Written by Mariami Jintcharadze
The European Union (EU) is experiencing a tough battle against the coronavirus pandemic, which has turned out to be an invisible threat for all of humanity. Even so, the pandemic has not stopped radical far-right and terrorist groups from achieving their cause, on the contrary, it seems to have been an effective tool in the hands of those wishing to hurt their so-called enemies.
On October 16, 2020, a young Chechen refugee beheaded a school teacher in France who showed a cartoon of prophet Muhamed to children. Islam prohibits images of the prophet, considering them to be idolatrous; this school teacher’s actions appealed to freedom of expression. On October 29, 2020, a young Tunisian man killed three people in the city of Nice, which highlighted the continued Tunisian struggle with jihadists. (“Nice attack points”, 2020) On November 2, 2020, a young “Islamist terrorist” killed 4 and wounded 23 in Vienna, drastically altering the perceived safety of the country in a matter of minutes. (“Vienna shooting”, 2020)
The slogans “I am Charlie” and “I am more than ever Charlie” have been circulating on social media in France ever since the history teacher Samuel Paty was murdered, a murder with the same motivation as the terrorist attacks against the offices of the Charlie Hebdo magazine. (Bryant, 2020) Videos of the atrocity in Vienna have spread across social media, suggesting the vulnerability of ordinary people. (“Vienna shooting”, 2020)
Terrorism of many kinds remains one of the greatest security threats for the European Union. The COVID-19 crisis is expected to further exacerbate the risk of terrorism, criminal offences and homicide cases due to psychological and mental problems associated with the pandemic. The American Psychological Association reports that some of the country’s youngest individuals (age groups 13-17; 18-23) are experiencing unprecedented uncertainty, elevated stress and increased rates of depression due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (“Stress in America 2020”, 2020) Similar results have been reported by the Belgian public health institute, Sciensano, which claimed that people between the ages of 16 to 24 are among those most affected. (“Concerns are raised”, 2020) Thus, realizing adolescents’ vulnerability to radicalization as well as their age of attack is important to direct and drive more attention towards de-radicalization efforts.
The post-pandemic world might seem to be more challenging in terms of terrorism. Yet given the current context, close cooperation on international, regional as well as on local levels is of the utmost importance.
COVID-19 and Counter-Terrorism
The pandemic has emerged as the most dominating force in extremist communications, forums and chat rooms online. The crisis has turned into an additional tool for ideology, serving both extreme right-wing terrorist groups and ISIL/Daesh groups. The former attempts to exploit protest movements to spread xenophobic or anti-Semitic narratives, whilst the latter seems to focus mainly on sowing seeds of distrust in public authorities. (“Impact of Covid-19”, 2020)
United Nations Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute (UNICRI) published the report named “Stop the virus of dis-information: the malicious use of social media by the terrorist, violent extremists and criminal groups during the COVID-19 pandemic”, where researchers examined three groups of non-State actors: right-wing extremists, groups associated with terrorist organizations and organised crime groups. The report indicated that groups associated with ISIS or Daesh terror groups and al-Qaeda called on ISIS members to act as “biological bombs” by “deliberately spreading the disease among the organisation’s enemies”. On the other side, right-wing extremist groups created and spread conspiracy theories to blame immigrants for spreading the virus and called their followers to cough on local minorities and thus spread the virus among them. (“Stop the virus of disinformation”, 2020) “The UNICRI researchers identified several instruments to debunk disinformation and misinformation, including data science tools, fact-checking apps and artificial intelligence but warned that technology countermeasures alone cannot stop the abuse of social media.” (“Extortion, bio-warfare and terrorism”, 2020) The versatility of misleading information complicates the technological race against it, but over the past decade, progress has been made towards countering misleading depictions.
The United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR) published a factsheet named “Impact of COVID-19 on violent extremism and terrorism” where the institute distinguished new challenges (negative trends) in terms of 1) preventing and countering violent extremism and 2) countering terrorism:
Preventing and Countering Violent Extremism
- Increased spread of disinformation, conspiracy theories and propaganda – instilling mistrust in authorities;
- Increased recruitment online – social media and other online forums. Young people remain particularly vulnerable;
- Backfire of preventive COVID-19 lockdown measures – preventive COVID-19 measures through force could lead to further tensions and disfranchisement of parts of the population. (“Impact of Covid-19”, 2020)
- Modified strategies for violent attacks – targeting critical infrastructures such as hospitals or supermarkets;
- Halted and reduced international security assistance missions – reduced support to training activities for military and police forces may severely affect the capacities of local security forces in the fight against terrorism;
- Halted peacebuilding and development initiatives – masking themselves as service providers to ‘at risk’ populations, some violent extremist and terrorist groups may seek to gain trust and appreciation from the population;
- New ways of financing terrorism – as if humanitarian relief. (“Impact of Covid-19”, 2020)
Steady series of small attacks show us that the threat of terrorism is still very much a reality. As described above, the UN gave the guidance of what to expect and in what forms. The rest is down to the competence of countries’ counter-terrorism measures and their implementation.
A wake-up call for the EU
In November 2020, following the terrorist attacks in France, Germany and Austria, EU home affairs ministers agreed to further strengthen their joint efforts to fight terrorism. (“EU’s response”, 2020) EU Security Union Strategy for 2020 to 2025 was one of the first stages taken. The very strategy lays out 4 priorities for action at the EU level:
- First and foremost – “A future-proof security environment” – properly protected and resilient critical infrastructure with adequate detection systems (physical/digital), strengthened public-private cooperation and Joint Cyber Unit;
- Second – “Tackling evolving threats” – digital investigations, countered hybrid threats and enhanced close cooperation with strategic partners (NATO, G7);
- Third – “Protecting Europeans from terrorism and organised crime” – early detection, resilience building, disengagement, rehabilitation and reintegration.
- Last but not least – “A strong European security ecosystem” – more developed Europol and Eurojust as well as enhanced cooperation with Interpol in terms of research and innovation. (“EU Security Union”, 2020).
Besides the EU Security Union Strategy, the EU also elaborated “The Counter-Terrorism Agenda” which aims at the following:
- Identifying vulnerabilities and building capacity to anticipate threats – concentrating on security research;
- Preventing attacks by addressing radicalization – removing terrorist content online, tracing radical ideology;
- Promoting security by design and reducing vulnerabilities to protect cities and people – critical/resilient infrastructure, systematic checks at borders, reducing the vulnerabilities of public spaces;
- Stepping up operational support, prosecution and victims’ rights to better respond to attacks – police cooperation and information exchange. A stronger mandate for Europol through appointing “Counter-Terrorism Coordinator.” (“Security Union”, 2020)
The world was not ready for the so-called “third world war” caused by the pandemic, neither was the EU, which encompasses some of the countries worst hit by COVID-19. Fighting the pandemic alongside countering terrorism is another huge challenge, because of the weaponization of the virus by radical groups. Both the EU Security Union Strategy and the Counter-Terrorism Agenda respond to the challenges arisen due to the current situation, and if implemented properly, have great potential to succeed.
Which group is more dangerous?
As already discussed, both terrorist and far-right extremist groups seem to have been equally successful in the weaponization of the virus. Furthermore, both have also been successful in using children and youngsters in attaining their goals. Sky News took an interview from a former neo-Nazi, who talked about child recruitment by far-right groups through video games and memes with extremist content, wherein children are chasing and shooting people belonging to a particular religion or ethnicity. (Vittozzi, 2020)
It is hard to differentiate and quantify the threat coming from these two radical parties, which one is more dangerous and to whom the counterterrorism efforts should be addressed to. White supremacist and neo-Nazi terrorist groups present the clearest terrorist danger. They expand networks through exploiting algorithms that identify potentially sympathetic people sharing white supremacist and neo-Nazi views online. They favour conspiracy theories like “5G mobile phone signal is a vehicle to transmit the virus” or “The pandemic has been masterminded by Bill Gates to implant microchips into human beings.” (“Extortion, bio-warfare and terrorism”, 2020) As for extremist terrorist groups, the issue of child soldiers and foreign fighters are floating on the surface, making us realize that the past and the same ideological communities raised the next generation of fighters, elaborated their own agendas, strategies and are now again fighting against Western liberal state system. Social media is quite often used to “inspire terrorism” by motivating self-radicalized terrorists to carry out real attacks. “A notable case of inspired terrorism was that of Timothy Wilson, who plotted to detonate a bomb in a hospital caring for coronavirus patients in Kansas City. He died during a firefight with the US Federal Bureau of Investigation in March.” (“Extortion, bio-warfare and terrorism”, 2020)
The challenge of “Terrorism” is still a very real part of our everyday life, sometimes hidden and embodied in different forms, which is hard to discern or predict, but when attacks happen, we tend to see the hardest reality of all. While fighting against terrorism it’s important to fight it from its roots. From the recent terrorist attacks, we can see that most of them have been executed by young people, trained and brainwashed and used as a tool of punishment, either to fight against infidels or to protect infidels from potential threat and influence.
The world has not been ready to respond to challenges that have arisen as a result of terrorism, and even more so terrorism alongside the pandemic. As mentioned above, the measures taken are vitally important, and proper implementation has the potential to change the future of terrorism. Of course, it is unlikely that the measures will eradicate the number of terrorist attacks entirely, but they can certainly have a positive impact by decreasing their number.
- Bryant, L. “Latest Terror Attack in France Sparks Anger, Fear.” Voice of America, October 18, 2020https://www.voanews.com/europe/latest-terror-attack-france-sparks-anger-fear
- “Concerns are raised over the threat of COVID-19 to mental health in Europe.”UN Regional Information Center for Western Europe, May 5, 2020 https://unric.org/en/concerns-are-raised-over-the-threat-of-covid-19-to-mental-health-in-europe/
- “EU Security Union Strategy: connecting the dots in a new security ecosystem.” European Commission,July 24, 2020 https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/ip_20_1379
- “EU’s response to the terrorist threat.” European Council, Council of the European Union, December 14, 2020, https://www.consilium.europa.eu/en/policies/fight-against-terrorism/
- “Extortion, bio-warfare and terrorism: Extremists are exploiting the pandemic says UN report.” UN News, November 18, 2020 https://news.un.org/en/story/2020/11/1077932
- “Impact of Covid-19 on violent extremism and terrorism.” UNITAR Division for Peace, 2020 https://unitar.org/sites/default/files/media/file/COVID-19%20and%20Its%20Impact%20on%20Violent%20Extremism%20and%20Terrorism%20Factsheet_1.pdf
- “Nice attack points to continued Tunisian struggle with jihadists.” Reuters, October 30, 2020 https://www.reuters.com/article/us-france-security-nice-tunisia/nice-attack-points-to-continued-tunisian-struggle-with-jihadists-idUSKBN27E33Z
- “Security Union: A Counter-Terrorism Agenda and stronger Europol to boost the EU’s resilience.” European Commission, December 9, 2020 https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/ip_20_2326
- “Stop the virus of disinformation: the malicious use of social media by the terrorist, violent extremist and criminal groups during the COVID-19 pandemic.” United Nations Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute (UNICRI), November 2020http://www.unicri.it/Publications/Malicious-use-cocialmedia-terrorists-extremists-criminals
- “Stress in America 2020: A National Mental Health Crisis.” American Psychological Association,October 2020) https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/stress
- “Vienna shooting: What we know about ‘Islamist terror’ attack.” BBC News, November 4, 2020, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-54798508
- Vittozzi, K. “Sharp rise in children investigated over far-right links – including youngsters under 10.” Sky News, November 24, 2020 https://news.sky.com/story/sharp-rise-in-children-investigated-over-far-right-links-including-youngsters-under-10-12131565