Lockdown and Islamist Extremism: A Greater Risk of Online Radicalisation

For over a month now, millions of Europeans have lived under lockdowns as a result of governments’ proactive measures to curb the spread of Covid-19, a disease which has wreaked havoc across the world. Boredom and anxiety, coupled with an increasing use of the internet as one of our remaining basic commodities, have made us become more than ever vulnerable to online radicalisation as many seek distraction from an unprecedented health crisis. The threat of terrorism which prevailed in Europe before the spread of the virus has not disappeared as a result of quarantines and self-isolations, but instead jihadist propaganda remains very active to this day, and is still being generated, spread and shared on various social media platforms aimed at targeting the most vulnerable members of our society. Current strict measures might positively contribute to fighting the spread of the Coronavirus, but will most certainly contribute towards the spread of Islamist extremism.

It is too early to say if lockdowns in Europe will have an effect on terrorist activities on the continent. The spread of jihadist material has seemingly not increased according to various European security services, but there is evidence which suggests that Islamist groups are using the current crisis as a way of further radicalising vulnerable people at risk of being groomed by extremist individuals and groups, as well as inciting followers to take action in their respective countries of residence.

The virus has killed thousands and has plunged the global economy into total turmoil thereby creating the ideal breeding ground for online radicalisation. Terrorist organisations will most likely be taking advantage of the crisis which they interpret as a divine punishment, or the “wrath of God” against the enemies of Islam and their sinful lives, to carry out new deadly attacks on European soil.

 

Terrorist organisations avoid Europe – A False Hope

A large number of media outlets have reported the Islamic State’s Coronavirus guidelines in response to the pandemic, with the group asking its members to stay away from countries affected by the outbreak while ironically providing followers with useful tips in its al-Naba newsletter on how to avoid falling ill, such as covering the mouth when yawning and sneezing, washing hands frequently and maintaining trust in Allah – a dissemination of health and safety measures which even happened before many Western countries informed their own citizens of such measures.

Additionally, Al-Qaeda for example used this crisis to call on non-Muslims to use their time under lockdowns to learn more about Islam, and on Westerners to convert during the pandemic, while the group’s news agency has called on its affiliates to carry out more attacks against its enemies.

 

“Terrorist organisations such as ISIS are using this current health crisis as a formidable way of advancing their radical agendas, and are urging followers to take advantage of the situation by perpetrating attacks in various Western countries.”

 

Despite recent headlines, jihadist groups have maintained their directives - continue taking the fight to “the Crusader Enemy”. Islamist propaganda generally explains the virus as a punishment from Allah for those following the Western style of life. Terrorist organisations such as ISIS are using this current health crisis as a formidable way of advancing their radical agendas, and are urging followers to take advantage of the situation - of overburdened security forces and of vulnerable health care systems - by perpetrating attacks in various Western countries while governments and military agencies focus primarily on combating the Covid-19 pandemic.

Confinements and monotony have led many people to spend more time on the internet (12-15% increase in internet usage) than they usually would – a situation which is seen by prominent jihadist groups as an opportunity for online recruitment and radicalisation, and a way for these groups to further instigate fear in Western countries. Sweeping strict regulations imposed by governments throughout the world have led many to a daily exposure of growing numbers of conspiracy theories used as a hook to draw in new recruits.

Violent extremist groups are using various social networks to promote their ideologies and incite violence in various countries affected by the Coronavirus which Islamic State followers refer to as a “Soldier of Allah”, and these efforts will reportedly intensify in the months to come.

 

European security services remain on high alert

Terrorist groups’ capacity to carry out major attacks from abroad remain more than ever limited due to strict measures to contain the Covid-19 pandemic. However, border controls, strict containment measures and transport restrictions have little effect on the proliferation of jihadist propaganda material inciting followers to take action - material spread on extremist social networks which completely disregards sovereign borders and which sees this jihad as “the best guarantee of protecting oneself from the epidemic”.

The mobilisation of overburdened security forces to contain the disease is stretching their capabilities to the limit and is further conducive to future terrorist projects. The amount of resources allocated towards the fight against the disease has led some experts to fear a shift in priorities of Western governments and their relevant security agencies.

 

“Intelligence agencies remain vigilant and fully mobilised in the fight against terrorism and online radicalisation as evidenced by a number of recent arrests in France, Germany and Spain of Islamists extremists.”

 

This has however been denied by many governments whose respective intelligence agencies remain vigilant and fully mobilised in the fight against terrorism and online radicalisation as evidenced by a number of recent arrests in France, Germany and Spain of Islamists extremists, including ISIS followers, plotting terror attacks on European soil.

 

Now is not the time to let your guard down!

Governments need to act with utmost urgency and prudence. Extremists are using the current health crisis as a window of opportunity to spread their radical ideology online in the hope of recruiting more militants or simply to gain sympathy while further contributing to the current climate of fear experienced in many Western nations. The technique is far from novel; Jihadi groups have countless times sought to exploit deadly disasters describing them as acts of God punishing western society while calling on followers to carry out attacks amid the state of destabilisation.

 

“The threat of domestic terrorism as a result of isolation during the pandemic could be increasing.”

 

Extremism is a disease which has proved as resilient as any other deadly virus, and capable of capitalising on the West’s current period of vulnerability. The threat of domestic terrorism as a result of isolation during the pandemic could be increasing as lockdowns have provided a window of opportunity for Islamist extremists to spread their violent agenda via social media while isolation have made people less resilient to online radicalisation.

The recent stabbing attack in France in which two people were killed is a stark reminder that terrorism is an enduring threat, and the current pandemic should not distract us from what may loom ahead as thousands in Europe have been exposed to Jihadist material online. The moral and media impact of a major attack during lockdowns or as governments lessen the strict rules they imposed over a month ago could have grave security implications for Europe and would act as a major boost to Islamists’ narratives.

Rising unemployment, strict quarantine measures and lockdown fatigue are key ingredients for online grooming tactics. More than ever, governments will need to include in their disaster management plans a clear strategy aimed at preventing the acceleration of Jihadi discourses online which seek to exploit the situation.

About author: Jean-Patrick Clancy

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