It should come as no surprise that extremist groups are talking about COVID-19. Beyond the immediate public health emergency, this global crisis has profound effects on governance, social polarisation, the information landscape and political discourse, all of which have great relevance to how extremist ideologies are constructed and disseminated. Crises also present opportune moments for extremists across the ideological spectrum to mobilise.
As part of ISD’s work analysing how digital platforms are being used to promote disinformation, hate and extremism online, we have been monitoring far-right and Islamist mobilisation around COVID-19, using a mixed methods approach drawing on natural language processing, network analysis and ethnographic analysis.
Beyond simply exploring how extremists are responding to COVID-19, we are working to understand the ways this global health crisis is being used, co-opted and manipulated for extremist ends, and how underlying extremist ideological narratives are cross-cutting with the crisis. Significantly, these narratives do not take place in a vacuum and cannot be detached from the political framework that drives these movements. Rather they build on a pre-existing ideological world view and respond dynamically to changing circumstances, with COVID-19 serving as a new ideational battleground for ongoing ideological struggle.
There are similarities in the construction of different extremist ideologies but also key distinctions. Jihadism has at its heart a supremacist vision of Muslim identity, premised on the revolutionary establishment of an Islamic state based on the strict implementation of Islamic law, and the religious duty of jihadist violence against unbelievers. In parallel, far-right extremism is rooted in ethnic, cultural or national supremacism, and in its more extreme forms, the revolutionary establishment of an ethnostate and the use of ‘accelerationist’ terrorism to hasten societal collapse. But how are these distinct belief systems being refracted through the lens of coronavirus?
COVID-19 as Crisis
JM Berger’s social identity theory of extremism posits that extremist ideologies are at heart rooted in a crisis-solution construct – because one’s ‘in-group’ is facing an existential crisis, radical, supremacist and often violent solutions is necessitated. As such it is of no surprise that both far-right groups and jihadist groups are opportunistically using the ongoing pandemic to advance their movements and ideologies, and using COVID-19 as a ‘wedge issue’ to promote conspiracy theories, target minority communities, and call for extreme violence.
Jihadist groups around the world have framed COVID-19 as a geopolitical opportunity. The Syrian Salafi-jihadi group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham has issued propaganda positing the potential for ‘political and economic collapse’, and the disintegration of the international system. IS has called on supporters to capitalise on this moment of weakness in Western societies and take advantage of governments’ distraction and the redeployment of military, security and medical resources and personnel to carry out attacks. In IS’ regular publication al-Naba, COVID-19 is referred to as the ‘worst nightmare of the crusaders’.
Far-right communities are similarly reacting to the COVID-19 pandemic opportunistically, with a range of both complementary and competing narratives and tropes. The bulk of this conversation revolves around the repurposing of pre-existing prejudices and narratives to fit the crisis. Minority communities being scapegoated for the spread of the virus and anti-government rhetoric is being adjusted to suggest that the state is using the pandemic as an opportunity to infringe on civil liberties. In addition to this far-right actors are amplifying a range of other conspiracy theories relating to the virus, such as the suggestion it is a bioweapon or is spread by 5G technology.
At its most extreme COVID-19 is being used to advance calls for insurrection. In particular discussion around the ‘boogaloo’ – an extreme-right meme referring to an impending civil war – are increasingly pivoting towards the way the COVID-19 pandemic provides an opportunity for violence. This is occurring across both fringe and mainstream social media. Between February and March the most popular hashtag used in relation to ‘boogaloo’ on Twitter related to COVID-19, whilst 26% of 4chan posts relating to ‘boogaloo’ linked to the pandemic. Although the language used to describe this violence is deliberately ridiculous, using irony as a mask, it should nevertheless be taken seriously. This trend has already manifested into real-world violence, with one alleged white supremacist terrorist dying after a shootout with the FBI after attempting to bomb a hospital.
There is a notable overlap in such far-right accelerationist narratives and the concept of apocalypse within jihadist ideology, both of which suggest an active role in supporters hastening crisis to usher in a new utopian or eschatological reality. Jihadi ideology relies on the imminence of the apocalypse for its coherence and propaganda contextualises the movement’s struggle as fighting the battles of the end of days. In this context, COVID-19 has been framed within the movement as an apocalyptic harbinger, with ‘fan boy’ jihadist videos presenting COVID-19 as the “Mahdi” – the messianic figure expected to appear before the Day of Judgment.
Both far-right and jihadist extremists have presented conspiratorial accounts of COVID-19’s origins. Amongst other conspiracies, the far-right are adapting antisemitic tropes of ‘blood libel’ relating to false claims of ritualistic sacrifice to incorporate the crisis. In particular it is suggested that elites, including George Soros were harvesting the chemical compound adrenochrome from tortured children in Wuhan, and that this was directly linked to the spread of the virus. This discussion has grown significantly throughout the pandemic by 750% on Twitter, 815% on Instagram and 694% on Facebook. In addition to this proponents of the far-right ‘QAnon’ conspiracy theory are advancing a wide range of narratives off the back of the COVID-19 pandemic, including the idea that the pandemic is being orchestrated to manipulate US politics; is a bioweapon; that there is a hidden cure for the virus; and that it is being utilised to implement martial law. This conspiratorial strain has also been promulgated by state actors, including Iran, where senior figures in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (last year designated by the US as a foreign terrorist organisation) have described COVID-19 to be a “Zionist biological terror attack”.
But whilst Al Shabaab spreads conspiracies that Coronavirus has been spread in Somalia “by crusader forces… and the disbelieving countries that support them,” IS’ central messaging has notably pushed back on some strains of conspiracy thinking. The group has in fact criticised conspiracy theories around Coronavirus that COVID-19 is a US creation, which have been promulgated by state actors, including China and Iran. This brings to mind previous counter-conspiracy editorials in IS’ magazine Dabiq disputing theories that the 9/11 attacks were an inside job and that IS was a creation of Israel, pointing to the ambivalent role played by conspiracy theories within extremist narratives.
But beyond these related crisis and conspiracy ideological elements, there are a number of specific narrative elements to both jihadi and far-right ideology relating to COVID-19.
One core narrative specific to jihadism claims COVID-19 to be ‘God’s work’. IS’ al-Naba has labelled the virus as a ‘divine element’ and ‘soldier of Allah’, and even as punishment for those targeting the Ummah (global Muslim community), for example China for its treatment of its Muslim Uighur population, and Western countries as payback for the siege of IS at Baghuz. The Taliban has claimed the virus was sent by God in response to the “disobedience” and “sins of mankind,” al-Qaeda that COVID-19 is divine retribution and the cure is to repent, while Boko Haram’s leader Abubakar Shekau claimed in an audio statement “the evil you do is what brought this.” Furthermore, Salafi-jihadi groups have used the COVID-19 crisis as an opportunity for highlighting their state building credentials. Propaganda from ‘Ministries of Health’ from Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, IS and al-Qaeda has sought to demonstrate the efficacy of an ‘Islamic’ response to Coronavirus, heralding the effectiveness of their counter-measures through highly visual propaganda of well managed hospitals and campaigns to clean mosques, framing the imperative for tackling the disease in religious terms.
As with jihadist actors, the far-right are similarly repurposing pre-existing extremist tropes to reflect the COVID-19 pandemic. In particular the pandemic is being used as an opportunity to attack a range of minority communities. Common to this is the suggestion that minority groups are vectors for disease spread, which is being levied at Muslim, East Asian and Black communities. In addition to this, far-right groups are variously suggesting that minority groups are deliberately spreading the virus as an attack on white communities, advancing ‘us vs. them’ narratives, as well as suggesting that minority communities are taking advantage of the crisis to riot and commit crimes.
While there are profound distinctions in the world views of different extremist movements, and deep ideological fissures within them, they have at their core the co-option and instrumentalisation of crisis. By analysing the evolving narratives of extremists towards COVID-19 we can not only better understand how malign actors are seeking to manipulate this global pandemic to mainstream supremacist ideologies, but also anticipate the ways that calls for extremist violence are being accelerated through crisis narratives.