At the end of April, the European Union’s counter-terrorism chief, Gilles de Kerchove, warned that the ongoing pandemic is fuelling extremism on the far-right and far-left across the continent. That it is providing Islamic State and other militant groups with the perfect opportunity to regain influence in the region.
His advice to governments was that they should not overlook the pandemic’s effect on their respective security environments - including the risk of lockdown and economic hardships instigating radicalisation and recruitment. His team has already seen a surge in online calls encouraging followers of far-right groups to propagate hatred towards Jews, Muslims, migrants, and others. In some cases, followers have been urged to infect their “enemies” with the virus.
Kerchove was simply reflecting what militant groups have already asserted: the pandemic is changing their operating environment. It is forcing them to adapt their tactics and approaches, and all are rising to the challenge.
Isolation and an increase in the amount of time spent online during quarantine has created new radicalisation opportunities. Increasingly stretched law enforcement agencies have fewer resources at their disposal to disrupt plots during the planning phase, and this could potentially result in the ‘pipeline’ of successful extremist attacks increasing down the line.
Each major jihadist group operating in the West has approached this new order differently - despite the similarities.
On 31 March 2020, Al Qaeda released its longest statement in years. The six-page spread not only displays their deep understanding of the social, political, and economic consequences and complexities of the pandemic, but also emphasises their ability to leverage these to their advantage.
As is to be expected, Al-Qaeda called on members and supporters to carry out sustained jihadist attacks while security forces were distracted by COVID-19. This highlights a pivot from their historic mission of imposing economic war. As far as they are concerned, the pandemic has completed this objective for them.
In an even more novel move, they also invited non-Muslims to utilise their time in quarantine to look to their cause. The suggestion is that these groups are likely to use extended periods of self isolation, away from other moderating influences, to radicalise new members.
More recently, on 25 April, Al-Qaeda’s official branch in Yemen, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), released an audio clip. The group’s official, Abu Bishr Dirama, called on Muslims to increase their worship during Ramadan amid the spread of “pandemics, diseases, and poverty”. He also urged fighters to escalate extremist attacks during Ramadan due to the perceived 'additional divine rewards' for Muslims who fight or are “martyred” during the holy month.
Until 31 March, Al Shabaab was the most active branch of Al Qaeda with regards to commentary on COVID-19. The Africa-based terror organisation has previously declared that the outbreak came as a result of “God’s wrath; a punishment to non-Muslims and a test to Muslims”. According to the pro Al-Shabaab media outlet, Somali Memo, the pandemic is a blessing in disguise for the group, as it has temporarily halted US drone attacks on Al-Shabaab targets in east Africa.
The group’s core behaviour differs slightly from other extremist groups in terms of their approach to the COVID-19 crisis. Al Shabaab has advised followers to:
“Take caution against the infectious diseases that are now on the increase across the world, such as Coronavirus and HIV, whose spread is contributed to by the crusaders”.
However, in late March 2020, the group held a five-day long summit, with reportedly over 100 officials and members in attendance in an unidentified area in Somalia. Photographs from the event reveal that no social distancing was enforced.
Then, on 27 April, al Shabaab released an audio message in which the group’s spokesman, Sheikh Ali Mahmud Rage, claimed the COVID-19 pandemic was divine punishment for non-Muslim “infidel” countries for their “injustices and transgressions” against Muslims. In particular, he cited “massacres committed in many Muslim countries”.
Throughout the past six years, the Islamic State (IS) and its followers have remained topical and fixated on manipulating current affairs to aid their propaganda. As a result, from early February, there has been a steady uptick in messaging on the pandemic.
IS has, however, been conveying conflicting messages to its followers on whether to exploit the pandemic or abdicate from it.
In the second week of March, the organisation advised followers in its weekly edition of their al-Naba newsletter to “stay away from the land of the epidemic”, which is designated as Europe, for the time being. Although it urged followers to take a common-sense approach to the infection - covering one’s mouth/nose when yawning or sneezing, washing hands frequently etc. - it claimed that COVID-19 is only contagious “by the will of Allah”. An infographic on coronavirus (shown below) was included in this edition of al-Naba.
However, in an apparent reversal, al-Naba magazine edition 226 (released at the end of March) asserted that, as “crusader nations are busy with internal security, and are facing economic catastrophe”, fighters should “exploit the opportunities created by coronavirus pandemic, by attacking disbelievers and by freeing prisoners.” This is a key differentiator between Al-Qaeda, including its affiliates, and IS. The latter remains fixated on the core principles of jihadism.
As the virus now has a foothold in Africa, where the group remains active in various forms, it is likely that the organisation will become increasingly vocal and instructive to followers about how they should act to prevent the pandemic from reducing the ability of IS affiliates to conduct insurgencies against regional security forces. This is particularly true where fighters are operating away from hospitals, such as in northern Nigeria, Chad, and Niger.
The Islamic State has also alleged, in the 23 April al-Naba newsletter, that the Egyptian army was growing weak in its fight against IS militants because it was not receiving enough support from western allies. This due to the diverting of attention to the pandemic. Although IS is subject to routine airstrikes by the Egyptian Air Force, it may use this opportunity to increase extremist activity and gain more ground in the country.
The impact COVID-19 has had on current conflict zones and non-conflict zones varies globally. While both Al-Qaeda and IS, along with their respective affiliates, can be designated as insurgent groups, this section is dedicated to those with a specific geographical remit.
In late March, UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, called on militant groups around the world to cease fighting, believing that both governments and insurgents could be instrumental in bringing an end to the pandemic. Various armed groups observed the announcement and have now laid down their weapons in compliance with the United Nations.
The ‘National Liberation Army’, better known as the ELN, the country’s largest remaining leftist guerrilla force, announced a unilateral ceasefire throughout April. This has resulted in a reported 73.4% decrease in battles between government forces and insurgent groups between 1 March and 11 April 2020.
In the Philippines, communist guerrillas known as the ‘New People’s Army’ were ordered to stop assaults against the government by their chain of command. Instead, they were ordered to shift to a defensive position, effectively pressing pause on a decades-long conflict that has killed over 40,000 people.
For other groups the existence of a global pandemic only compounds their motivations.
In West Africa, there have been reports that jihadi groups, including Jamaat Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM) and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), have become increasingly enticed by the monetary incentives and prestige associated with advancing into neighbouring countries. This has put Togo, Ghana, and Benin under increased risk of encroachment from these groups.
On 12 April, Houthi rebels in Yemen rejected a two-week ceasefire agreement with the Saudi coalition.
Houthi tactics in the short term are unlikely to change. Short and medium-range ballistic missile launches, as well as drone attacks, will possibly continue against coalition forces and cities in southern Saudi Arabia. There is also the possibility that militants will be increasingly bold in their targeting, as highlighted by the attacks on the Saudi capital Riyadh last month. The threat of Iranian-backed militant groups taking advantage of the current situation to target oil infrastructure also remains.
To an extent, the response by the upper echelons of Islamist organisations was to be expected. Though far-right actors have also been increasingly creative in both their modus operandi and target locations. This is particularly true in the United States, where narratives that the coronavirus has been ‘manufactured’ by anti-Trump media outlets, and that the virus is being used as a cover for government takeover, are gaining traction.
As stated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in New York in late March:
“Members of extremist groups are encouraging one another to spread the virus, if contracted, through bodily fluids and personal interactions.”
According to intelligence collected by US agencies, the idea is to spread the contagion by using spray bottles containing an infected individual’s bodily fluids. Their main targets are “police officers and Jews”, whom they aim to infect by going to “any place they may be congregated, [including] markets, political offices, businesses, and places of worship.”
On 24 March, an attack on a hospital in Belton, Missouri, was thwarted by law enforcement agencies. The man, identified as 36-year-old Timothy R. Wilson, was killed during a shootout with FBI agents. Wilson had previously expressed racist and anti-government sentiments. According to authorities, he had considered several different target locations, including a school and a synagogue, before settling on a healthcare facility that provides critical medical care to coronavirus patients. His goal was to harm as many people as possible.
The week prior, Belton’s mayor issued a stay-at-home order for its residents. Authorities reported the plotter as saying he felt compelled to act because of the mayor’s order and intended to use a car bomb to cause mass casualties at the hospital. Wilson was affiliated with two neo-Nazi organisations.
In California, a rail engineer - named as Eduardo Moreno, 44 - derailed a freight train in an attempt to damage the USNS Mercy: a 1,000-bed hospital ship, in a naval yard in Los Angeles. Moreno stated that he wanted to ‘wake people up’. He was apparently motivated by the belief that the vessel was part of a government plot. The ship is currently being used to treat severely ill COVID-19 patients.
Although the attempted attack caused no damage, as the train came to rest 250 yards away from the vessel, a fuel spill required a hazardous materials cleanup operation disrupting access for patients.
Police in Lakewood, NJ, arrested 43-year-old Anthony Lodespoto for making a ‘bias terroristic threat’ over Facebook Messenger aimed at the Jewish Orthodox community in the town of Howell. The threat included claims that Lodespoto would travel to Howell ‘with a baseball bat’ to assault members of the Jewish community for not complying with the state-wide lockdown. Similar threats were also communicated to the office of the Governor of New Jersey.
Separately, a young woman identified as Jessica Prim, who was inspired by pro-Trump ‘QAnon’ conspiracy theories, live-streamed her trip to New York on 28 April, to “take out” Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. She drove from Illinois with a dozen illegal knives and on her arrest claimed she had come to New York to save children due to an internet conspiracy theory video about a “cabal” of paedophile Democrats. Prim also said she believed that Donald Trump was talking directly to her during his coronavirus press conferences, and her radicalisation seems to have only begun after she was sent home from work.
Governments and law enforcement agencies are already stretched to breaking point dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. They simply do not have the resources to combat a global pandemic and violent extremism simultaneously.
Amid the upheaval, terrorist groups will be able to attract new followers, increase their spheres of influence, and expand their operations unfettered. We are already seeing the first signs of this in various locations - in both the developed and developing world.
The question we must ask ourselves is: "what will the global terror landscape look like once the crisis is finally at an end?"
Laura is a threat advisory and intelligence consultant, with extensive international experience working in risk management and intelligence-driven investigations for major organisations in Europe, the Middle East, Asia and LATAM. Laura is an Arabist and holds an MA in Terrorism and Security from King’s College London where she graduated top of her class.