Although pandemics alone do not cause conflict or unrest, through the contexts they create together with the reactions of states, they can lead to political unrest and violence. Moreover, as a seemingly unavoidable side effect, pandemics also provide an opportunity for extreme or terrorist groups to pursue their agendas.
As the world faces an invisible enemy called Covid-19, extremist and terrorist groups are ready to exploit the current crisis to their own advantage. Seemingly strategic enemies, both right-wing and Salafi Jihadi groups, are becoming rhetorical allies through mutually reinforcing hate speech, using fear to to advance their violent goals by exploiting the turmoil and panic caused by the coronavirus pandemic. They often use similar tactics and the same messaging applications and forge mutual strategies to reach a wider audience.
In view of the current crisis and the weaknesses in national and international security during the pandemic, there is an increased need to assess the response of terrorist groups to Covid-19 in terms of propaganda material and plotting of attacks. This article examines a) how some of the terrorist groups from a broader ideological spectrum are shaping their propaganda and calls for action within the framework of the possibilities they see in relation to Covid-19, and b) how disinformation campaigns and conspiracy theories reinforce this propaganda.
Covid-19 and Terrorism
For extremist and terrorist groups, the ‘corona crisis’ is both an opportunity to confirm their views and apocalyptic assumptions as well as an opportunity to call for action to launch attacks, either by spreading the virus or by attacking critical infrastructure in ‘enemy countries’. The violence that these groups promote is, in reality, a primitive expression of their struggle for meaning, acceptance and legitimacy. Based on the online material published so far, the current pandemic has rovided extremist groups with the chance to spread hatred, violence and disinformation and to reach a wide audience, currently in self-isolation at home. Since one of the main strategies of these groups is to exploit confusion and fear – two main characteristics in these times of uncertainty – their claims are usually more successful in reaching the ‘hearts and minds’ of people who suffer the psychological, social, political and economic consequences of isolation such as boredom, loneliness or a lack of future prospects.
The most basic strategy for saving lives during the pandemic – social distancing – can actually increase the risk of consumption of material released by extremist groups spreading misleading information, fake news, conspiracy theories and hate speech. In other words, more time spent in self-isolation at home can become a facilitating factor in the experience of radicalisation at home. It has been shown that terrorist disinformation is capable of parasitising the fears and phobias caused by other factors, just as in the case of a pandemic. The extremist narrative offers two main elements that are key in a world confronted with the Covid-19 crisis – certainty and meaning – both of which are provided by a fundamentalist ideology. Millions of people living in self-isolation today turn to social media, where they become easy targets for either Salafi Jihadi or extreme right (or left-right) groups that exploit widespread confusion and fear in order to fuel hatred. Although governments have made great efforts to provide accurate information about Covid-19 online, they still need to address the rise of conspiracy theories and the role that this rhetoric plays in the calls for increased targeted violence against vulnerable communities.
This task becomes even more difficult when dangerous propaganda is hidden in so-called ‘grey zone’ extremist material, the removal of which is prevented by automated algorithms that recognize terrorist symbols, music and content.
Moreover, fear is a crucial element known to all extremist groups and can be played as the best card, especially in contexts like the one created by Covid-19. Daesh made it clear in one of its publications that more dangerous than the epidemic itself is the fear that has spread among the population and can plunge society into chaos. However, even terrorist groups are not immune to the virus, and although their narratives may try to claim to be ahead of the virus, the truth is that they are still unsure how to react to what is going on and what the longer-term effects of the virus will be on their actions.
All these groups share a key common goal – to attack the designated enemy – in any context, but especially now when they are most vulnerable. Although they are largely similar in rhetoric, strategies and means, each group has its own specific response to the Covid-19 pandemic, depending on its capabilities and local circumstances.
Salafi-Jihadi vs. Right-wing / Left-wing Extremists
Daesh dedicated its latest issues of the weekly magazine Al-Naba to the current situation, publishing a well-documented briefing before many of the governments around the world had given any information to their own citizens. In January, Al-Naba reported that “a new disease is spreading death and panic” in “communist China”. As the virus spread to Iran, the newsletter stressed that the infection was God’s punishment for Shiite Muslim “idolatry”. The rhetorical line developed on Covid-19 has evolved as the geographical range of the virus and the human toll has become clearer. Although the virus is perceived as a “soldier of Allah” who came as punishment for the “infidel governments”, it still poses a threat to the members of Daesh and they must seek help from God to be protected. Apparently, the practice of the duty of “Jihad” offers them protection from the virus.
Daesh’s main aim is to sow the seeds of distrust of the government by spreading disinformation and malicious information – while using the unfolding events to underpin their view of the world and confirm their predictions. There are three main pillars in Daesh’s propaganda regarding Covid-19: firstly, the confirmation of its ideological rhetoric regarding the virus; secondly, the provision of information on how to prevent infection with the disease – an infographic entitled Shari’a guidelines for dealing with epidemics; thirdly, a call for action to exploit the vulnerabilities that many countries are currently facing and carry out attacks and to free their fellow combatants, their wives and children, who are held in camps or prisons in Syria and Iraq.
The situation in the camps, as well as in Syria and Iraq, is fragile and resembles a powder keg that could explode at any time, as the international community is already weakened and too vulnerable by the pandemic to respond effectively. The virus that is spreading in the prison camps in Syria and Iraq could be the kind of distraction that Daesh pointed out when it urged its members to take the opportunity to work towards the liberation of fellow combatants and their families in the prisons, where they “are at risk of disease in addition to submission. The release of any number of them would strengthen their operational capabilities and threaten to undo years of coordinated efforts to contain the militant group.
On the other hand, if the conditions in the camps and prisons deteriorate and the virus gets out of control, the fact that these militants or their families will die will only further confirm the extremist propaganda.
To combat the spread of the virus, in April 2020, the coalition provided the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) with face masks, hand washing stations, hand disinfectants and bleach worth US$1.2 million, which, according to the officers, will be used in the region’s prisons and hospitals. The prisons where Daesh prisoners are held cannot simply set some lower-risk prisoners free – as some Western prisons did when the Covid-19 pandemic spread around the world. Moreover, the tens of thousands of children in prison camps are already vulnerable to radicalization, and a Covid-19 crisis could make the situation worse.
In a video posted online in Turkish, an anonymous woman demonstrates the living conditions in one of the camps near the Turkish border while pointing at two minors. The video serves as a way of highlighting the lack of a common strategy by the international community regarding the camps where the families of the fighters are being held. At present, these camps are the perfect environment for further radicalisation and the spread of extremist ideology, although officials of the International Coalition Against Daesh claim that they are working with NGOs and SDF to improve conditions in these areas.
Another group active in Syria, and the leading jihadist coalition of Idlib, is Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS). This group operates a so-called ‘Salvation Government’ (SG) as a civilian arm, which also has a kind of health ministry under its control. The SG began earlier and more thoroughly than the Assad regimein taking preventive measures, including the following: distributing guides to motorists, publishing an information video and essays by the Minister of Health, drawing caricatures on walls to show children what to do and what not to do about viruses, carrying out temperature controls at border crossings from Turkey, sterilising schools, mosques, government buildings and other infrastructure, launching an awareness campaign for internally displaced persons in rural Idlib, Aleppo, and Turkish-controlled Afrin (where the SG has a limited presence), organising coronavirus teachings for clergy, and holding local forums by doc tors and deans of medical schools to explain the SG’s plans (with appropriate social distance between participants). SG also closed markets, set up quarantine tents for suspected virus carriers until they can be properly tested, and initiated remote training via pre-recorded WhatsApp videos. On 23 March, the authorities also set up an Emergency Response Committee to coordinate the entire administration, chaired by Abdullah al-Shawi on behalf of the President of the Secretary-General.
Ideologically, preferring science to religious guidelines, HTS offers an interesting insight into what is an Islamist group that takes a more ‘state-like’ approach. In a 4-minute report published by the News Agency of Sham, a media company of the SG in Idlib, the quasi-state demonstrates its preparations against COVID19 with a preventive quarantine centre, distribution of information to local traders, pictures of clean-up efforts and so on. The HTS’s own representation is that of a saner organisation than some churches in the US, which have refused to be shut down in the face of the pandemic. At the same time, the HTS has suffered from the coherence in its messages, as some of its leaders refused to follow the rules and continued their work as before.
At the beginning of the Covid-19 crisis, although Al-Qaeda seemed silent, its news agency — Thabat Media Agency — published an article written by Khalid al-Sibai entitled ‘Corona: Annihilation of the Unjust and a Testimony of the Believers’. The piece describes Muslims who have died from the virus as martyrs and calls on Al-Qaeda affiliates to exploit the current situation by carrying out more attacks against their enemies. Like Daesh, al-Qaeda has used its propaganda resources to highlight the opportunity presented by the pandemic and to strike when their enemies are most vulnerable.
The Taliban or ‘Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan’, as it calls itself, has proven to be one of the more vocal groups in terms of their reaction to the pandemic. In addition to publishing several official statements on the Covid-19 outbreak, calling on the Afghan government to protect Taliban prisoners in their prisons, they have also tried to point out more pragmatic steps, such as setting up camps to treat people in areas under their control. Taliban images show how their members maintain social distancing while wearing protective clothing, while claiming that the pandemic is “sent by Allah for the disobedience and sins of mankind”. The Taliban also announced the establishment of medical centres, including in areas such as Afghanistan’s Paktika province, just months after the group was blamed for the attack on the government-run medical centre in the same area. All this posturing, coupled with the fact that they are seeking the help of aid agencies and health workers that they had previously targeted, is accompanied by talks about a ceasefire in areas where they oppose the Afghan government. All this begs the question whether their approach to fighting COVID19 is to actually build a health system, or whether it is simply a cynical attempt to portray the group in this way.
Just like the Salafi-jihadi examples, extremist groups of the far-right and the far-left also see a confirmation of their ideological views in the pandemic. For many on the far-left, the source of the virus and the reason for the difficulty faced by societies in coping with the pandemic is the destructive nature of capitalism – the aggressive expansion of markets and means of production or globalisation among other factors. The ‘system’ also enables greed and hoarding – well embodied by the western ‘toilet paper crisis’ – to develop at the expense of poorer strands of our societies, thereby further enhancing social division. Finally, the containment measures to combat the pandemic are portrayed as an opportunity to take away liberties and impose authoritarian rule, often described as fascist.
Hence, the current crisis confirms both their worst fears and what they have advocated for years. For many on the far-right, the pandemic validates numerous conspiracy theories, where the pandemic is a result of the deep state and, therefore, the measures and information are to be neither implemented nor believed. Perhaps of greater concern are the interpretations of the virus as being ‘foreign’, brought by foreigners into western countries and created by a foreign power to decimate western civilisation. This interpretation has led to an increase of attacks on ‘foreigners’, notably of Asian heritage, and in some more extremist circles even to suggestions of a ‘cleansing’ of western societies. Branded as such, the far-right’s anti-foreigner and anti-immigration rhetoric is seen by them as justified, as is the failure of the neo-liberal system. Therefore, regardless of the extremist position – ideological or religious – the pandemic acts as means of reinforcing these positions within their specific interpretations.
ISIS and Al Qaida affiliated material did not suggest any new attack methods but rather focused on the opportunities that were presented to their followers. No need for something special but ‘business as usual’ should be enough to enhance the damage done by the virus.
In that sense, the Al-Naba editorial’s exhortation to violence is not news, as for Daesh it is always time for violence. What matters instead is what the group is capable of and what its operating context allows. If that context becomes more permissive, Daesh can better organise and execute resource-intensive, complex attacks at substantial human cost. In far-left circles, calls for plunder or the destruction of businesses are made to accelerate capitalism’s downfall. The logic being that if people become needy enough, the oppression of capitalist societies will become obvious and in turn, the oppressed will demand and impose a more just system. Whereas the far-right’s calls for actions have focused on the mass infection of traitors and foreigners or targeting those it views as responsible for the pandemic. Like with the far-left, the far-right calls to action also aim at accelerating the demise of the current liberal system and implementing a new order aligned with their views. An intriguing particularity of the far-right’s calls for action to date has been to encourage spreading the virus to specific groups, whether by coughing deliberately at people or contaminating goods in stores with saliva. This is a sharp contrast to other extremists’ positions, who ask their supporters to be cautious and avoid becoming infected.
This tactic appears motivated by a dismissal of the coronavirus’ effects (‘just the flu’) for specific groups or a ‘survival of the fittest’ mentality. Worryingly, numerous individuals – mostly men – are acting on these calls, contaminating goods in supermarkets or coughing at people, while claiming to be infected. This is a clear weaponisation of the coronavirus, even at its most primitive (and natural) and further demonstrates that the use of ‘bio-weaponry’ does notneed to be sophisticated to be dangerous. As the recent history of terrorism further underlines, effectiveness can be found in the simplest methods. So far, we have seen that extremists can easily use the current pandemic for ‘positive reinforcement’ and indoctrination, benefitting their strategic aims and tactics. However, beyond the calls for action, it is often circumstantial factors that can both act as an incubator and a nudge for extremist violence. In the case of the current crisis, disinformation plays a huge role in polarisation, fear and fostering emotional insecurity, all of which play a huge role in the ‘defensive’ interpretation of violent actions by extremists.
Conclusion and Recommendations
The Covid-19 pandemic has the potential to weaken domestic security efforts and international counter-terrorism cooperation, allowing terrorist groups to better prepare attacks and escalate campaigns of insurgent warfare on battlefields worldwide. Security officials warn that extremist groups may become emboldened during a time when governments and authorities are focused on the sweeping changes to societies and economies brought on by the crisis. Quarantine has also created new ‘soft’ and tempting targets: care homes and hospitals, the only locations where large numbers people are now likely to spend their days – and where every country’s ability to protect its citizens is currently being tested. The pandemic has also potentially provided extremists with a cheap weapon at their disposal: the virus itself. It is possible that the Salafi-jihadi groups will use the Covid-19 crisis to instigate more fear in Western countries, and the more localist Islamist and jihadist militias groups, such as the Taliban, Hamas and Iran’s Shi’a militias, will likely use the insecurity to strengthen their grip on the local populations, taking advantage of political-security vacuums to present themselves as credible actors. While improbable that a white supremacist group can successfully carry out even a low-scale WMD attack, much more likely during the pandemic would be small-arms and critical infrastructure attacks.
In order to cope with the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, whether it is in regards to the terrorist threat or other relevant dimensions of security, there is a deepening need for a multidisciplinary understanding and strategy development, which encompasses perspectives from all spheres of our lives such as psychological, social, economic, political, educational, medical, anthropological, cultural and administrative. Bearing in mind also the increased use of the internet and social media during the self-isolation period, it is extremely important that social media companies and governments develop their strategies to identify, monitor and remove disinformation and extremist propaganda spread by groups representing a wide ideological spectrum. It is important not to forget the threats that have been present on the political scene before Covid-19 and to remember that they have not disappeared. Instead, they can seize the opportunity and hit when we are most vulnerable. Counterterrorism professionals should continue to monitor terrorist footprints, which are spreading and mutating like a virus and adapting to the new international context.
Dr. Andreea Stoian Karadeli is an independent researcher based in Turkey, an Associate Fellow at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy and a Visiting Researcher at the University of South Wales. Her interdisciplinary research varies from cultural and intercultural studies to conflict resolution and focusses on national security and terrorism, with a specific expertise in the Middle East.