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Covid-19: A game changer for terrorist groups?

Terrorist groups across the ideological spectrum have exploited the Covid-19 pandemic for ideological validation and propaganda.

Covid-19: A game changer for terrorist groups?

The Islamic State has twisted its messaging on Covid-19 in accordance to how it has evolved, writes the author.

Terrorist groups across the ideological spectrum have exploited the Covid-19 pandemic for ideological validation and propaganda.

The coronavirus has featured prominently in terrorist groups’ social media messaging since the outbreak started.

Global jihadist groups such as the Islamic State (IS) and Al-Qaeda (AQ) have framed the pandemic as divine retribution against their enemies, while the far-right in the West has linked it to non-white and immigrant communities to advocate strong borders and populist policies, and to push for the virus to be weaponised. 

Terrorist groups, by their very nature, are exploitative and opportunistic. Crises are opportunities rather than challenges for them. They are adroit at adapting, innovating and even excelling in the most adverse circumstances. Given their parasitic nature, terrorist groups can twist facts to support their propagated narratives. 

The longer the pandemic lasts and the more time governments take to recover from its repercussions, the higher the chances for terrorists to push their agendas.

ISLAMIC STATE

IS has twisted its messaging on Covid-19 in accordance to how it has evolved.

Initially, the group termed the contagion as God’s punishment against “communist China” for abusing Uighur Muslims.

Subsequently, when Covid-19 reached Iran, IS called it God’s revenge against the Shia “apostates” for their “idolatry”.

Later, when the pandemic hit the West, it was framed as God’s revenge against the “infidels”.

Ironically, when Covid-19 was first reported in Wuhan, China, IS considered it a weapon created by “evil America”.

Further, IS has urged its supporters to carry out lone-wolf attacks and free the prisoners languishing in prison camps and jails in Iraq (Mosul), Syria (Baghouz) and Libya (Sirte) by taking advantage of states’ distraction in responding to public health crises.

“Crusader powers cannot coordinate with their allies when they are over-occupied containing the spread of coronavirus,” IS notes in Al-Naba. Since the Covid-19 outbreak, IS attacks have risen steadily in Iraq and Syria. Likewise, the group has also claimed attacks in the Maldives, the Philippines, Afghanistan, Yemen and Egypt.

AL-QAEDA AND THE TALIBAN

In contrast, AQ’s position on Covid-19 has been more subdued.

Its six-page statement in late March invites Western citizens to convert to Islam by studying it during the lockdown.

Likewise, the Taliban has used the contagion as a public relations exercise to win public sympathies, gain political legitimacy and portray itself as more humane compared with its arch foe IS, which has taken a totalitarian view of the coronavirus.

The militant group has issued three statements related to Covid-19.

In these statements, the Taliban has offered a ceasefire to the government in areas affected by the coronavirus, provided  assistance in relief activities, as well as restored security guarantees of international humanitarian agencies in areas under their control to resume their work.

FAR-RIGHT GROUPS IN THE WEST

The contagion has allowed far-right groups in the West to reinforce their demands for strong borders, protectionism as well as anti-immigration and anti-Semitic policies.

The far-right groups blame Jews and China for the spread of coronavirus. Consequently, hate crimes against Asian and migrant communities have increased in the West. 

Far-right groups are keen to accelerate the disorder created by public health crises through vandalism and violence.

They have gone as far as to promote the idea of using Covid-19 as a biological weapon, asking infected individuals to cough on minorities or withdrawing small currency notes from banks and going on a nationwide shopping spree after contaminating them with the virus.

Likewise, far-right social media channels have urged supporters to carry bodily fluids of infected individuals in aerosol spray bottles and disperse these in critical infrastructure and public places. 

This, if put into practice, can potentially undermine the fight against Covid-19 and expose the public to potential assaults by far-right supporters in public places.

IMPLICATIONS

The safe distancing and lockdown measures around the world have increased the time people spend on social media.

This has coincided with a surge in extremist propaganda that extremist groups put out on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Telegram to peddle conspiracy theories and misinformation to lure potential recruits.

In a crisis, people need coping mechanisms to deal with anxiety and stress. Terrorist groups can potentially exploit people’s fears and expectations to advance their twisted ideologies.

Likewise, in the wake of Covid-19, if drone technology is introduced for package delivery, surveillance of quarantined neighbourhoods and disinfection sprays in the virus-affected areas to minimise human exposure, terrorist groups can exploit it for surveillance and attacks by rigging them with explosives. Both IS and AQ are capable of modifying commercially available technologies for diverse purposes.

Mobilisation of law enforcement agencies across the world to enforce lockdowns, ensure the public’s compliance with safe distancing measures and to assist with the public health emergency exposes them to low-end terrorist acts, such as knife and vehicular attacks.

Similarly, critical pieces of infrastructure such as hospitals treating infected patients are vulnerable to lone-wolf attacks.

A case in point is the plot by Timothy Wilson, a 36-year-old Neo-Nazi member from Missouri, to bomb a hospital on the wrong belief that Jews engineered Covid-19. He was killed in a shootout with American federal agents.

In poorly or ungoverned spaces of weak states such as Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, groups like AQ, IS, Al-Shabab and the Taliban will try to bolster their credentials by offering aid, security and some semblance of governance to local communities.

Once the pandemic subsides, the international community will re-evaluate the existing order of priorities. Given this, there is a need to re-examine present counter-terrorism frameworks and alliances to devise more innovative and cost-effective strategies.

In this regard, public-private partnership between governments and technological companies is required to remove extremist propaganda from social media platforms.

Additionally, the international community should empower terrorist-infested states such as Iraq, Somalia and Afghanistan on the operational side of counter-terrorism, while helping them with intelligence inputs against terrorist groups and training programmes.

Finally, helping weak states to improve public policy and governance delivery is also essential to make them immune to terrorist exploitations.    

Going forward, the potential shift to drone technology to circumvent human-to-human contacts and more prolonged exposure to social media during safe distancing provide potential gateways to both IS and AQ to sow their influence in Singapore.

Continued social media monitoring to weed out any extremist influence in coordination with technological companies and regulating the technological sector through strict licensing and laws are essential to keep it free of terrorist exploitations.   

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Abdul Basit is a research fellow with the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research at Nanyang Technological University's S Rajaratnam School of International Studies. 

Related topics

terrorism Covid-19 coronavirus Islamic State

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