As government attentions are focused on combatting the pandemic, there has been growing concern that the severe destabilisation caused by COVID-19 may open space for old and novel forms of extremism.
Gilles de Kerchove, the EU counterterrorism coordinator, issued a warning that extremist groups are using the pandemic as an opportunity to expand their recruitment and operations. Both far right- and left-wing extremism has been emboldened by the health and economic crisis while Jihadist groups have taken advantage of the distraction and disruption to expand their influence in fragile states.
Although it remains to be seen whether COVID-19 will mark a significant shift in the security landscape, there are several indications that it has acted as a force multiplier to threats such as radicalisation and violent extremism. In the US, the FBI reported hate speech and incitements to violence against minority groups directly linked to COVID-19 conspiracy theories. In the UK, Counter Terrorism Policing warns that increased isolation and internet use resulting from social distancing measures may increase exposure of vulnerable people to online extremist materials and social engineering. Considerable misinformation and disinformation circulating online since the outbreak of COVID-19 within the broader climate of mistrust of official sources of information also provides fertile grounds for recruitment.
While lockdowns across the globe have disrupted the activities of violent extremists and terrorist organisations in some cases, they have shown capacity to adapt to and take advantage of the current crisis. Daesh and Al Qaeda have both heralded COVID-19 as a key opportunity for them to advance their goals, while Boko Haram has made territorial gains in the Sahel and Sub-Saharan Africa. Members of the far-right have advocated COVID-19 as an opportunity to spread extremist messages as well as instigate political change with some even promoting the spread of the virus amongst minority communities.
As states begin to ease restrictions and plan for the post-crisis stage, it is essential that a holistic, horizon view is adopted that considers the significant structural changes that have occurred that may facilitate violent extremism and terrorism, both in the short and long term.
Key Lessons and Recommendations
- Counter-violent extremism initiatives must make a more prevalent and proactive online presence to tackle the radicalisation of vulnerable individuals.
- Responses to COVID-19 and post-crisis rebuilding must be done in with a holistic view of intersecting threats posed by violent extremism and terroris
- The international dimensions of terrorism must be considered despite domestic concerns to avoid the expansion and strengthening of terrorist enclaves.