COVID-19 Can Be ‘Perfect Opportunity’ for Extremist Recruitment, Experts Warn

White supremacists and Islamic extremists are pursuing similar accelerationist aims in which they’re trying to provoke societal collapse, a former white nationalist turned tolerance educator said at a recent forum on how extremists are radicalizing and recruiting individuals.

“Now we’re in the midst of a pandemic where society really is hanging by a thread,” Arno Michaelis, a Parents for Peace member and former white power musician, said at the webinar hosted by the Program on Extremism at The George Washington University, adding that extremists are capitalizing upon COVID-19 with scapegoating and conspiracy theories trying to stoke a sense of separatism.

“White nationalism is based on the fallacious assumption that white people are superior and under threat,” he said. “COVID-19 presents the perfect opportunity for white nationalists to check off those boxes one by one and say the virus was a bioweapon unleashed on them.”

“We need to warn families this is an opportunistic situation for extremists to take advantage of this situation,” said Myrieme Churchill, executive director of Parents for Peace, noting that conspiracy theories from extremists have blamed Jews, China, Bill Gates and more for the virus, crafting “extremely dangerous and toxic conspiracies that can hurt our kids.”

Mubin Shaikh, a Parents for Peace member and former Taliban and al-Qaeda supporter turned deradicalization expert, said ISIS views coronavirus as a “soldier of God” as they’re “anxious to see demise of the world and are really cheering it on one way or the other” and hope to take advantage of weakened states.

Still, “no one is out there saying go deliberately spread the virus; they’ve all been talking about taking precautions,” he noted. In some cases, extremists are seizing on the pandemic as an opportunity to assert authority by providing health services or preventive education on the outbreak, as the Taliban have been doing.

“The way they interpret why this is happening is relevant for all of us,” Shaikh said.

Christopher Buckley, a Parents for Peace member, veteran and former Ku Klux Klan member now focused on intervention efforts, said that children spending their days at home due to coronavirus shutdowns could work to extremist recruiters’ advantage.

“It worries me — a lot of children out of school right now who don’t have the protection of schools, clergy, church to notice and intervene,” he said.

On the flip side, more family time together can also be used to notice radicalization risk factors. “It’s a good opportunity for us to focus on our loved ones and just make sure that they’re healthy,” Buckley said, stressing that the conspiracy theories being peddled by white supremacist recruiters should be countered. “Don’t get angry — try to explain.”

Michaelis emphasized that extremist ideology is “all driven by fear, all driven by ignorance and all seek to create a sense of separation between people… they can’t function without it.”

“Today it is so much easier to sow seeds of fear and distrust and misinformation… people are able to silo themselves according to their confirmation bias,” he said.

The COVID-19 pandemic can be leveraged by counterextremist messaging that focuses on reaching out to each other, showing compassion and the oneness of humanity, Michaelis said.

“The first step of intervention is making that personal connection parallel to recruitment,” he said.

Nadri-Churchill said extremism should be treated “like an addiction that’s hard to break free from.”

“Grooming is a game of seduction where traffickers win trust,” she added.

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Bridget Johnson is the Managing Editor for Homeland Security Today. A veteran journalist whose news articles and analyses have run in dozens of news outlets across the globe, Bridget first came to Washington to be online editor and a foreign policy writer at The Hill. Previously she was an editorial board member at the Rocky Mountain News and syndicated nation/world news columnist at the Los Angeles Daily News. Bridget is a senior fellow specializing in terrorism analysis at the Haym Salomon Center. She is a Senior Risk Analyst for Gate 15, a private investigator and a security consultant. She is an NPR on-air contributor and has contributed to USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, New York Observer, National Review Online, Politico, New York Daily News, The Jerusalem Post, The Hill, Washington Times, RealClearWorld and more, and has myriad television and radio credits including Al-Jazeera, BBC and SiriusXM.

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