Extreme Right-Wing Terrorism and COVID-19 – A Two-Year Stocktake

Posted: September 17, 2022 in RSIS
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Another brief break from book promotion, this time a new article for my Singaporean institutional journal Counter Terrorism Trends and Analyses (CTTA). This was an attempt to look back at COVID-19 and reflect a bit on some of my earlier pieces which looked at who benefitted most or not from the pandemic. Not sure everything I wrote earlier on quite played out, but some bits did. Am still convinced this anti-establishmentarian narrative will gain more traction and the extreme right in Continental Europe is going to be a bigger problem going forwards.

Extreme Right-Wing Terrorism and COVID-19 – A Two-Year Stocktake

As the pandemic moves into its third year, normality appears to be returning. While caution has not dissipated, there is no doubt that governments’ treatment of COVID-19 has changed. As countries embrace a wider “open up” strategy, this is already being flagged as a possible opportunity for terrorists.1 These warnings are linked to concerns that, as countries open up, the barriers erected to prevent COVID-19 from spreading will lift and make terrorist plotting easier once again. But a larger question lingers about what the actual impact of COVID-19 has been on terrorist threats at an ideological level. Given the threat has resonated in a stronger fashion on the Extreme Right, this article seeks to sketch out that impact and assess its wider implications.

Introduction

Following the onset of the pandemic, there was a rush of commentary and subsequent research trying to understand its potential impact on terrorist and extremist threats.2 The conclusions drawn were fairly diverse, but few observers concluded that terrorism would be reduced as a result of the pandemic. Rather, concerns were articulated that the threats would become worse, owing to a variety of reasons – the increasing amount of time people were spending online;3 the growing isolation fostered by lockdowns;4 the uncertainty created by the pandemic;5 and the likely shrinking of counter-terrorism and P/CVE budgets.6 There was also divergence within the research community, with sharply dissenting voices pouring cold water on more dramatic prognostications, including that there would be a surge in online radicalisation.7

As it turned out, in the broadest possible terms, the two major threat ideologies diverged in their response to the pandemic. Violent Islamist groups like Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (IS) broadly framed the pandemic as God’s providence and something followers should not worry too much about, except to celebrate how it made their enemies suffer and to maintain resilience.8 In some cases, they spoke of how strategic opportunities might present themselves, which followers should take advantage of,9 and at some lower levels, chatter was picked up that suggested people should try to weaponise the virus.10 But this was never something that the core organisations called on their followers to do.

In contrast, among the Extreme Right (violent, extremist or just Far Right), groups embraced the pandemic in their narratives to recruit and mainstream even further than they had already. Protests around pandemic restrictions were frequently adopted and promoted by extreme right-wing groups, and anti-establishment narratives absorbed pandemic resistance smoothly into their views.11 Systemic conspiracy theories also ran rife, absorbing prominent figures like Bill Gates into narratives of population control through vaccination,12 as well as broader conspiracies involving undermining indigenous communities.13

On the Far Left, an anti-systemic narrative also did catch on, but with far less vigour. While fears of government control could be found, their greater concern was with the resurgent far right or other acts of societal injustice.14 More confusing ideologies like the QAnon or Incel movement seemed to echo pandemic conspiracies but, for the most part, this merely fed into the wider chatter around their ideologies rather than transforming them.15 It was not clear from available research what the effect was on other faith-based extremisms – like Buddhist or Hindu extremists, for example.

Early Terrorist Action

Little of this noise translated into actual terrorist action, although there were widespread instances of civil disturbance – most prominently on January 6, 2021 when supporters of former US President Donald Trump stormed the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. This was one of many instances where large protests ended in violence and involved resistance to pandemic restrictions, amongst other motivations. In Australia, it seemed as though the Extreme Right actively took advantage of such protests to advance their ideas.16

It was not always clear the degree to which the protests were terrorist activity, nor whether the protests could be entirely placed in the ideological category to which they were often linked. For example, during anti-lockdown protests or the January 6 assault on the Capitol, there were undoubtedly many extreme right-wing leaning individuals involved, but it remains unclear if they made up the entire corpus of the protest. Nor is it clear that the protest could be described as entirely motivated by extreme right-wing ideas.

In terms of terrorist action that could be directly linked to the pandemic, the list is more limited. At the pandemic’s onset, two cases in the United States seemed to suggest a direct link to the government’s response to the virus – Timothy Wilson’s attempted bombing of a Missouri hospital and Eduardo Moreno’s train derailment targeting the US Navy’s hospital ship Mercy docked in the Port of Los Angeles. Whilst clearly targeting institutions linked to the government’s pandemic response, both had different origins.

Wilson, a long-standing subject of interest to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), had links to a serving US soldier stationed in Kansas who was reportedly planning to fight alongside the Azov Battalion in Ukraine.17 He had also spoken of launching attacks on multiple domestic targets, including prominent Democrat politicians.18 Reportedly, Wilson had long been planning some sort of incident, and it is possible that the pandemic simply changed his targeting choices. He had also seemingly been planning his attack with the full knowledge of the FBI, although it was not clear whether this was because of an undercover agent who turned him in, or whether he was simply under FBI surveillance.19

In contrast, Moreno was a railway worker arrested for planning an attack by himself. This involved derailing the train he was working on in the Port of Los Angeles in an attempt to draw people’s attention towards the “government take-over” that he perceived was happening.20 As was stated in his indictment, “Moreno believed people needed to know what was going on with the COVID19” pandemic and the U.S.N.S. Mercy.21 Among other claims, Moreno stated that “they are segregating us and it needs to be put in the open.”22 He was also very specific in stating that “no one was pushing his buttons” in orchestrating the attack, reflecting his desire to not have his stated motivations dismissed.23

These two early cases received considerable attention, coming as they did in the immediate wake of the early announcements of lockdowns in March 2020, and as people sought a better sense of the pandemic’s likely impact on extremism. In both cases, action involving the perpetrators took place, and some inspiration from the pandemic response was involved in the attack planning, although not necessarily in the same way. While Moreno’s attack was clearly a response to the pandemic, Wilson seemed a longer-term extremist linked to Extreme Right networks who decided on a pandemic-related target relatively late in his planning cycle.24

From what is known about Moreno’s attack, it is possible to conclude that sans the pandemic the attack might not have happened. In contrast, Wilson’s pre-existing links to other extremists and networks suggest he could have acted even if the pandemic had not taken place. The pandemic appears to have presented an interesting targeting opportunity for Wilson, with the government’s response to the event reinforcing Wilson’s pre-existing worldview.25 This could also be the case for Moreno (he may have already held some anti-government ideas), but not enough is known about his case to draw a decisive conclusion.

In a survey of pandemic-related terrorism done in March 2021, Sam Mullins and Michael King concluded that this pattern of activity held across the extreme right-wing cases they surveyed.26 Looking at a dataset of seven cases, including both Moreno and Wilson, they concluded that all the individuals, aside from Moreno and one other where it was unclear, had pre-existing extreme right-wing tendencies (mostly linked to the anti-government Boogaloo Bois movement).27

The authors’ conclusion was that it remains too early to conclude that the pandemic has spurred more violence. While the cases they explored largely highlighted how problems of extremism have generally gotten worse along the same trajectory as prior to the pandemic, they are less clear about the pandemic’s potential accelerating effect.28 A survey of wider trends a year into the pandemic concluded something very similar, though it broadly surmised that the Extreme Right seemed like it was going to be affected more than the violent Islamist community.29

Trouble Spreading?

Largely, existing trends have continued and, as the pandemic ends, the expectation should be that extremist-linked activity will pick up as they had before. Consequently, parts of Europe may find themselves once again most seriously afflicted by lone-actor terrorism; the United States may face a metastasising menace of extreme right-wing and anti-government groups; Africa a sharpening terrorist threat linked to IS affiliates; the Middle East a constant threat; and Southeast Asia a threat that appears to have slowed over the past few years. Afghanistan has already started to export problems north and south of its border, suggesting the mid-2021 Taliban take-over is going to worsen long-standing terrorist problems across South Asia (and even into Central Asia). None of this brief overview seems to have been impacted notably by COVID-19.

However, there are some patterns that do appear to be worsening and can be linked to the pandemic. In particular, the extreme right-wing threat in Europe. A long-standing threat, it has in the past year shifted in a direction to resemble its North American counterpart in a way that is novel and potentially destabilising. There has been a notable number of large-scale disruptions that suggest networks of radicalised individuals, often with military training, inspired by extreme-right ideas and eager to strike targets associated with the pandemic response. Events in Ukraine have had an impact on the broader extreme right-wing in Europe, but this appears to have happened in parallel to the pandemic.

Recent cases have also put a spotlight on some worrying underlying trends. Specifically, these include the growing number of arrests of members of the security forces with links to extreme rightwing groups (something particularly noticeable in Germany); a growing number of vaccination centre bombings; and finally, spates of 5G mast attacks across Europe. The last two are not exclusively linked to the Far Right, though there are often links. All, however, point to a pent-up anger that could come to the fore in a dangerous fashion.

Two specific plots, which came a year apart from each other, underscore these trends. First, in mid-May 2021, Jürgen Conings, a radicalised soldier who was already under surveillance for his extreme right-wing links, fled with weapons stolen from his barracks, leaving behind a note for his girlfriend that claimed he was “going to join the resistance”30 and did not expect to survive. He had previously expressed anger towards a prominent Belgian virologist, and there were fears he was planning on targeting the latter for murder.31 Conings was found dead just over a month later, having taken his own life.

As investigation into his case continued, it was uncovered that Conings was a long-standing target of authorities and had close links to other prominent figures in the extreme right-wing movement in Europe.32 Conings’s case became something of a cause célèbre amongst the far-right and antivaccination communities in Belgium and French-speaking Europe, with thousands signing petitions and a number of protest marches organised in support of his case.33 While it is not clear whether his case inspired others to violence, it did illustrate the depth of support that exists below the surface, as well as the very smooth interlinking of extreme-right and anti-vaccination ideologies, all alongside the notion of using violence to fight back against the government.

This worrying pattern was found again in April 2022 in Germany, when authorities disrupted a plot involving a cell of five men who were planning to kidnap the country’s health minister and overthrow the government. The men had managed to obtain at least one Kalashnikov machine gun and were reportedly in advanced stages of planning their attack.34 Calling themselves the “United Patriots” (Vereinte Patrioten), the group had a long history of anti-pandemic activism.35 The leader had reportedly been boasting about his plans up to a year before the arrests, and the group was made up of individuals who were also active Reichsbürger members.

The Reichsbürger movement is similar to the Sovereign Citizen movement found in North America (and in parts of Europe), and is made up of a few thousand individuals who reject the German state, accusing it of being an overbearing construct imposed on the nation in the wake of the Second World War.36 They are a growing concern to German authorities, who find the individuals very violent during arrests, and are often discovered to have large caches of dangerous weapons. Prominent figures have also been arrested for the murder of security officials.37

What is notable about both these European cases is the high degree of similarity with earlier American cases. Long-standing extreme right-wing communities have now absorbed antipandemic sentiments, chosen targets and sought to launch terrorist attacks against them. The targets are often large symbols of the state, and the sort of attack being launched is a civil uprising, sometimes including a plot against a prominent politician or public leader. There is a strong strain of anti-government sentiment in these groups, with the pandemic offering the perfect context for the articulation of their anger.

This similarity may feel unsurprising but, within a European context, such large-scale anti-state activity is relatively new. While not unheard of, traditionally, European extreme right-wing groups or cells have tended to focus on nativist, white supremacist or xenophobic tropes and targets. Politicians and prominent figures have been targeted over the years (Anna Lindh,38 Pim Fortuyn39 and Jo Cox40 are a few examples), but it is usually part of an assassination plan undertaken by an isolated individual rather than an attempt to overthrow the government.

Where networks of extreme right-wing terrorists have been found, they tend to be groups that have gone on the run for long periods of time, launching repeated attacks on minorities (like the National Socialist Underground in Germany). Many European countries are plagued with white supremacist, nativist political parties, with some of these individuals spilling over into violence – though these are usually one-off cases. Organised extreme right-wing groups or individuals with an intent to truly overthrow the state are relatively rare.

The pandemic, however, seems to have pushed these networks to the fore or encouraged them in new directions. Angry at governments’ actions, they appear desirous of launching large-scale incidents to change the status quo. In this way, they are increasingly mirroring their American counterparts. The Patriot, Sovereign Citizen, Militia and extreme right-wing communities have a long history in North America; in Europe, these violent patriot-type ideologies are relatively new. Governments’ pandemic responses appear to have acted as a perfect storm to push groups forward in terms of providing them with a source of anger and thus instilling a new sense of purpose.

It is of course very difficult to absolutely link this trend to the pandemic. It is possible that the broader raising of profile and prominence of the Far Right during the Trump administration in Washington, as well as the fallout from the migration crisis of the mid-2010s, have created a context in Europe for the Extreme Right to mature in this new direction. It is also possible that the large-scale crackdowns that took place across Europe against the Extreme Right pushed some deeper into radicalisation (and we have yet to see the fallout from the growing mainstreaming of the far-right leaning Azov Battalion in Ukraine as a result of the Russian invasion).

In France, the Interior Ministry reported that such trends of extreme-right, anti-state violence took place in the year or so before the pandemic as well.41 Now that the trend has progressed in this direction, it is unlikely to go backwards. A far-right motivated individual or group, through complicated planning to undertake anti-state violence to overthrow the government, is likely to be an increasing norm in Europe. Old narratives of xenophobia and nativism will doubtlessly persist, but they will now be strengthened by this new expression of anti-state violence.

As such, the actual terrorist impact of the pandemic could well be gauged by the fostering of a new form of anti-state mobilisation in Europe that in part builds on prior developments (Anders Behring Breivik’s attack in 2010 was an early articulation of anger against the state, specifically with regard to migration policies),42 but whose organisation, links to the military and growing emergence across the Continent suggest something more substantial at play. And the pandemic response of imposing greater state control, alongside the likely impoverishment of large numbers in the wake of the pandemic and the fallout from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, all suggest a context in Europe where grievances can fester. While the blame cannot entirely lie with the pandemic, it is clear that the pandemic provided a context for the violent Extreme Right in Europe to worsen, and laid the foundations for a much deeper long-term problem.

About The Author:

Raffaello Pantucci is a Senior Fellow at the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research (ICPVTR), a constituent unit within the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore. He can be contacted at israffaello@ntu.edu.sg.

Citations

1 Amy Chew, “Terror Groups Target Asia as Global Travel Reopens: Singapore Defence Minister,” South China Morning Post, March 30, 2022, https://www.scmp.com/weekasia/politics/article/3172414/terror-groups-may-target-asia-global-travel-reopens-singapore.

2 Raffaello Pantucci, “After the Coronavirus, Terrorism Won’t Be the Same,” Foreign Policy, April 22, 2020, https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/04/22/after-coronavirus-terrorism-isis-hezbollah-5g-wont-be-thesame/.

3 Dan Sabbagh, “Pandemic has Spurred Engagement in Online Extremism, Say Experts,” The Guardian, October 19, 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/oct/19/covid-pandemicspurred-engagement-online-extremism.

4 Nikita Malik, “Self-Isolation Might Stop Coronavirus, but It Will Speed the Spread of Extremism,” Foreign Policy, March 26, 2020, https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/03/26/self-isolation-might-stopcoronavirus-but-spread-extremism/.

5 Richard Burchill, “Extremism in the Time of COVID-19,” July 15, 2020, Bussola Institute, https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3693293.

6 Abdul Basit, “COVID-19: A Challenge or Opportunity for Terrorist Groups?” Journal of Policing, Intelligence and Counter Terrorism Vol. 15, Issue 3, 2020, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/18335330.2020.1828603, 263-275.

7 Michael King and Sam Mullins, “COVID-19 and Terrorism in the West: Has Radicalization Really Gone Viral?” Just Security, March 4, 2021, https://www.justsecurity.org/75064/covid-19-and-terrorismin-the-west-has-radicalization-really-gone-viral/.

8 Nur Aziemah Azman, “Evolution of Islamic State Narratives Amid the COVID-19 Pandemic,” Home Team Journal, Issue 10, June 2021, https://www.mha.gov.sg/docs/hta_libraries/publications/hometeam-journal-issue-10.pdf, 188-197.

9 Ibid.

10 “IPAC Short Briefing No. 1: COVID-19 and ISIS in Indonesia,” Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, April 2, 2020, http://file.understandingconflict.org/file/2020/04/COVID-19_and_ISIS_fixed.pdf; and https://documents-ddsny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/N21/000/98/PDF/N2100098.pdf?OpenElement.

11 Blyth Crawford, “Coronavirus and Conspiracies: How the Far Right is Exploiting the Pandemic,” King’s College London, September 16, 2020, https://www.kcl.ac.uk/coronavirus-and-conspiracieshow-the-far-right-is-exploiting-the-pandemic.

12 Jane Wakefield, “How Bill Gates Became the Voodoo Doll of Covid Conspiracies,” BBC News, June 6, 2020, https://www.bbc.com/news/technology-52833706.

13 Mark Scott and Steven Overly, “Conspiracy Theorists, Far-Right Extremists Around the World Seize on the Pandemic,” Politico, May 12, 2020, https://www.politico.com/news/2020/05/12/trans-atlanticconspiracy-coronavirus-251325.

14 The WannabeWonk, “Bremen is Emerging as a Hot Spot of Left-Wing Militancy in Germany,” Militant Wire, 30 November, 2021, https://www.militantwire.com/p/bremen-is-emerging-as-a-hotspot?s=r.

15 Marc-André Argentino, ‘QAnon Conspiracy Theories About the Coronavirus Pandemic are a Public Health Threat,” The Conversation, April 8, 2020, https://theconversation.com/qanon-conspiracytheories-about-the-coronavirus-pandemic-are-a-public-health-threat-135515.

16 Michael McGowan, “Workers’ Rights or the Far Right: Who Was Behind Melbourne’s Pandemic Protests?” The Guardian, September 24, 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/australianews/2021/sep/25/workers-rights-or-the-far-right-who-was-behind-melbournes-pandemic-protests.

17 Mike Levine, “FBI Learned of Coronavirus-Inspired Bomb Plotter Through Radicalized US Army Soldier,” ABC News, March 27, 2020, https://abcnews.go.com/Politics/fbi-learned-coronavirusinspired-bomb-plotter-radicalized-us/story?id=69818116.

18 Ibid.

19 This detail might help clarify the degree to which others were involved in his planning and therefore how the pandemic actually impacted his targeting choices. But Wilson’s death has meant absolute certainty about exactly what was going to happen is now impossible.

20 Douglas Swain, “Statement of Probable Cause A. Moreno Derails Train at the Port of Los Angeles near USNS Mercy,” April 2020, https://www.courthousenews.com/wpcontent/uploads/2020/04/MercyTrain-CRAffadavit.pdf.

21 Ibid.

22 Ibid.

23 Ibid.

24 “FBI: Government’s Response to Virus Spurred Would-Be Bomber,” AP News, April 15, 2020, https://apnews.com/article/ad891a0e69f0e3d285c397a1626d1e0d.

25 Ibid.

26 Michael King and Sam Mullins, “COVID-19 and Terrorism in the West: Has Radicalization Really Gone Viral?” Just Security, March 4, 2021, https://www.justsecurity.org/75064/covid-19-and-terrorismin-the-west-has-radicalization-really-gone-viral/.

27 While their targets were linked to the pandemic or some aspect of response to the pandemic, it was not clear that they were entirely driven forward by it.

28 Michael King and Sam Mullins, “COVID-19 and Terrorism in the West: Has Radicalization Really Gone Viral?” Just Security, March 4, 2021, https://www.justsecurity.org/75064/covid-19-and-terrorismin-the-west-has-radicalization-really-gone-viral/.

29 Raffaello Pantucci, “Mapping the One-Year Impact of COVID-19 on Violent Extremism,” Counter Terrorist Trends and Analyses Vol. 13, Issue 2, March 2021, https://www.rsis.edu.sg/wpcontent/uploads/2021/03/CTTA-March-2021.pdf, 1-9.

30 Daniel Boffey, “Belgian Manhunt for Armed Soldier Who Threatened Virologist,” The Guardian, May 19, 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/may/19/belgian-manhunt-armed-soldier-jurgen-cthreatened-virologist.

31 Helen Lyons, “The Hunt for Jürgen Conings: A Timeline,” The Brussels Times, June 16, 2021, https://www.brusselstimes.com/170779/far-right-terrorist-manhunt-marc-van-ranst-ludivine-dedonderalexander-de-croo-the-hunt-for-jurgen-conings-a-timeline.

32 “Un Terroriste d’Extrême Droite et Sympathisant de Jürgen Conings Comme Agent de Sécurité d’une Boîte de Nuit,” 7sur7, January 17, 2022, https://www.7sur7.be/belgique/un-terroriste-dextremedroite-et-sympathisant-de-jurgen-conings-comme-agent-de-securite-dune-boite-de-nuit~ab99df76/.

33 Evelien Geerts, “Jürgen Conings, The Case of a Belgian Soldier On the Run Shows How the Pandemic Collides With Far-Right Extremism,” The Conversation, June 16, 2021, https://theconversation.com/jurgen-conings-the-case-of-a-belgian-soldier-on-the-run-shows-how-thepandemic-collides-with-far-right-extremism-162365.

34 Philipp Reichert, “Putin-Fans und Corona-Leugner,” Tagesschau, April 26, 2022, https://www.tagesschau.de/investigativ/report-mainz/vereinte-patrioten-101.html.

35 “German Police Arrest Far-Right Extremists Over Plans to ‘Topple Democracy’,” Deutsche Welle News, April 14, 2022, https://www.dw.com/en/german-police-arrest-far-right-extremists-over-plans-totopple-democracy/a-61468227.

36 Wolfgang Dick, “What Is Behind the Right-Wing ‘Reichsbürger’ Movement?” Deutsche Welle News, July 24, 2018, https://www.dw.com/en/what-is-behind-the-right-wing-reichsb%C3%BCrgermovement/a-36094740.

37 The Reichsbürger community has been very active during the pandemic, bringing together a series of narrative strands about overbearing authority that resonated with the community. See “Former ‘Mister Germany’ Facing Life in Prison for Attempted Murder of Policeman,” Deutsche Welle News, October 9, 2017, https://www.dw.com/en/former-mister-germany-facing-life-in-prison-for-attemptedmurder-of-policeman/a-40881234.

38 “Suspect in Swedish Murder Makes Surprise Confession,” NBC News, January 8, 2004, https://www.nbcnews.com/id/wbna3899995.

39 “Dutch Free Killer of Anti-Islam Politician Pim Fortuyn,” BBC News, May 2, 2014, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-27261291.

40 Ian Cobain, Nazia Parveen and Matthew Taylor, “The Slow-Burning Hatred That Led Thomas Mair to Murder Jo Cox,” The Guardian, November 23, 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/uknews/2016/nov/23/thomas-mair-slow-burning-hatred-led-to-jo-cox-murder.

41 Laurent Nuñez, “Contending with New and Old Threats: A French Perspective on Counterterrorism,” The Washington Institute, October 12, 2021, https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/contending-new-and-old-threats-frenchperspective-counterterrorism.

42 Mark Townsend and Ian Traynor, “Norway Attacks: How Far Right Views Created Anders Behring Breivik,” The Guardian, July 30, 2011, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2011/jul/30/norwayattacks-anders-behring-breivik.

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