“In chaos, they thrive: The resurgence of extremist and terrorist groups during the COVID-19 pandemic”
By Ivano di Carlo, courtesy of EPC
Since the outbreak of COVID-19, governments across the globe have been largely focused on fighting the pandemic. The virus, however, is not only affecting the health and socioeconomic security of citizens but is also acting as a potential multiplier of other threats. Terrorist and violent extremist groups have wasted no time to look for ways to exploit this crisis, whether it be to further spread their propaganda and toxic ideology, or as a recruitment opportunity.
Terrorism and violent extremism will continue to pose a threat to public security. This health crisis is exacerbating some of the drivers of radicalisation and testing countries’ capacity to deal with terrorist threats worldwide. The EU and its member states must therefore step up their actions preventing and countering these risks and challenges, both within the EU and in cooperation with their partner countries.
A window of opportunity for the propaganda machine
Beyond the mainstream political and media debate, the COVID-19 crisis is also making the headlines of several terrorist and extremist groups’ newsletters and websites. Considered to be an opportunity to attract more people to their cause, the confusion and fear triggered by the pandemic have been exploited by jihadist groups and right-wing extremists alike.
Since the onset of the pandemic, jihadists groups like the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) and al-Qaeda (AQ) have released several official statements. While there is a common narrative that the pandemic is ‘the wrath of Allah’ and the damage it afflicts on governments and economies should be celebrated, there are also some differences between the two groups’ rhetoric.
AQ publications have encouraged non-Muslims to use self-isolation as an opportunity to learn more about Islam. By contrast, ISIS has twisted the COVID-19 crisis to reinforce its aggressive narrative. On 19 March, the group published a strategic plan entitled “Crusaders’ Biggest Nightmare”, which encourages militants and followers to use the current chaos to launch attacks against ‘infidels’ and free imprisoned members of the organisation.
Far-right extremists are also trying to capitalise on the pandemic. Various groups, such as Hundred-Handers and the Nordic Resistance Movement, have been disseminating hate speeches and xenophobic propaganda to recruit new supporters.
Far-right movements have also advocated the closure of external borders and accused governments of using the COVID-19 crisis to divert public attention away from migrant and refugee issues. Anti-foreigner and -immigrant rhetoric is popular on the Internet, with some blaming minority ethnic communities for the spread of the disease. Consequently, there has been an increase in racist attacks.
Furthermore, conspiracy theories – not necessarily promoted by jihadist and extreme far-right movements alone – are blaming China, the US, the Jewish community, and the 5G network, or consider it a government-perpetrated hoax.
Taking advantage of systemic weaknesses
The pandemic has triggered an unprecedented economic crisis which is affecting the livelihoods of citizens worldwide severely. Many find themselves in a precarious economic situation, which is likely to worsen due to the crisis. While some have already lost their jobs, others fear the possibility of unemployment once lockdown measures are eased. This has led to increased levels of uncertainty, stress and anger; and growing inequalities, deepening social fractures. Furthermore, weeks of confinement can result in an increased sense of isolation and vulnerability for those who live alone. This all makes for fertile ground for extremist recruiters.
According to Nicolas Lerner, General Director of the French General Directorate for Internal Security, confinement can accelerate extremist behaviours when aggravated by other emotional factors. Counter-extremism practitioners have warned that the increased time spent online by people in lockdown presents an opportunity for extremist cells to recruit vulnerable individuals through online platforms.
Internet traffic on social channels is rapidly growing. Virtual spaces play a central role in radicalisation, even from well before the pandemic. Furthermore, the closure of schools and (non-)governmental anti-radicalisation programmes has reduced the capacity of people at the frontline, such as teachers, youth workers, coaches, and first-line practitioners, to identify the first signs of radicalisation. Under such circumstances, preventing violent extremism and radicalisation has become even more challenging.
The COVID-19 crisis has also seriously stressed governments’ coordination and capacity to act. Governments ill-equipped to respond to the pandemic, and whose legitimacy is already weak, face a crisis of trust and aggravation of domestic struggles.
In Africa and the Middle East, and especially low- and middle-income countries where terrorist groups have their strongholds, COVID-19 can be a catalyst for terrorist attacks and enhance popular support for extremist, non-state actors who can step in where states fail to provide for basic needs. In a recent report, the International Crisis Group stated that “the crisis may create openings for jihadist groups to launch new offensives against weakened governments”. Armed groups affiliated to AQ or ISIS have already ramped up their attacks in Africa. ISIS is also intensifying its activities – particularly in Iraq, where various countries have withdrawn their ground troops provisionally.
With countries in Africa and the Middle East absorbed by the health emergency and the temporary reduction of international military presence in some unstable theatres, terrorist groups will try to benefit from the resulting power vacuum. Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are also operating at reduced capacity. All this generates further instability in these areas, and will not only impact EU security negatively but also increase flows of refugees and asylum seekers.
Overcrowded refugee camps in north-eastern Syria pose another emergency, as social distancing measures cannot be applied and the health and sanitation infrastructure is severely inadequate. These camps – especially al-Hol and Roj, which together hold some 70,000 people – are ticking time-bombs. With limited resources and fewer humanitarian support personnel on the ground, delivering assistance to and maintaining control over the security of thousands of refugees are becoming ineffective. Breakouts have already been reported, involving family members of foreign terrorist fighters (FTFs).
The same problems exist in prisons holding FTFs and other jihadists. A riot that broke out at Hassakeh prison in northern Syria this March led to several ISIS militants escaping. While the repatriation of FTFs and their families has been on Europe’s agenda for some time, it remains an extremely controversial issue. Despite pressure from international organisations and experts to act, European governments are not addressing this problem. However, the status quo represents a security threat for Europe – not least from returning FTFs who have escaped prisons and whose ideology is likely to have hardened during their incarceration.
Acting in time of crisis.
Countering radical and violent ideologies remains a significant challenge for Europe. However, there is a risk of the COVID-19 crisis drawing attention away from this threat and reducing the prevention and countering of violent extremism (P/CVE), including financial support for P/CVE programmes, due to the pandemic’s massive economic and social impact. This would be a mistake.
Supporting community-based projects and activities remains crucial, as disengagement, deradicalisation and rehabilitation are most compelling when they come from within communities. In the Netherlands, for instance, P/CVE programmes targeting all forms of extremism and radicalisation are implemented locally, through multidisciplinary and interagency cooperation. At the same time, the national government identifies priority areas and provides advice and capacity-building measures through a comprehensive national counterterrorism (CT) strategy.
Being at the forefront of ‘tackling’ radicalisation, cities and municipalities should also be empowered. For instance, Rotterdam and Mechelen are both examples of how cities can successfully address the root causes of radicalisation and violent extremism.
Whether locally- or nationally-based, government-sponsored programmes and NGOs should not fall victim to cuts in national spending. Adequate economic resources must be ensured, to support socially deprived areas which have been hit particularly hard by the COVID-19 crisis and prevent the possible spread of radical ideologies, aside from the challenge of organised crime taking advantage of people in need.
Doubling down on fighting online propaganda is also crucial. Calls for violence from jihadist groups and far-right extremists have surged online in an alarming way. Confinement has underlined how easy it is to be exposed to disinformation and extremist propaganda on social media platforms. It is therefore important to continue to take measures that counter this threat, including a more solid partnership between governments and technology companies.
The COVID-19 crisis risks undermining international counterterrorism and P/CVE (co-)operation beyond EU borders. Therefore, in close collaboration with other international and regional organisations, the EU and its member states should sustain their ongoing efforts by strengthening cooperation with third countries. A more comprehensive approach which enhances local community engagement, empowers civil society organisations and boosts resilience is needed. The EU should also enhance the role and resources of CT experts working in EU delegations to facilitate security cooperation, along with the strengthening of the civilian and P/CVE dimension of external projects, military operations and training missions.
Finally, when it comes to returning FTFs and their families, inaction is no longer a viable option. A top priority of the Union should be to re-examine this issue by promoting a common EU framework for repatriation, prosecution, rehabilitation and reintegration. Taking stock of Kosovo’s experience – the successful repatriation of 110 citizens from Syria, including jihadists – would be useful when devising a broader strategy. Continuing to share best practices and experiences within the EU’s Radicalisation Awareness Network is also essential for a joint approach.
The extraordinary challenges posed by the pandemic require urgent action, to prevent the spread of extremist ideologies and the risks of violent attacks in Europe and beyond. These measures are needed to strengthen the resilience of societies and individuals and tackle the risk factors the COVID-19 crisis is exacerbating.
 Williams, Clive (2020), “Terrorism in the era of Covid-19”, Barton: Australian Strategic Policy Institute.
 Al-Tamimi, Aymenn (2020), “Coronavirus and Official Islamic State Output: An Analysis”, London: Global Network on Extremism & Technology.
 Counter Extremism Project, “Eye on Extremism: Apr 3, 2020” (accessed 29 April 2020); Doward, Jamie, “Far right hijack coronavirus crisis to push agenda and boost support”, The Guardian, 25 April 2020.
 Décugis, Jean-Michel & Jérémie Pham-Le, “Terrorisme: le risque d’un « effet accélérateur » du confinement”, Le Parisien, 18 April 2020.
 See Acheson, Ian & Amanda Paul (2019, eds.), Guns and Glory: Criminality, imprisonment and jihadist extremism in Europe, Brussels: European Policy Centre.
 Dodd, Vikram, “Fears of rise in UK terrorist recruits as anti-radicalisation referrals collapse”, The Guardian, 22 April 2020.
 Burke, Jason, “Opportunity or threat? How Islamic extremists are reacting to coronavirus”, The Guardian, 16 April 2020.
 International Crisis Group (2020a), “COVID-19 and Conflict: Seven Trends to Watch”, Brussels, p.10.
 Fiorenza, Nicholas, “Covid-19: European countries withdraw from Iraq”, Jane’s, 27 March 2020.
 International Crisis Group (2020b), “Virus Fears Spread at Camps for ISIS Families in Syria’s North East”, Brussels.
 Mathieu, Luc, “Plusieurs Françaises liées à l’Etat islamique s’évadent de camps en Syrie”, Libération, 08 April 2020.
 Lonzano, Maria (2014), “Inventory of the best practices on de-radicalisation from the different Member States of the EU”, TerRa, p.37
 Ruf, Maximilian & Annelies Jansen (2019), “Study Visit: Returned Women and Children – Studying an Ongoing Experience on the Ground”, Amsterdam: Radicalisation Awareness Network.
Ivano di Carlo is Junior Policy Analyst of the Europe in the World programme.