The COVID-19 pandemic is having far-reaching political consequences throughout the West and beyond. Violent extremism and terrorism are not exempt from this impact.In this regard, two main dimensions can be schematically distinguished, one relating to extremist beliefs and attitudes (propaganda and grievances) and the other relating to extremist facts (in particular, terrorist activities).
As regards the first dimension, in the short term extremists have quickly sought to exploit the current pandemic for propaganda purposes. Jihadists have attempted to incorporate this new unanticipated phenomenon into their usual narratives, with different rhetorical strategies: for example, by emphasizing that the epidemic originated in China and has hit the West (and Iran) hard, a few jihadist organizations initially presented it as a divine punishment against the disbelievers, for instance, in relation to the treatment of Muslim Uyghurs in China. Far-right extremists have taken advantage of the pandemic to challenge authority, to mobilize sympathizers, sometimes even inciting violence, and to lash out against populations or social categories accused of being responsible for the infection (Chinese nationals or people of Asian origin, who are already at risk of hatecrimes, but also Jews and other religious or ethnic minority groups), on the basis of a usual scapegoat mechanism, often associated with conspiracy theories. Far-left and anarchist extremists have seen in the current emergency a further opportunity to challenge political authority - especially in a phase of concentration of government power - and capitalism, especially when a seeming trade-off between health and business has emerged in several Western countries. In general, movement restrictions that push people to spend even more time on the Internet in isolation can have the effect of increasing the risks of online radicalization.
In the medium term, it can be assumed that in the West the COVID-19 emergency could exacerbate the grievances that underlie various forms of violent extremism. In fact, the pandemic can create or reinforce feelings of vulnerability, fear and frustration that extremist groups and organizations could exploit. For example, although many studies have not found a strong direct causal relationship between poverty and extremism, it is hard to think that the outbreak of a severe economic crisis in several countries may not also represent a potential opportunity for extremists that by definition struggle for a radical change in the political and social order. Against this background, environments and situations characterized by high levels of personal vulnerability and social marginalization could pose further risks; for example, particular attention should be paid to prisons, a crucial place for potential radicalization processes, where measures against the spread of infection (e.g., social distancing) are, to say the least, complex. Furthermore, feelings of frustration and anger due to the crisis could push some individuals or groups to threaten or even carry out acts of political violence even without a clear reference to a specific ideology.
With respect to extremist facts, the pandemic presents both constraints and opportunities for terrorists in the West. Regarding constraints, it can be noted that, for the preparation of an attack, movements of people, especially if at an international level, and, in general, operational face-to-face meetings could be more problematic and infrequent. In addition, in principle, countries under a national lockdown or with serious restrictions could offer a smaller number of easy targets for indiscriminate attacks, particularly in public places or on public transport: large gatherings for concerts and other live performances, as in the jihadist attacks at the Bataclan, Paris, on November 13, 2015 and at the Manchester Arena on May 22, 2017, are likely to be impossible in the coming months, at least in a number of Western countries. In such a context, it may also be more difficult for terrorists to blend into the population. Nevertheless, terrorist targets are of course still available, especially for low-tech attacks by lone actors or small cells. Consider, for example, the suspected jihadist attack in Romans-sur-Isère, France, on April 4, 2020, under the national lockdown: a 33-year-old refugee stabbed a few people, including two customers who were waiting in line outside a bakery. In total, two people died and five were injured.The pandemic could also change the selection of targets and victims. For example, especially in countries with severe restrictions on the movement of ordinary citizens, there could be an increased focus on members of law enforcement. Along these lines, it can be recalled that in France three police officers were injured when a driver deliberately rammed his car into them in the town of Colombes, on April 27, 2020, during the lockdown period. The perpetrator, a 29-year-old French citizen who was arrested on the spot, had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State.
With regard to opportunities, the pandemic could offer new means or at least new ideas for reflection. Terrorists may try to use this infectious disease as a weapon. For example, on April 16, 2020, the Tunisian Interior Ministry stated that an alleged member of a jihadist network and another man had been arrested in the southern part of the country as part of an investigation into a “terrorist plot” aimed at spreading the virus among security forces. Even more serious is the possibility that terrorists could draw inspiration from the current pandemic and the disastrous effects it is creating to build biological weapons, despite all the technical and organizational difficulties associated with this ambition. With respect to target and victim selection, hospitalsandmedical personnel or even individual medical experts might becometargets of violence.
Terrorists could also benefit from the constraints and limitations that counterterrorism activities, and especially the traditional human intelligence component, could suffer during this phase. In the short term, as explicitly stated by IS in its official propaganda, the attention and energies of law enforcement agencies (and, at least in some Western countries, of a part of the military too) could be partly diverted to new responsibilities and tasks related to the coronavirus emergency. Moreover, in the medium and long term, the health crisis and the political, economic and social consequences it is causing could even push governments to change their national security priorities, potentially even to the detriment of the struggle against extremism.
In conclusion, it is clear that in recent months the spread of COVID-19 has established itself as a phenomenon of the greatest importance and could have huge implications and effects in the medium and long term too. It can be argued that this infectious disease is destined to reach and arguably replace terrorism as the great fear of our time, especially during a phase of apparently declining jihadism, at least in the West. Nevertheless, violent extremism and terrorism, associated with different ideologies, will not vanish and the promoters and supporters of these causes will even be able to find new potential opportunities in the crisis.