“As we all know, the coronavirus pandemic has cast its gloomy, painful shadow over the entire world,” al-Qaeda declared in a recent communique from leadership titled “The Way Forward,” adding “there appears to be no light at the end of the dark tunnel the world finds itself in.”
“People are stuck in their homes, shops and businesses are being forced to shut down. The global economy is paralyzed and the world utterly perplexed by this predicament,” the terror group continued. “Everything that was once taken for granted lies now in grave jeopardy. Economies of major nations lie in ruin as they find their entire state apparatus, including army and security, pinned down by an invisible enemy. Norms of social behavior, lifestyles, everything is being redefined.”
Al-Qaeda declared COVID-19 to be “a powerful tsunami” striking the American economy and way of life, and their glee in the virus’ impact – even though their own cells and lone operatives are not immune to contracting the disease – and “way forward” thinking about how to capitalize on the chaos are circulating among extremists from isolated ISIS provinces to white supremacists in the heart of viral hotspots.
Not ones to miss the chance to exploit a crisis, terrorists are looking at ways to take advantage of instability, increase recruitment and sympathizers among the vulnerable and terrified, encourage conventional and biological attacks and, in the words of al-Qaeda, “turn this calamity into a cause for uniting our ranks.”
Spinning Their Own Vulnerability
While rejoicing in the misery of countries hit hard by COVID-19, terror groups have shown some concern about their members taking proper measures to inhibit spread of the virus. ISIS has followed the coronavirus since the outbreak began in China, highlighting in a January issue of their weekly Al-Naba newsletter “growing concern about the spread of the infectious virus,” adding that “this could push the World Health Organization into an emergency.” The next month, ISIS warned that “the world is interconnected” and transportation “would facilitate the transfer of diseases and epidemics.” In an infographic, the terror group warned that “the healthy should not enter the land of the epidemic and the afflicted should not exit from it,” and followers should “cover the mouth when yawning and sneezing” and wash their hands.
While continuing to wage attacks with bombers and gunmen not practicing social distancing, the Taliban have made a show of their COVID-19 awareness campaign events, distributing masks, soap and informational pamphlets in areas under their control. They’ve also warned people against price gouging or hoarding during the crisis.
While acknowledging their vulnerability to the virus (though some followers may believe that they will be divinely protected from COVID-19), terror groups can also be expected to put a martyrdom-style spin on casualties within their ranks. If their operatives contract the virus and die in custody, they will pin narrative blame on their captors and encourage violent retribution. If they survive the outbreak, they’ll tout this as proof that the almighty was in their corner.
Boosting Core Messaging
At the core of extremism is the “our might is right” messaging, underpinned by claims that a divine mission justifies their violent actions. While acknowledging that the virus crosses borders freely and endangers those they see as friends as well as foes, extremists are using the coronavirus to tell followers – and potential recruits – that a pandemic act of God isn’t a call for them to repent from their brutal ways but a golden opportunity to double down on the belief that their cruelty is sanctioned by a higher power.
Al-Qaeda said that the coronavirus striking the Muslim world was “a consequence of our own sins and our distance from the divine methodology,” blaming “obscenity and moral corruption” that was “widespread” and the imprisonment of jihadists in Muslim-majority countries before the pandemic. The terror group compared the current crisis to Jonah being swallowed by the whale, and declared that “now is the time to spread the correct Aqeedah [creed], call people to jihad in the Way of Allah, and revolt against oppression and oppressors.”
Al-Qaeda added a call for westerners to “reflect on the wisdom hidden in the havoc wrecked by a weak intruder” and embrace Islam because “if someone sneezes in China, those in New York suffer from its consequences.” They added that “Islam is a hygiene-oriented religion” that “lays great stress on principles of prevention so as to protect one from all forms of disease.” Their Taliban allies have declared the virus to be “a decree of Allah” that has to be dealt with “in accordance with the teachings of the Holy Prophet,” with recitation of prayers, more Quran reading and giving alms for repentance.
Exploiting the Economic Toll
Al-Qaeda has long focused on encouraging debilitating actions that strike the west in the pocketbook, and COVID-19 has given a shot in the arm to this consistent messaging. The As-Sahab statement noted that “a long-term recession is no longer a remote possibility” after “Trump could not stop bragging about economic growth,” and the piece spent extensive time ruminating on the health of the stock market and what the real effects of the stimulus package would be.
A September article in al-Qaeda’a English-language One Ummah magazine encouraged “Muslims, specifically specialists in economy and finance, to find loopholes in the American economic structure and find new ways of exploiting America’s economic vulnerabilities,” essentially continuing the goals of the attack on the World Trade Center. Al-Qaeda argued that their economic focus shows they “understand the nature of the war against America,” and said after the 9/11 attacks Osama bin Laden “would often inquire about the economic impact of the attacks, unlike most others who would limit the discussion to casualties.”
This will be al-Qaeda’s greatest fascination with the pandemic, and a greater messaging takeaway for the terror group than casualty counts. But they aren’t the only ones counting the dollars and cents: A Joint Intelligence Bulletin last week from the Department of Homeland Security, FBI and National Counterterrorism Center warned that some white supremacists seeking to exploit the COVID-19 crisis claim “government responses to the pandemic could crash the global economy, hasten societal collapse, and lead to a race war.”
White Supremacist and Militia Boosts
Among the extremist propaganda collected by HSToday since the beginning of the pandemic is a recent graphic distributed online saying, “COVID-19. If you have the bug give a hug, spread the flu to every Jew. Holocough.” White supremacists have been filling online forums and social media with conspiracy theories blaming Jews and ethnic minorities for the coronavirus, and groups that paper campuses and other locations with hate fliers and stickers have been including the virus in their propaganda.
Law enforcement agencies were also warned in the recent Joint Intelligence Bulletin about the potential for violent reactions to conspiracy theories circulating about the pandemic, including the branding of the deadly virus as a government hoax, and noted that militia extremists have discussed online preparing for a potentially violent response.
Some stay-at-home orders will limit the mobility of extremists and mitigate “some of the risk of mass attack violence in public places,” but minority-operated businesses that remain open and other exposed racial or religious minorities “are likely at particular risk.” The bulletin predicted that “as the number of Americans affected by the COVID-19 pandemic grows, the threat posed by [domestic violent extremists] and hate crime actors towards minorities and other targets of their violence will likely increase” and extremists “will likely continue to seek to exploit the pandemic by using violence themselves or encouraging others on social media and messaging applications to use violence.”
Turning to Lone-Attacker Networks
Terror camps and cells aren’t paragons of social distancing and can be vulnerable to the spread of the virus, especially among loosely connected units integrated into the society around them. But modern terror by design, fed and nourished by online incitement and planning, is decentralized and relies on lone attackers to attack their native surroundings. Much of the extremist messaging since the advent of the pandemic has centered on whipping up these dispersed operatives to take advantage of crisis and take action.
An article in the second issue of The Voice of Hind, a magazine published and distributed online by ISIS supporters in India, stressed that “militaries and police have been deployed in their streets and alleys, thus making them an easy target,” and jihadists should “use this opportunity to strike them with a sword or a knife or even a rope is enough to stop their breath, fill the streets with their blood.” Attacks during a chaotic pandemic, they said, accomplish a goal to “make it worse for them.”
There’s also a concern that those veering toward extremism could be pushed over the edge by the pandemic, as noted in a pre-Easter message to the faith-based community from DHS Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) Assistant Director for Infrastructure Security Brian Harrell. As “there has been an increase in online hate speech intended to encourage violence or use the ongoing situation as an excuse to spread hatred,” he wrote, “stressors caused by the pandemic may contribute to an individual’s decision to commit an attack or influence their target of choice.”
White supremacist Timothy Wilson, killed last month in an FBI shootout as his alleged plan to bomb a Missouri hospital was disrupted, linked the plot to the pandemic, according to a Joint Intelligence Bulletin, stating that “if he contracts COVID-19, he would conduct a ‘lone wolf attack’ and ‘try to take out as many as I can during that time, but I don’t want to sit in a hospital bed and die, doing nothing.’” Wilson wanted to “attack high value targets if the government issued martial law and quarantine orders as a result of COVID-19.”
Taking Advantage of Unstable Regions
“The last thing they want,” ISIS said in their al-Naba newsletter last month, is for jihadists to be currently preparing new attacks “similar to the strikes of Paris, London, Brussels and other places” while the security apparatus is focused on responding to – or has its ranks reduced by – coronavirus. Terrorists “must intensify the pressure” while countries are weakened as financial difficulties and “preoccupations with protecting their countries” will weaken efforts to confront terrorism, ISIS predicted.
Last month the leader of U.S. Africa Command, Gen. Stephen Townsend, warned the House Armed Services Committee that international and African efforts in West Africa and the Sahel region “are not getting the job done” as ISIS and al-Qaeda have even recently teamed up. “ISIS and Al Qaeda are on the march in West Africa,” he said. “They’re having success and the international efforts are not.”
While countries in this vulnerable region are currently reporting cases in the hundreds instead of the thousands, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned African leaders in recent days that they can expect an “imminent surge” of cases. And while the wave has been slow to arrive, it would be met by a staggering lack of ventilators and other critical resources.
An Africa hit wouldn’t be the only coronavirus calamity terrorists seek to exploit. Iraq is well aware of the potential for ISIS to make a resurgence there, buoyed not only by security forces being preoccupied with or hobbled by COVID-19 conditions but by the hope that they’ll soon get back onetime fighters from crowded prisons.
Using COVID to Promote Bioterror
UN Secretary-General António Guterres told members of the Security Council last week that “the weaknesses and lack of preparedness exposed by this pandemic provide a window onto how a bioterrorist attack might unfold – and may increase its risks.”
“Non-state groups could gain access to virulent strains that could pose similar devastation to societies around the globe,” Guterres added.
At least in their messaging, terror groups are right there. If nature can wreak such havoc, they tell followers, imagine what deliberate distribution of such agents can do. Both ISIS and al-Qaeda jumped on the news of deadly wildfires over the past few years to brand them as divine retribution and encourage loyalists to not wait for an act of God and start blazes on their own.
Terror groups have long encouraged or shown distinct curiosity in their communications about branching out into bio, agricultural or chemical attacks. ISIS supporters – while not claiming responsibility for sticking needles in fruit – used Australia’s 2018 strawberry contamination crisis to gin up more threats and suggestions, vowing to make westerners “check everything and anything you eat out of fear, horror and terror.”
Al-Faqir, one of the ISIS-backing media outlets, recently re-released a 2018 video discussing how to wage a bioattack on the West “that cannot be detected or tracked” by authorities. “Sprinkle the liquid substances or the basics of bacteria with drinking water to take effect automatically,” the video advised would-be jihadists. “Sprinkle the crushed material on exposed fruit and public foods or scatter them in the air in crowded places — with caution.”