Terror threat from Islamists, far-right growing amid COVID-19 pandemic - study

Islamic extremists and the far-right have seized on the COVID-19 pandemic as a "golden opportunity" to ramp up violence and propaganda, according to a new study.

Rather than join the rest of humanity in efforts to contain and defeat the virus, they're instead "exploiting gaps in security, and the general burdens on societies that the pandemic imposes and are pushing forward their ideologies as a cure for fear, frustration, and panic", University of Maryland security experts say.

"Despite the overriding media attention to the COVID-19 pandemic and its near-total eclipse of security issues, the terrorism milieu has hardly taken a pause from its deadly pursuits or suspended the execution of its plans," said Arie Kruglanski, professor of psychology and the lead author of a new paper looking at terrorism in midst of a pandemic.

With more than 1.2 million already dead, the pandemic has a wrought a death toll terror groups could only dream of. But that's not for want of trying - with Islamic State and al-Qaeda attacks in several countries and the far-right carrying out dozens of car-ramming attacks against protesters in the US.

But the future has the researchers just as, if not more, concerned. 

Islamic extremists

The study looks at how Islamic extremists have branded the pandemic as a "soldier of Allah sent to venge the Muslim people's suffering brought about by the US and its allies", noting deaths have typically been higher in Western countries, particularly in the pandemic's early months. 

"Furthermore, a concern has been raised that the jihadists will learn from the horrific world impact of COVID 19 and intensify their efforts to switch from the use of complicated devices, bombs, and suicide attacks to biological warfare, and bioterrorism," the paper reads.

The researchers also found Islamic State has recruited "doctoral-level scientists...  to study scientific journals around the world in multiple languages about biological and chemical advancements and from these compile... instructions on what to buy and how to create weapons of mass destruction".

The far-right

While Islamists have credited their god with creating the virus, far-right extremists have zeroed in on their usual suspects - Jews and the Chinese (the virus was first detected late last year in China). 

Violence from the far-right has been increasing in recent years - up 320 percent between 2014 and 2019, according to the Institute for Economics and Peace's Global Terrorism Index. In 2018, they carried out three times as many attacks in Western countries than Islamic extremists, and so far this year are responsible for 90 percent of all terror attacks in the US - up from 66 percent last year.

"How did the far-right domain respond to the COVID-19 pandemic? Its reaction has been intense and widespread," the study reads. "Supporters seized on the opportunity... for spreading their narrative and mobilising followers for a new type of violence against their perceived nemeses. 

"These comprised the traditional targets of far-right hate: Jews, minorities, foreigners, the government and more generally anyone outside the White supremacist milieu. 

"Far-right rhetoric has been rampant on the various social media; it has comprised (1) a plethora of conspiracy theories, (2) concrete calls for violent action including both conventional attacks and deliberate spreading of the virus; (3) disinformation initiatives designed to promulgate chaos and panic."

The study says even when obeying lockdown orders, the far-right found ways to "sow chaos" virtually, for example by breaking into Zoom chats and sharing porn and violent imagery.

They also found a way to get people on board who would otherwise balk at associating with stereotypical neo-Nazis by embracing conspiracy theories like QAnon and anti-vaccination

'Potential storm of intensified world terrorism' 

Some conspiracy theories - such as that tech entrepreneurs Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg are behind the virus - have been shared by both Islamists and the far-right, while the study also notes there's a big crossover in the misogynist incel ('involuntary celibate') community. 

"In the wake of COVID-19, it appears that far-right extremists have discovered the extent of people's fear of social control and loss of liberty, and have realised how easily they can manipulate citizens, who may not normally subscribe to the extreme ideology, into joining their cause."

US President Donald Trump
US President Donald Trump has amplified a number of COVID-related conspiracy theories. Photo credit: Getty

Even those who don't subscribe to an extremist ideology are posing "a major threat to public health" by rejecting science in favour of religion, the study notes, citing examples such as a US pastor who said he'd keep preaching - and was soon killed by the virus - and ultra-orthodox rabbis in Israel, one of whom said "canceling Torah study is more dangerous than corona".

Prof Kruglanski said a "potential storm of intensified world terrorism" is "gathering in [the pandemic's] shadows".

"Presenting the pandemic as God's punishment against evil actors, and/or portraying given ethnic, religious or national groups as perpetrators of the plague may boost the recruitment to extremist organisations whose simplistic narratives offer certainty and guidance for millions of anxious people."

The research was published in journal Global Security: Health, Science and Policy.