In less than a year, the COVID-19 crisis has fundamentally altered the global geopolitical, socio-economic and conflict landscape. Accordingly, the pandemic has had a profound impact on trends in international terrorism, whose long-term effects are only slowly becoming evident.
The 2020 Global Terrorism Index does not cover the ‘COVID-19 era’, however provisional data suggests that while the pandemic has reduced overall terrorist activity, in many countries there has been little specific impact. In contexts where terrorism is largely an urban phenomenon there has been a notable reduction in violence to coincide with global lockdown. However, in settings where terrorism is occurring in the context of a broader conflict – including in disputed or border regions – COVID-19 seems to have had relatively little impact on the trajectory of violence.
But across a range of phenomena, from access to healthcare to economic inequality, COVID-19 has not just disrupted the status quo, but has served as a catalyst, hyper-charging existing trends. Based on initial data, this also appears to have been the case with global terrorism.
COVID-19 appears to have exacerbated the negative trajectory of terrorism in sub-Saharan Africa, which was on a concerning path towards becoming an increasingly central locus of global terrorism in the wake of the decline of ISIS’ territorial ‘Caliphate’ in the Levant. The 2020 Global Terrorism Index points to seven of the 10 countries with the largest increases in terrorism being in this region, with particular concerns raised about the Sahel. During the COVID-19 pandemic, this increase in terrorist violence has continued, most notably in areas affected by Boko Haram in the Lake Chad Basin and the proliferation of ISIS-affiliated groups in Mozambique. Concerningly, COVID-19 also risks catalysing the trend of political violence pointed to in the latest recent Global Terrorism Index, which shows that as Islamist terrorism has decreased, there has been a major growth in far right terrorism in Western countries (including Europe, North America and Oceania).
COVID-19 as crisis
Beyond these high-level global trends, analysing the narratives and tactics of terrorist groups can also reveal the long-term implications of how violent extremists are seeking to exploit the pandemic. Extremist groups thrive off crisis narratives, and ISD’s digital analysis shows in sharp relief the ways that extremist organisations have sought to co-opt the pandemic for extremist ends.
According to a social identity theory of extremism, extremist ideologies are at heart rooted in a crisis-solution construct – a crisis narrative presents an imminent threat to one’s identity, requiring decisive action. For extremists, this necessitates radical, supremacist and often violent solutions to protect against an existential crisis facing the ‘in-group’. The EU’s counter-terrorism coordinator Gilles de Kerchove warns that history shows “terrorists and violent extremists, aiming to change societies and governmental systems through violence, seek to exploit major crises to achieve their objectives”.
It should be no surprise therefore to see extremists of all stripes, including far-right and jihadist groups, opportunistically using the ongoing pandemic to advance their movements and ideologies. A range of malign actors have been using COVID-19 as a ‘wedge issue’ to promote conspiracy theories, target minority communities and outsider groups, contest government legitimacy and call for extreme violence. In particular, disaster scenarios like the COVID-19 pandemic play into an “accelerationist” tendency among violent extremists, which posits that the current order has failed and that one must accelerate its demise by stoking social division and violence.
Islamist Extremist Responses
ISD’s digital analysis unit’s monitoring of the online discourse of a range of Islamist extremist actors shows how the pandemic has been weaponised to spread narratives about the revolutionary establishment of an Islamic state, based on the strict implementation of Islamic law, and the religious duty of jihadist violence against unbelievers. This has taken a range of forms. The Syrian jihadist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) has presented COVID-19 as an apocalyptic harbinger, bringing about ‘political and economic collapse’ and presenting a geopolitical opportunity for their cause. ISIS’s al-Naba magazine has presented the virus as a ‘Soldier of Allah’, while the Taliban has claimed COVID-19 was sent by God in response to the “disobedience” and “sins of mankind”. We have also seen the proliferation of conspiratorial accounts of COVID-19’s origins, with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, designated as a foreign terrorist organisation by the US in 2019, claiming the virus was the result of a “Zionist biological terror attack”, whilst al-Shabaab claimed that the virus had been deliberately spread in Somalia “by crusader forces”.
But beyond just violent extremist narratives, Salafi-jihadi propaganda has also strived to highlight the perceived shortcomings of democratic states in responding to COVID-19, instead emphasising the efficacy of an ‘Islamic response’ to the virus. A number of Salafi-jihadi groups including ISIS, al-Qaeda and HTS have used official propaganda channels to emphasise their governance and state-building credentials, and to present the effectiveness of their respective ‘Ministries of Health’ within their pseudo-states. The UN’s Counter Terrorism Executive Directorate (CTED) has pointed to the potential for terrorist groups to present themselves as alternative service providers, particularly in areas with weak governance, which can be “exploited to promote anti-State violence and accelerationist narratives”.
CTED have also warned UN member states that one of the short-term impacts of COVID-19 is the very real potential for terrorist groups accessing an increasingly captive audience, particularly in the online space. As the global lockdown has forced more operations by terrorist groups onto digital platforms, ISD analysts have traced a number of tactical innovations that have been spurred on by the virus, and the opportunities it presents for mobilisation.
Recent analysis of a pro-ISIS network on Facebook – aimed at widely disseminating terrorist propaganda – provides a case study of the resilient network dynamics, technological loopholes, and cross-platform activity that allowed a web of several hundred accounts to ‘remain and expand’ for a three-month period during the height of the pandemic. New evasion tactics being employed by ISIS supporters, seemingly geared towards stymieing either automated or manual detection and moderation of terrorist content and accounts, allowed these networks to survive, sidestep, and continue to seed terrorist content across the platform, with tactics employed including content masking, coordinated ‘raids’, and hashtag hijacking. ISD research has also revealed how networks of hijacked, hacked and repurposed accounts have been co-opting COVID-19 topics on Facebook and Twitter to spread pro-ISIS messaging. Pandemic-related ISIS content tracked by ISD researchers generated over half a million views, and we have even seen the strategic use of paid ads to spread ISIS content and attempt to drown out other COVID-19 related posts.
In parallel, we have witnessed an emboldening of the broad ecosystem of far-right extremism, from white supremacist “accelerationist” groups using the COVID-19 crisis to claim democracy is a failure and call for insurrectional violence, to wider extremist constituencies opportunistically using the ongoing pandemic to spread conspiratorial hate speech.
Across a range of digital platforms – including unregulated imageboard sites such as 8chan and 4chan, censorship-free discussion platforms like Voat, ultra-libertarian social media sites like Parler, and encrypted messaging channels such as Telegram – extremist content and coordinated campaigns have proliferated during the pandemic. In the US context, such content has sought to ‘gamify’ violent extremism, detailing how ‘players’ can achieve ‘points’ by carrying out attacks on law enforcement, liberals, Muslims, Jews, Black Americans and other groups deemed ‘enemies’.
Within one network of 225 white supremacist channels on Telegram containing over a million posts, researchers found repeated posts glorifying terrorism, calling for violent attacks, spreading violent extremist ideological material and demonising minority groups. Telegram channels associated with white supremacy and racism grew exponentially during the pandemic. One white supremacist channel grew by more than 6,000 users over the month of March, whilst another specifically focused on messaging related to COVID-19 grew its user base from just 300 users to 2,700 in that month alone — a growth of 800%. The platform was also being used to call for ‘Boogaloo’ supporters and violent accelerationist groups to join forces in armed conflict. The Boogaloo phenomenon, a broad-based anti-government movement with considerable white supremacist elements has seen its membership and prominence vastly accelerated by crisis narratives around the COVID-19 pandemic and the protests in the wake of the killing of George Floyd.
Meanwhile, threats coming from an increasingly wide range of actors tangential to the extreme right show the diversification of this security challenge. The burgeoning QAnon conspiracy community and online subculture, described as a domestic terrorism threat by the FBI in 2019, has surged during the lockdown. ISD researchers recorded a doubling of users engaging in discussion of QAnon across Facebook and Twitter in March 2020, with membership of QAnon groups on Facebook increasing by 120% during this month, with much of this online community geared towards conspiratorial discussion and mobilisation around COVID-19. This chimes with the broader proliferation of extremist conspiracy theories relating to the virus across the internet, including anti-Semitic conspiracies being adapted to incorporate the ongoing pandemic. Research across a range of far-right pages and channels has shown a dramatic increase in attention on the topic of ‘elites’ in light of the COVID-19 crisis. Figures such as Bill Gates, George Soros, the Rothschilds and Jeff Bezos have been framed as part of a ‘Jewish plot’ to use the virus as a tool of social control, a purposeful plot to kill off certain populations, or as a route for these individuals or their related institutions to make money off the release of a virus, all of which are unfounded claims without verifiable evidence.
Much of this mobilisation and narrative weaponisation of the global pandemic, particularly by far-right extremists, points to a broader shift occurring towards an increasingly post-organisational paradigm, whereby online connection to extremist culture and ideology might be as important to inspiring violence as connections to traditional “on the ground” group structures. The increasingly decentralised nature of both the global Islamist and far-right movements is in large part enabled through burgeoning online extremist ecosystems.
The opportunities for mobilisation represented by COVID-19 has helped catalyse these increasingly disparate and diverse violent extremism challenges, which terrorism scholars Bruce Hoffman and Colin Clarke have represented in the United States context as constituting a shift from a “monochromatic threat from Salafi-jihadist groups like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State’ towards ‘a kaleidoscope [of] new threats from “boogaloo bois,” white supremacists, neo-Nazis, shadowy anarchist elements, and the extreme fringe of violent incels”.
In this context, analysing the challenge of violent extremism solely in terms of ‘terrorist organisations’ is becoming too narrow a frame. Rather, the trends indicated by the Global Terrorism Index, and confirmed by extremist mobilisation during COVID-19, show the need to understand the rapidly changing manifestations and organising principles of violent extremism. This means looking not just at formal terrorist groupings, but also the wider ecosystems, ideological formations and online subcultures from which these threats are increasingly emanating.
History warns us that economic calamity, societal polarisation and geopolitical uncertainty provide rich opportunities for violent extremists to pose supremacist solutions, with profound implications for public safety and social cohesion. It is within this increasingly fragmented global extremist landscape in which we will see the long term impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic play out.
This essay was originally published in the 2020 Global Terrorism Index. The opinions expressed throughout this article are the opinions of the individual author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Vision of Humanity or the Institute for Economics & Peace.