Extremists from across the political spectrum have been exploiting COVID-19. Violent extremists capitalize on a crisis: These events open up the political space for them to fill with misinformation or exacerbate people’s fears of the other. Anticipating this vacuum, the Anti-Defamation League and the FBI both have warned about the potential surge in hate crimes against Asian Americans because of the pandemic. Politicization of the virus, such as calling it the “Wuhan flu,” have led to actual cases of hate crimes throughout the country. An offensive sign someone put up on the Atlanta Beltline was spotted just this week.
Into this public health crisis step extremist groups, which may even take credit for events for which they are not responsible. Their instinct to capitalize on people’s misery and suffering is consistent across the ideological spectrum, from right-wing extremists to violent jihadists. That instinct is on full display right now, as the world reels from COVID-19’s rapid spread and the accompanying disinformation. White supremacist groups are touting crackpot accelerationist, siege, and Great Replacement theories during the COVID-19 pandemic to motivate individuals to take action against the New World Order, Agenda 21, George Soros, the Chinese government, and others they perceive as seeking to eliminate the white race.
Amidst a global pandemic, the country’s leading ISIS propaganda analyst, Laith al-Khouri, says the jihadists’ main objective is to sow the seeds of mistrust of government—including by spreading disinformation and malign information —while simultaneously using unfolding events to substantiate their view of the world and validate their predictions. Jihadists will showcase governments as having lied to the public about infection numbers. In further undermining the credibility of governments, who are knowingly suppressing information about the virus (such as Iran, Egypt, and Turkey), jihadists can use this opportunity to recruit new followers who perceive the terrorist groups as more capable or more honest than their own governments.
The virus has been a source of renewed inspiration for terrorist groups who see it as a sign from God and repudiation of secular States that have mismanaged the crisis. Al-Qaeda released a statement on March 31, in which they accused Western governments of ignoring their citizens’ health “instead of ensuring the provision of health facilities and medical supplies they [remain] obsessed with the tools of war and human eradication.” Several jihadist groups, such as the Taliban, declared that coronavirus “is a disease ordained by the Almighty Allah which has perhaps been sent by Allah because of the disobedience and sins of mankind or other reasons.”
While ISIS isn’t always using COVID-19’s official name (although the group’s more recent info-graphics refer to it as “Corona”), the virus is considered by ISIS to be God’s revenge against “infidels.” The list of such infidels begins with the Chinese for their treatment of the Uyghur population then grows with more recent allegations that it is revenge against the United States for the attacks against the final ISIS stronghold in Baghouz (on the one year anniversary of the attack) when the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) declared they had ended 100 percent of ISIS’ territorial control — formally bringing an end to the Caliphate.
ISIS propaganda called on God “to increase their torment and save the believers from all that. Indeed He is harsh of punishment against the one who rebels against Him, and merciful to the one who obeys Him and stands with Him.” In particular, ISIS discussed the virus in the group’s weekly publication, Al Naba, as early as January, when ISIS described a “new virus spreading death and terror in China,” adding that the epidemic was a punishment from God Almighty” for China’s abuse of Uyghurs.
Initially, ISIS warned its supporters to stay away from Europe, exhorting healthy members not to enter “the land of the epidemic” to avoid becoming infected. ISIS also disseminated information about safety and health measures well before many countries in the West did so. ISIS created an info-graphic in Al Naba for their followers, warning them to maintain proper cleanliness. They even cited a hadith about germs and contamination so as to provide a religious precedent for the group’s guidance: “Cover the vessels and tie up the water skins, for there is one night in the year when pestilence descends, and it does not pass by any vessel that is not covered or any water skin that is not tied up, but some of that pestilence descends into it.”
According to Aymenn al Tamimi, an Iraqi specialist at the Middle East Institute, ISIS’ main message was that the virus was God’s will but, nevertheless, it was still crucial to take precautions against catching or transmitting the virus. Moreover, the virus was portrayed by ISIS as a punishment against Iran and the Shi’a, with ISIS insisting that God “has imposed something of His painful torment on the nations of His creation” and claiming that this is God’s response to idolatrous nations.
On March 19, ISIS celebrated the spread of the virus as an opportunity for militants and supporters to step up their attacks in the West and elsewhere. In an issue of Al Naba titled “Nightmare of the Crusaders,” ISIS highlighted that, given the structural conditions of the United States, the country would be the source of spreading the infection and encouraged followers to exploit this opportunity by undertaking attacks against the West.
Meanwhile, Laith al-Khouri suggests that ISIS will try to take advantage of the pandemic by launching attacks where there are fewer security measures, such as areas where security personnel are preoccupied with maintaining social distancing among the public and trying to preserve socioeconomic order. Al-Khouri explained that Western countries’ armed forces of could be “stretched to the maximum” to contain the pandemic and are, in turn, restricted in their deployment to fight jihadists abroad.
Unguarded prisons are particularly attractive targets for ISIS. These conditions make it “a duty” upon ISIS and its supporters to strike even harder to take advantage of the preoccupation with the pandemic to raid prisons and free prisoners, focusing on those in camps in eastern Syria, many of whose residents were driven out of Baghouz. ISIS has said that Muslims should “not pity the disbelievers and apostates, but should use the current opportunities to continue working to free Muslim prisoners from the camps in which they face subjugation and disease, and should intensify the pressure on them however they can.”
While ISIS considers the virus to be God’s will, ISIS members are as vulnerable to getting sick as anyone else. In fact, their members might be more vulnerable in crowded camps for internally displaced people or prisons. Nevertheless, ISIS suggested that even if their members become infected and die, they would be considered martyrs.
All told, jihadist groups will try to capitalize on the raging pandemic, the public’s increased fears, and the lack of confidence in governments by engaging in future targeted attacks. Just last week, ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack on a Sikh Temple in Kabul that killed 25 people. That, unfortunately, may prove only the tip of the iceberg during a global health crisis.
(The author’s research is supported in part by the Office of Naval Research “Documenting the Virtual Caliphate” #N00014-16-1-3174. All opinions are exclusively those of the authors and do not represent the Department of Defense or the Navy.)