April 13, 2020
IntelBrief: The Coronavirus Will Increase Extremism Across the Ideological Spectrum
Fallout from the coronavirus pandemic is likely to provide a boost to extremists from across the ideological spectrum. COVID-19 is a rare event that offers a range of terrorist and extremist groups with an opening to bolster or promote their ideologies and narratives. The aftermath of the pandemic will also lead to a litany of new grievances, while profoundly exacerbating existing grievances from race and religion to economics and the environment. A growing sense of instability will be inflamed by the proliferation of disinformation designed to sow chaos and confusion, while exploiting growing rifts in society and driving polarization.
Religious extremists will attempt to portray the pandemic as ‘God’s will,’ arguing for a closer adherence to austere interpretations of religion. It is also apparent that religiously motivated terrorist groups, including the Taliban, al-Shabaab, and the Islamic State, will seek to capitalize on the coronavirus by providing services to populations in areas where governance is weak or non-existent. In turn, this will allow these groups to further their claims to political legitimacy. Jihadist groups in particular have already been taking advantage of the coronavirus to increase their operations tempo, including in the Sahel region, as well as throughout large swaths of East Africa. Right-wing groups, including white supremacists, will portray the pandemic as linked to immigrants and non-whites. For right-wing groups, the crisis reinforces the need for strong borders and populist policies, which will be highlighted and promoted as the solution to preventing future outbreaks. Xenophobia is already on the rise as Asians are targeted by hate crimes all across the world.
Even though left-wing extremism has been overshadowed by jihadists and white supremacists, the coronavirus has exposed several issues long promoted by a mixture of leftist groups and organizations—namely, the economy and the environment. Many expect the pandemic to result in a crippling recession, possibly even a depression, worsening socio-economic conditions for millions across the world and contributing to even greater disparity between the ‘have’s’ and the ‘have not’s.’ It is important to note that such expectations are not entirely unreasonable, as economic inequality has increased globally, and there is a growing trend of income and wealth concentration increasing among small groups of wealthy individuals. The UN’s 2020 World Social Report indicates that two-thirds of the world’s population live in countries where inequality has grown. In turn, this could lead individuals or small groups to engage in political violence in order to draw attention to their cause in an attempt to force policy changes. Similarly, the coronavirus has demonstrated that climate change and environmental degradation are inextricably linked with global public health. The potential threat of ‘eco-terrorism’ could grow in the coming months and years, as groups modeled after The Earth Liberation Front could seek to use economic sabotage and the threat of violence to call attention to their causes. Other so-called ‘special interest’ extremists, including radical animal rights activists, could also potentially grow in prominence as a response to the coronavirus pandemic. Many close observers of political violence expect that the left-wing and special interest groups mentioned above seem less likely to commit widespread acts of terrorism when compared to white supremacist extremists and far-right groups.
The virus also opens the door for other forms of extremism to flourish. Some will result as a second or third order effect of the broader social, political, and economic changes that will occur as the world struggles with how to respond. One possibility is that the pandemic accelerates a move toward automation and a greater reliance on robotics. This could spark a neo-Luddite aversion to technology more broadly, which will be even more closely associated with job loss. Artificial intelligence, machine learning, and quantum computing could be interpreted as threats to individuals’ livelihoods, instead of opportunities for progress and efficiency. The coronavirus has already precipitated a popular conspiracy that the pandemic is related to the use of 5G, which has led to a spike in attacks damaging telecom infrastructure. An increase in surveillance-related technologies to monitor citizens in the wake of the pandemic could compound a growing sense of dystopia. Moreover, a growing reliance on the use of certain technologies—drones used to deliver packages—could provide terrorists with new opportunities for tactical innovation.
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