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Activity Shows Terror Groups and Right-Wing Extremists Were Undeterred by COVID-19 Pandemic

Terrorist movements continued to maintain their operational capacity and responded to the virus based on the pillars of their ideologies.

Now in its third year, the COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc on the world population with 350 million confirmed cases, more than 5.6 million deaths (as of February 9, 2022), and widespread geopolitical and socioeconomic disruptions. Government leaders have prioritized the implementation of mitigation measures – including vaccines, booster shots, masking, social distancing, and drug therapies – yet the prospect of new variants arising remains an ongoing threat. The pandemic also has prompted many people to change how they live and work and some to carry on as usual, while still others have used the pandemic to their advantage. Organized crime groups, for example, have found ways to thrive during the pandemic by ramping up human trafficking and antiquities trafficking. The World 2020 Drug Report and the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime have underlined how drug trafficking groups and various criminal organizations have taken advantage of the consequences COVID-19 and expanded their capacities.

Much less is known, however, about any changes in the activity level of terrorist organizations during the pandemic. Scant research has been done on the topic. One such study, which used 2019 data from the Global Terrorism Database, found a tremendous decrease in the number of terrorist attacks in urban areas and a slight increase in terrorist activity in conflict zones. An examination of data in the U.S. State Department’s 2020 Annex of Statistical Information, published in December 2021, indicated a 13 percent increase in the total number of terrorist attacks across all countries between 2019 and 2020, which could lead one to conclude that the COVID-19 pandemic has little to no impact on terrorism.

How individual countries fare in terms of the effect of COVID-19 on terrorist activity is problematic. The reliability of COVID-19 data varies from one country to another. The Western world, for example, is believed to have the most known cases, primarily because of widespread testing and transparency in the release of COVID-19 data. Some countries lack testing, making it difficult to get a clear picture on the number of cases, while other countries manipulate the numbers to their advantage. Reported here are the results of a study that analyzed the impacts of COVID-19 by the types of terrorism included in the 2020 Annex of Statistical Information.

Global Impacts of COVID-19

COVID-19 and its variants are among the most contagious viruses that scientists have seen, fueling a pandemic that has had dramatic social and economic impacts unheard of until now. The decline in growth of the world Gross Domestic Product (GDP), for example, is the greatest it has been since the end of World War II. The global economy contracted 3.5 percent in 2020, and every country covered by the International Monetary Fund reported negative growth in 2020. Manufacturing countries were hit especially hard and recorded rapid declines in GDP. Lockdowns and quarantines led to fatigue among people unable to leave their homes to socialize or go to offices as they were accustomed to doing. Reports of mental health issues among people at all socioeconomic levels increased as people felt more and more isolated. At the same time, the number of COVID-19 cases increased worldwide, rising from around 66,000 on March 30, 2020, to around 300,000 on July 30, and to around 596,000 on December 30. When omicron became the dominant variant, the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases skyrocketed.

The Impacts of COVID-19 on Terrorism

Terrorism continues to be a significant security issue worldwide. Efforts to stem the tide of terrorism have been met with some success, though the problem persists. The Western world, for example, has been able to counter several coordinated attacks by jihadist terrorist organizations on Western soil. At the same time, however, the rising number of ISIS- and al-Qaeda-affiliated groups operating in Asia, the Middle East, and Africa has threatened not only local and regional security but also global security. Added to the mix are Iranian-backed Shia groups that are active in the Middle East and Latin America; a growing number of organized right-wing extremist groups in the Western world, including those involved in the January 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol; antifascist and anarchist groups in the United States and Western world; and revolutionary and far-left groups that operate in Latin America and Asia. Some of these groups are listed among the top 10 terrorist groups responsible for the largest number of terrorism incidents in 2020, indicating that the COVID-19 pandemic had little effect on stemming the groups’ collective activity. Figure 1 shows the total number of terrorist incidents and fatalities in 2019 and 2020. During that period, the number of incidents rose 13 percent and fatalities 12 percent. The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on different types of terrorism are described in the sections that follow.

Activity Shows Terror Groups and Right-Wing Extremists Were Undeterred by COVID-19 Pandemic Homeland Security Today

Figure 1: Comparison of Terrorist Incidents and Fatalities, 2019 and 2020

Revolutionary Terrorism

Revolutionary terrorism is a global movement expressing dissatisfaction in the wake of anticolonialism and refers to movements designed to overthrow and replace a political system. Modern revolutionary terrorism reached its zenith in the 1960s and 1970s and involved mainly left-wing and Marxist movements. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) founded in 1964 and Shining Path founded in Peru in 1970 are two examples of revolutionary terrorism in Latin America, while the New People’s Army (NPA) founded in 1968 in the Philippines and the communist and Maoist-oriented India-Naxalites founded in 1967 are two examples of revolutionary terrorism in Asia. Today, NPA and Naxalites are two active revolutionary groups.

Revolutionary groups have taken advantage of worsening economic conditions and weak government responses in the countries where they operate by telling their fighters that the government has presented more opportunities to wealthy people than to poor people. In India, for example, a nationwide lockdown and local restrictions amid the COVID-19 pandemic have prompted workers and day laborers to leave large cities and return to their villages, driving up the unemployment rate and causing economic hardship for many. A common belief among the Naxals is that they have been hurt especially hard by the economic effects of the pandemic compared with the country’s billionaires, who have managed to increase their wealth 35 percent during the nationwide lockdown. Sensing an opportunity, the Naxals have attempted to persuade the returning villagers to join the ranks of the India-Naxalites organization by promising them a better future. The effort was at least somewhat effective. The India-Naxalites slightly increased their capacity and perpetrated 298 attacks in 2020, which is close to the number of attacks the group perpetrated in 2019 (see Figure 2).

Activity Shows Terror Groups and Right-Wing Extremists Were Undeterred by COVID-19 Pandemic Homeland Security Today

Figure 2: Comparison of Terrorist Incidents by India-Naxalites and the New People’s Army (NPA), 2019 and 2020

In the Philippines, a significant number of NPA fighters who surrendered or were captured by the Philippine military tested positive for COVID-19. According to military sources, COVID-19 spread quickly among the members of the NPA; therefore, the army launched a “vaccine for surrender” campaign for NPA fighters. The NPA was suspicious of the campaign’s true intentions and warned its members not to join the military’s vaccination campaign. Instead, the NPA carried on as usual, perpetrating enough attacks in 2020 to place the group among the top 10 terrorist organizations in that category. Much like the India-Naxalites, the NPA increased its capacity slightly in 2020 (see Figure 2).

In Colombia, the government ordered one of the longest and strictest COVID-19 lockdowns in the world; however, the measure has failed to contain the virus and, in 2020, Colombia was included among the countries with the highest number of COVID-19 cases. The economic and social fallout from the spread of the virus provided fertile ground for revolutionary groups, such as FARC-dissident groups and the National Liberation Army, to recruit more children into their ranks. Social confinement and school closures made more children vulnerable to enticement by revolutionary groups. The efforts were successful. In the first half of 2020, for example, armed groups recruited 190 minors – a marked increase from the 200 minors recruited in all of 2019. For its part, the National Liberation Army has hosted parties used messaging apps to entice children into its ranks during the pandemic.

Right-Wing Extremism

Right-wing extremism is defined as the use of threats or intentional violence by non-state actors and individuals (often referred to as lone actors) with goals that include declaration of the superiority of one race and/or ethnicity over all other races and/or ethnicities, opposition to the government authority, anger at women, and outrage against single issues such as abortion, the environment, or animal rights. This type of terrorism manifests as racism, hatred of minorities, antisemitism, xenophobia, and Islamophobia. More specifically, far-right groups in the United States typically express contempt for the federal government, emphasize social hierarchy, and are composed of white supremacists and anti-government extremists.

Right-wing extremism has received increased attention in the Western world. Although the European Union, the United States, and Canada have reported a handful of right-wing terrorist attacks, right-wing extremism has become a major security threat for these countries. The insurrection targeting the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, served as a galvanizing event and brought to the forefront concerns about how right-wing extremist groups can come together, make a plan, use social and digital media, and dare to attack one of the strongest symbols of democracy in the world. Parler, a conservative alternative to Twitter, played a key role in the ability of far-right groups to not only plan but also inspire and recruit thousands of like-minded people from across the country to come to Washington, D.C., and storm the Capitol on the day that a joint session of Congress was convened to certify Joe Biden as the winner of the Electoral College vote.

Far-right groups in the United States have been quite vocal in their response to the COVID-19 pandemic, especially in terms of refusing to abide by efforts intended to mitigate the spread of the virus. These groups have used the COVID-19 pandemic to call for violence, spread debunked conspiracy theories, engage in hate speech, and claim that democracy is a failed system. Much like the January 6 insurrectionists, far-right groups use digital platforms to disseminate extremist content and call for coordinated campaigns against perceived enemies. The platforms of choice range from unregulated imageboard sites (such as 8chan and 4chan), to censorship-free discussion platforms (such as Voat), to encrypted messaging channels (such as Telegram). Incendiary content transmitted through these channels has triggered acts of violent extremism and shows how far-right groups can achieve their goals of attacking law enforcement, liberals, Muslims, Jews, Black Americans and others deemed to be their enemies. Telegram, for example, has seen an exponential increase in the number of Telegram channels associated with white supremacy and racism. The Boogaloo movement, a “decentralized ideological network that believes in a coming second U.S. civil war and espouses anti-government and anti-law enforcement rhetoric,” has grown 800 percent just in the month of March 2020. QAnon, which the FBI labeled as a domestic terrorism threat in 2019, espouses an ideology based on the belief that the United States and the rest of the world are controlled by a “powerful group of pedophiles who worship Satan and control the Democratic Party, the media, and Hollywood.” The number of QAnon followers on Telegram increased almost 100 percent in March 2020.

The words and actions of far-right groups have pushed the U.S. Department of Justice to release a memorandum that refers to coronavirus as a “biological agent” and charges certain acts related to COVID-19 as federal crimes of terrorism. The memorandum aims to punish ill-intentioned individuals who seek to spread the virus to others and violate social-distance guidelines. The politicians who are influential among far-right groups have made the situation worse. For example, after former U.S. President Donald Trump labeled coronavirus as the “Chinese virus” in 2020, online anti-Asian hate speech and physical attacks on Asian Americans increased.

The situation in the European Union was similar, with the number of arrests of right-wing extremists increasing in 2020 compared with 2019. For example, the number of total arrests rose from 21 in 2019 to 34 in 2020. Germany was the leading country with 14 arrests in 2020 compared with no arrests in 2019. The Netherlands recorded 6 arrests in 2020 compared with 2 arrests in 2019.

The author’s database confirmed the increases in the number of attacks by right-wing groups. The database collected information on attacks by lone actors according to their chosen ideology (i.e., right wing, jihadist, ethnonationalist, and anarchist) and whose acts meet the criteria for individually committed violence. Accordingly, the number of right-wing attacks worldwide rose from 15 in 2019 to 27 in 2020.

Jihadist Terrorism

Jihadist groups are influenced by their strict interpretation of the Qur’an and their twisted version of Islamic law. They use religious rhetoric not only to justify their goals but also to assert that the coronavirus is a punishment from God. The groups have devoted an enormous amount of their attention to the COVID-19 pandemic, generating propaganda based on their beliefs and even encouraging their followers in some countries to intentionally spread the virus. This heightened focus on the pandemic, however, did not diminish the groups’ desire or ability to carry out terrorist attacks. For jihadist groups, it was business as usual.

As the 2020 Annex of Statistical Information shows, COVID-19 did not reduce significantly the attack capacity of jihadist groups in 2020. The Taliban, Boko Haram, ISIS-Core, and two groups affiliated with al-Qaeda (Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) in Syria and al-Shabaab in Somalia) perpetrated almost the same number of attacks in 2020 as they did in 2019 (see Figure 3). ISIS-Core’s province in the Democratic Republic of Congo (ISIS-DRC) was the outlier; attacks by this group increased almost 300 percent in 2020 compared with 2019, despite the impacts of COVID-19.

Activity Shows Terror Groups and Right-Wing Extremists Were Undeterred by COVID-19 Pandemic Homeland Security Today

Figure 3: Jihadist Groups Listed Among the Top 10 Terrorist Groups Responsible
for the Largest Number of Terrorist Incidents, 2019 and 2020 (Note: ISIS-DRC
is ISIS-Core in the Democratic Republic of Congo.)

According to ISIS-Core, the pandemic has been “God’s wrath upon the West, and the disease itself is a ‘soldier of Allah.’” In its official online publication, al-Naba, ISIS states that the pandemic has killed more Americans than the attacks of 9/11, which shows that America is not powerful and invincible. In another ISIS online publication in India, the group called for its supporters to spread the virus, saying that every member of the organization and their families can contribute to Allah’s cause by becoming the carriers and that it is guaranteed that devout Muslims will not be sickened because no disease can harm even a hair of a believer.

Al-Qaeda-affiliated groups are no different from ISIS in their responses to COVID-19. For example, the Turkestan Islamic Party, a Uyghur jihadist group operating in Syria, claimed that the outbreak of COVID-19 in China was a punishment from Allah for the Chinese oppression of the Uyghur minority in Xinjiang. Another al-Qaeda-affiliated group, Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, calls the virus an apocalyptic harbinger that will cause political and economic collapse and provide a geopolitical opportunity for their aims. At the same time, HTS released on its media outlet, al-Ebaa, a poster that instructed the group’s followers to comply with COVID-19 mitigation and safety measures in the territories under its control.

Furthermore, al-Shabaab used conspiracy theories in its approach to the COVID-19 pandemic, saying that crusader forces intentionally spread the virus in Somalia. It should be noted that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in Iran, which was designated as a terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department in 2019, claimed that the virus is the result of a Zionist biological terror attack.

The Taliban said that God sent COVID-19 in response to the sins and disobedience of mankind, though the group hinted that it was concerned about the reckless spread of the virus in government prisons where Taliban militants were being held. The Taliban also issued security guidelines intended to counter the spread of the virus and asked that more tests be made available throughout Afghanistan.

Despite the jihadist groups’ expressed or implied concerns about the virus, they proceeded with business as usual during the pandemic by increasing their presence on social media to radicalize and recruit into their ranks as many people as possible. At the same time, two of the jihadist groups – the Taliban and HTS – exploited the pandemic operationally by providing government services and medical aid to locals. Using a hearts-and-minds approach, both groups sought to improve their credibility and popularity and show that they are better prepared to meet the challenges of COVID-19 than the government officials in the countries where two group operate.

Conclusion

To conclude, the 2020 Annex of Statistical Information shows that COVID-19 did not reduce the number of terrorist attacks; instead, such attacks increased 13 percent worldwide. Terrorist organizations continued to maintain their operational capacity and responded to the virus based on the pillars of their ideologies. Whereas jihadist groups used their religious ideology to justify their causes and benefit from the impacts of the pandemic by declaring that the virus is a punishment from God, right-wing groups in the United States used digital platforms to spread debunked conspiracy theories and target their perceived enemies. Revolutionary groups were more concerned about the economic impact of the virus and weak or ineffective government responses to the disease. Pandemics – regardless of the precipitating disease –have significant negative impacts on the social, political, and economic systems of the affected countries. Immune to these effects appear to be terrorist organizations and right-wing extremist groups. They simply carry on, business as usual.

Mahmut Cengiz
Dr. Mahmut Cengiz is an Associate Professor and Research Faculty with Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption Center (TraCCC) and the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. Dr. Cengiz has international field experience where he has delivered capacity building and training assistance to international partners in the Middle East, Asia, and Europe. He also has been involved in research projects for the Brookings Institute, European Union, and various U.S. agencies. Dr. Cengiz regularly publishes books, articles and Op-eds. He is the author of six books, a number of articles, and book chapters regarding terrorism, organized crime, smuggling, terrorist financing, and trafficking issues. His 2019 book, “The Illicit Economy in Turkey: How Criminals, Terrorists, and the Syrian Conflict Fuel Underground Economies,” analyzes the role of criminals, money launderers, and corrupt politicians and discusses the involvement of ISIS and al-Qaida-affiliated groups in illicit economy. Dr. Cengiz holds two masters and two doctorate degrees from Turkey and the United States. His Turkish graduate degrees are in sociology. He has a master's degree from the School of International Service Program of American University and a Ph.D. from the School of Public Policy program of George Mason University. He is teaching Terrorism, American Security Policy and Narco-Terrorism courses at George Mason University.

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