What the virus pandemic means for violent extremists
There is a certain irony in Daesh demanding that its followers stay away from Europe to protect themselves; this is an organisation that encourages its followers to pursue attacks to the point of death, even if the only death that occurs is their own. In the perverse Daesh mindset, dying from a virus probably seems about as horrific an idea as a Viking warrior dying in his bed — certainly not a quick route to Valhalla.
But the group’s leadership is worried. Unlike some extremists, they seem aware that jihadi violence is no protector against a pandemic. In fact, for many of their fighters, captured in the liberation of former areas of Daesh territory, there is a heightened risk; Kurdish forces in Syria are deeply concerned about the virus spreading in the refugee camps and detention centers under their control, and report that a riot at one prison holding Daesh fighters was due to concern about the disease.
Daesh high command are not the only ones worried. The coronavirus is concerning global counter-extremism forces as well, because it does not discriminate. Governments at the best of times struggle to focus on more than one major activity simultaneously, and governments around the world are funnelling almost all their resources into preparing health systems for coronavirus patients. And that means less attention on counter-extremism, and, because counter-extremism officials get ill too, fewer resources.
Simultaneous to their “travel advisory,” Daesh encouraged followers already in Europe to launch attacks on weakened infrastructure. In Germany last week, police arrested a cell claiming allegiance to the group and planning attacks on US forces. And if Daesh is cautious, others are less so. In the Lake Chad Basin, the terrorist leader Abu Bakr Shekau claimed that attempts to counter the virus such as shutting mosques were in fact attempts to counter Islam.
There is a certain irony in Daesh demanding that its followers stay away from Europe to protect themselves from coronavirus; this is an organisation that encourages its followers to pursue attacks to the point of death.
Meanwhile, the Soufan Center, a global security research organisation, predicts that the long-term effects of the coronavirus will provide devastating opportunities for extremists of all stripes to recruit. Religious extremists will exploit the view that it is a judgment from God to explain exactly what God is judging in their favor; right-wing extremists will be able to point to ethnic minorities as a source of disease; left-wing extremists will be able to point to globalization, the rich, and business as the cause of the recession that will follow; environmental extremists, animal rights extremists, and others will all be able to use the situation to recruit and justify fresh and dangerous action.
It is not just that extremist ideologies will find more resonance when people want something to blame. There will also be greater opportunity to spread the message; people are shut at home, many with little to do, exposed to the untamed extremes of the internet. Already in the UK we have seen the real-world effects of the conspiracy theories racing their way across social media and online forums: 5G masts have been attacked, because of a belief that they spread the virus. When terrorism starts with infrastructure, it often moves on to people.
In normal circumstances, many countries have systems in place to try to spot people in danger of radicalisation. During a pandemic, those systems are weakened. To start with, most teenagers and young adults, who are often the most vulnerable to radicalisation, are not in school or college, or some other organized environment where changes in their behavior can be noted.
Besides that, and the issue of illness among those responsible for assessing such cases as are reported, the likely economic crunch that will follow the coronavirus will lead to a reprioritisation of resources. Local councils and police forces around the world may well see their incomes drop, as local companies go out of business. National governments will face growing pressure to pay off the vast debts accrued in trying to counter the immediate hardships of the global shutdown.
At any moment, there are a thousand urgent and important demands for government money; at the best of times, certain things will not be funded sufficiently because governments have to prioritise. Political memories are short, and sadly the main thing that will keep counter-extremism funding high will be the violence that is likely if it falls.
And yet despite all this there is a risk of overstating the problem. It is not as though extremist groups have been taking it easy for the past few decades, and while they will certainly attempt to exploit the opportunities this situation brings, it also brings disadvantages.
In many countries, there is greater alertness to people acting suspiciously, or even being outdoors at all without good reason. Police patrol and question curfew breakers. Privacy campaigners are already concerned about an increase in surveillance powers granted to many states to check the spread of the virus; these may be adapted for crime fighting. Fewer people moving about, and fewer tourists at major landmarks, make mass casualty attacks much harder. And in many countries, community groups and religious groups have come into their own in building society up despite the isolation; while extremists may be able to recruit online, stronger social links between communities is their enemy. But despite this we must remain vigilant. Within this securitised new pandemic world, we will have to watch how the extremist adapts.
- Peter Welby is a consultant on religion and global affairs, specializing in the Arab world. Previously he was the managing editor of a think tank on religious extremism, the Centre on Religion & Geopolitics, and worked in public affairs in the Arabian Gulf. He is based in London, and has lived in Egypt and Yemen. Twitter: @pdcwelby.