Across the globe, violence has emerged as a major and persistent side effect of the pandemic that has stricken 12 million people and killed more than 550,000. Even as it overwhelms hospitals, covid-19 is also straining security forces in scores of countries, exacerbating long-standing conflicts while fueling grievances and spurring the growth of extremist groups, security officials and analysts say in a series of new studies and interviews.
The pandemic is creating new opportunities for the Islamic State and other militants in the Middle East and Africa, where hard-hit local governments are being forced to redeploy security forces to battle the disease, the analyses show. In the United States and other Western countries, meanwhile, far-right extremist groups are building entire propaganda campaigns around it, stoking resentments against an array of supposed villains, from immigrants and ethnic minorities to politicians and health officials.
Just as climate change spawns bigger and stronger storms, the pandemic threatens to make nearly every existing security problem even more dangerous, the officials and experts said.
“It is an adverse-force multiplier,” said Ben West, a global analyst for Stratfor, a private intelligence firm that advises governments and corporations on security threats. “If you have a crisis, this is pushing it, making it worse.”
The problems are emerging at a time when many governments are squeezed by extreme financial and logistical challenges stemming from the pandemic. In Yemen, a country already convulsed by civil war, covid-19 has strained government services to the point of collapse, prompting a warning by the United Nations chief of humanitarian affairs last month that the country was poised to “fall off the cliff” without a massive intervention.
In Europe and North America, law enforcement officials and security experts say the pandemic is energizing far-right groups, including some that are openly advocating anti-government and anti-immigrant violence. Since the start of the outbreak, such groups have been able to connect with a large and rapidly growing audience: the legions of the anxious and unemployed, many of whom are confined to their houses with near-limitless time to spend on social media.
A recent analysis prepared by a panel of U.S. and British security experts warned of a growing risk of political violence tied to upcoming elections, fueled by pandemic-linked “grievances, conspiracies and narratives” and amplified in some cases by foreign governments.
“This environment has exacerbated the enabling conditions that foster mobilization to violence,” said the report by London-based CHC Global, a private consulting firm, and the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism in College Park, Md. “We are already seeing the system straining in some jurisdictions to keep unrest at bay.”
While the staggeringly high rates of infection and death have commanded most of the attention, the coronavirus has been steadily racking up other kinds of casualties as well.
Since January, thousands of civil disturbances directly related to the virus have been reported, including nearly 1,800 violent incidents, according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project. The Wisconsin-based nonprofit has kept a running list of events as part of a project called the Covid-19 Disorder Tracker.
The data records hundreds of attacks against health workers, government officials and minority groups, as well as official violence by police and paramilitary forces against peaceful protesters. Some conflicts that quieted in the early months of the outbreak have come roaring back, said Roudabeh Kishi, research director. “The health crisis has only served to further exacerbate many of the original grievances,” Kishi said.
Fear of the coronavirus and anger over government-imposed restrictions have sparked riots in cities from the Middle East to Central Africa to South Asia. In a province in Pakistan, nearly two dozen attacks on hospital workers were recorded, as well as riots over the lack of access to coronavirus tests.
In countries already plagued by conflict, covid-19 appears to be partly to blame for an upsurge in violence in recent months. In Iraq, the Islamic State carried out 566 bombings, shootings and assassinations in the first three months of 2020, nearly twice as many as in the same period last year. The terrorist group has routinely cited the pandemic — which it describes as “divine punishment” against Islam’s enemies — in calling on followers to take advantage of a weakened security environment to carry out such attacks.
Western countries also are explicitly mentioned among the group’s intended targets. In postings to social media sites in recent weeks, Islamic State leaders have predicted the imminent collapse of the United States, crediting covid-19 for helping to achieve a goal set by terrorist leaders decades ago: the draining of resources from the U.S. treasury until Washington is bankrupt and no longer capable of intervening in Middle Eastern affairs.
“This will be an exhausting factor to the unbeliever countries, which could reduce their interest in what is happening in Muslim countries and weakening their ability in fighting them,” the Islamic State’s official newsletter al-Naba said in a June 4 editorial.
Other Islamist groups have highlighted the West’s failures in dealing with the virus as evidence of a greater moral decay. Al-Qaeda’s media arm al-Sahab last month accused U.S. and European governments of abandoning and abusing their elderly, citing the high mortality rates at nursing homes. The article called the deaths of older adults a “shocking” reflection of the “savage reality of Western materialism.”
The postings exemplify what analysts described as a striking shift that has occurred since early spring: Islamists and other extremists have rapidly retooled their online campaigns to incorporate the coronavirus in their core messaging, from recruitment videos to official statements and propaganda. Each group promotes its own conspiracy theories, but nearly all now use the outbreak to vilify enemies, attract recruits and rile up followers, said Ali Soufan, a former FBI counterterrorism agent and now chairman of the Soufan Group, a New York consultancy.
“It’s a buffet of crazy conspiracy theories out there,” Soufan said. “They’re all jumping onto the bandwagon because covid-19 is the big thing now. If you want to get attention, you don’t go to your usual ideological narrative. You go to covid, and you include your ideological narrative within covid.”
The propaganda tidal wave is cresting at a moment when the audience is vastly larger than at any point in history. The quarantining of hundreds of millions of people — most of them with smartphones and Internet connections — ensures that some of the messages will fall on fertile ground.
A U.N. report last month estimated that over 1 billion children and young adults were confined to their houses after the pandemic closed their schools and universities, and many of them were spending more time online. “The increase in the number of young people engaging in unsupervised Internet usage — particularly on gaming platforms — offers terrorist groups an opportunity to expose a great number of people to their ideas,” according to the U.N. report.
The Islamic State has long specialized in crafting videos that are designed to resemble popular computer games. But given the sheer size of the audience, extremists of every ideological stripe can find ways to connect with the vulnerable, said Nicholas Rasmussen, former director of the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center.
“The quarantine lockdown means that everybody is spending a whole lot more time in front of their computers, and that includes young people who constitute a pool of potential targets for radicalization,” said Rasmussen, now the executive director of the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism, an independent organization that works with social media giants such as Twitter and Facebook on keeping extremist content off their pages. Extremists are seizing the opportunity, while also recognizing that a global pandemic “can be used almost without limits to bolster their narrative,” he said.
Inevitably, the messages have inspired some individuals to commit acts of violence, including in the United States.
In March, FBI agents thwarted a plot by a 36-year-old Missouri man to firebomb a hospital where covid-19 patients were being treated. The man, who later was killed in a shootout with federal agents, was described as a “potentially violent extremist” who harbored racist and anti-government views and had also contemplated attacks on a mosque, a synagogue and a majority-black school.
William Braniff, a University of Maryland counterterrorism expert and a co-author of the U.S.-U.K. report on the pandemic’s global security impact, said the Missouri incident exemplified a kind “vigilantism” adopted by some extremists in reaction to pandemic-related restrictions, or as a backlash to the Black Lives Matter protests.
Braniff said the potential for violence in the United States has gradually increased over a series of distinct phases since the start of the coronavirus outbreak. The first stage was typified by the series of large demonstrations by heavily armed protesters who briefly occupied government buildings in several state capitals over the spring to express opposition to virus-related restrictions.
The protesters’ core complaint — the “idea that government overreach was stripping us of our freedoms,” Braniff said — was overlaid in some cases by conspiracy theories that blamed an array of different actors and groups, from Chinese communists, to the so-called deep state, to billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates.
Braniff said he is increasingly worried that polarization over the government’s covid-19 response could lead to politically inspired violence during an emotionally charged election season.
“All of this has created an energy, and I don’t think that energy has been released yet,” Braniff said. “Add the fallout from high unemployment and the re-closing of states and businesses that had been reopening — all within this political pressure-cooker — and you have the potential for serious partisan-inspired violence, both before and after the election.”