COLLEGE PARK, Md. — We’re living in uncertain times. Now, a new study finds terrorist organizations are taking advantage of all the fear, anxiety, and confusion caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The new international study states the coronavirus is being “widely exploited by terror groups for spinning a plethora of sinister schemes.” The end game? A possible surge in political violence toward both people and governments.
“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,” lead author Professor of Psychology Arie Kruglanski from the University of Maryland explains in a media release.
Many hoped at the beginning of this viral ordeal that COVID-19 would foster greater global cooperation and cohesion. Unfortunately, researchers say the pandemic has done the opposite, enabling a number of terrorist incidents.
Such incidents include ISIS attacks in seven countries in the month of March alone, one major attack in Afghanistan killed 24 people, and Al-Qaeda-affiliated Al Shabab attacks in Somalia.
Violence on home soil
Domestic extremists have also seemingly been energized by the coronavirus. Members of alleged far-right groups in the United States have been to blame for 90 percent of terrorist incidents in 2020 (66% in 2019). Germany has also seen a surge in far-right activity. On a related note, while not exactly linked to any one terrorist group, cyberattacks (especially on hospitals) have also increased across the globe.
Terrorists have used the pandemic as a “golden opportunity to tie their messaging to information about the disease and intensify their propaganda for purposes of recruitment and incitement to violence,” Professor Kruglanski says.
“The awe of the pandemic notwithstanding, extremist groups have not ceased sowing their own brand of horror. Far from just keeping up their activity despite the pandemic, they are using the pandemic as an opportunity to grow stronger. They are 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.”
Terrorists weaponize COVID-19 in their propaganda
While the messages being spread by various terrorist groups differ somewhat, they all look to incite or justify violence. Examples include conspiracy theories, claiming God’s vengeance against enemies, weaponizing the virus, and “launching widespread attacks wherever and whenever possible.”
ISIS and Al-Qaeda, for example, claim COVID-19 was sent to attack Allah’s enemies (the United States and its allies) as revenge for Muslim suffering.
“In this narrative, the coronavirus is seen as a type of plague sent by God that will kill the enemies of Allah, sparing the believing Muslims. In May, ISIS spokesman Abu Hamza al-Qurashi made a speech in which he compared the pandemic to the biblical story of Moses cursing Pharaoh with the 10 plagues until he relented and let God’s people go,” the study notes.
Unsettlingly, the study’s authors predict the pandemic may inspire terrorists to focus more on biological attacks moving forward. Evidence was even uncovered of doctoral-level scientists being recruited by ISIS to study scientific journals concerning biological and chemical science.
“For both the jihadists and the far righters, the pandemic has offered new opportunities and methods for unleashing violence against the objects of their hate,” Prof. Kruglanski concludes. “Though everyone’s attention is naturally drawn to the immense health and economic challenges that the pandemic poses, we cannot ignore the potential storm of intensified world terrorism that seems to be gathering in its shadows.”
The study is published in Global Security: Health, Science and Policy.