization strategies. As more people are stuck inside, socially isolated, and many experiencing economic hardships, both types of groups have increased their online presence and tailored their materials toward this new reality. These groups often have their own culture and inside references. For example, FREs began calling the corona-virus “corona-chan,” referencing it reverentially for its potential to sow chaos. Between February and March 2020, the term was used over 13,000 times on 4chan and saw a 375% increase in interactions on Reddit and a 1,920% increase in interactions on Facebook. Before the pandemic, “corona-chan” was not a term with any other meaning. This means that increased interactions occurred because people were engaging with far-right social media.
Unfortunately, just as indicators show that engagement with extremist communities online is on the rise, counter-extremism programs are reporting less engagement. A United Kingdom counter-radicalization program called Prevent has reported that referrals to the program have fallen by about 50%. Even as more people are at home, online, and isolated, fewer people are reaching out for help to escape the radicalizing influence of extremist groups from across the ideological spectrum.