How the pandemic is making extremism worse

Posted: November 1, 2020 in Prospect
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Another piece for Prospect on a topic which am doing a bunch of work on, the impact of COVID-19 on terrorism and violent extremism. Am in the midst of a number of projects on the topic which should hopefully result in some interesting findings. But at the moment, much of the evidence base is anecdotal. Here I sketch out some of the evidence that I have seen in the UK context in particular.

How the pandemic is making extremism worse

More time spent locked down and online is allowing people to seek out chilling ideas – and act violently on them

by Raffaello Pantucci / October 28, 2020

Forensic officers at the scene in West George Street, Glasgow, where Badreddin Abadlla Adam, 28, from Sudan stabbed six people in June 2020. Credit: Andrew Milligan/PA Images

In late March, as Covid-19 was spreading, probation officers in London took part in a phone call with one of their charges. A troubled young man, part of the extremist Al-Muhajiroun community, he had been repeatedly arrested. His latest round of probation followed his conviction for putting up anti-Semitic posters outside synagogues in north-east London. Talking to his case officers, he expressed frustration at his situation. He had been unable to work due to lockdown and as a result was spending more time online. Already paranoid and angry, his time locked down was only fuelling his rage. A week later, he was re-arrested on charges of disseminating extremist material.

The case is unfortunately not atypical of what has been happening during the pandemic. The repeated lockdowns have meant we are all spending more time at home and online. This has meant a surge in all sorts of online activity—including radicalisation.

The degree to which online activity is a driver of radicalisation is a complicated question. Studies used to show that online activity is often driven by—or conducted in parallel to—offline activity. People will look at material online, but when they consider acting on their beliefs will often seek real-life contact with others. But this balance has been shifting. In the past few years there has been a growing number of cases featuring individuals who had limited or no physical contact with other extremists before deciding to act. Some of these are very young people, often with obsessive personalities, for whom the internet is a deeply captivating place.

The problem is made worse during lockdown. Enforced unemployment (or home schooling) mean that we turning to our electronic devices for longer periods of time. For those curious about extremism, this provides an opportunity to explore chilling ideas. In June, after being alerted by the child’s parents, police arrested a teenager who appeared to be making bottle bombs at home. He had recorded videos in which he claimed to want to become a martyr, and praised Islamic State. He had reportedly converted to Islam, though exactly when this had happened was unclear. What was clear from his internet search history was that he had embraced ever-more extreme ideas during lockdown.

In the end, he was cleared of the charges pressed against him—but the details of the case remain undisputed. He had made videos and attempted bottle bombs. What was unclear was whether he intended to actually carry out violent attacks. His case, however, breathed life into concerns articulated by National Prevent lead Nik Adams, who told the press: “My fear is that people have got more opportunity to spend more time in closed echo chambers and online chat forums that reinforce the false narratives, hatred, fear and confusion that could have a radicalising effect.”

His concerns referred not only to violent Islamists, but also to the growth in conspiracy theories online and the proliferation of obsessive ideas which seem to bleed into extremist narratives—like 5G causing Covid-19 and masks and vaccines being dangerous. Also alarming has been the growth of QAnon (an online conspiracy theory built around the idea that President Trump is fighting a deep state made up of paedophilic vampires) and the Incel phenomenon (made up of involuntary celibates—an online community of men angry at their rejection by women). Both QAnon and Incels have generated terrorist violence in North America.

By late April, the police had signalled their concern that Prevent referrals had dropped by 50 per cent during lockdown. Prevent relies on referrals from communities to identify potential cases of extremism. Lockdown made such engagement impossible.

Other aspects of counter-terrorism efforts have also been impacted by the virus. New MI5 chief Ken McCallum said his service had found it harder to discreetly tail suspects around empty city streets. Social media companies have found themselves relying more on algorithms to take down questionable posts—unable to deploy the manpower usually available due to restrictions around people going to workplaces to double check they are catching inappropriate material.

But the police’s biggest concern is the emotional tensions being bottled up during Covid-19. In the wake of a random set of stabbings in Birmingham in early September, West Midlands Police and Crime Commissioner David Jamieson said “The amount of violence that is happening is actually very, very disturbing.” But he spoke of his lack of surprise: “I have been saying for some time, in the context of Covid-19, that a lot of the feelings people have and not being able to get out, and combine that with people who are now unsure about their future and their jobs, it was almost inevitable that we would see a growth in violence.”

The incident followed a pair of similar mass stabbings in June. As the UK started to lift restrictions, two troubled individuals launched attacks in Reading and Glasgow, murdering three and injuring nine. The Reading case is currently working its way through the legal system, but the incident in Glasgow was carried out by an asylum seeker who seemed to have cracked under the pressure of being moved into highly restrictive hotel accommodation as a result of Covid.

None of these were ultimately prosecuted as terrorism (and in the Glasgow case the perpetrator was killed by police). But they looked like—and were initially speculated to be—terrorist incidents. We have grown accustomed to terrorists seeking to stab random members of the public. But here we had three mass attacks (which included at least one perpetrator who had been on the security services’ radar for potential terrorism concerns) arising after lockdown relaxed. The causal link is impossible to draw definitively, but it seems hard not to see a connection.

We are still in the midst of Covid-19. This makes it impossible to know exactly what its impact will be on terrorism. But all of the indicators are that it is unlikely to make the problem—and the related phenomena of random mass violence—any better.

Comments
  1. David P says:

    For good reasons we know little about Zephaniah McLeod, who has been charged with the Birmingham city centre stabbings (one murder and seven attempted murders). No doubt when he reaches court we will learn more, may be even his motivation. The fact he left the city centre, went home and then returned to attack is puzzling. We do know he served three years in prison prior to his unconditional release and may have had ‘severe mental health’ issues.

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