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Radicalisation and Recruitment Online in Times of COVID-19: The Pandemic as a Propaganda Opportunity

Radicalisation and Recruitment Online in Times of COVID-19: The Pandemic as a Propaganda Opportunity
26th March 2021 Youssef Tobi
In Coronavirus, Insights

The jihadist doctrine is an ideological corpus built up by extremist theorists to give their destabilising aims a legal and theological basis, justifying and legitimising terrorist actions. This doctrinal corpus is based on a deviant interpretation of religion and its precepts, alongside a sometimes victimising and accusatory reading of the actions and behaviour of governments, often deemed impious. Whatever is happening in the world is, thus, exploited in order to discredit anything that does not conform to extremist views. The COVID-19 pandemic has been interpreted by the jihadist doctrine in exactly the same way, as a tool to legitimise the discourses and actions of terrorists globally. Lockdowns across the world have been a generalised strategy against the pandemic. Jihadist groups have capitalised heavily on the increased presence in virtual spheres of social media and telecommunications to broadcast their own view of the pandemic.

Three words summarise the jihadist world view, as expressed through jihadist literature: punishment (Thaa’r); sanction (Qissas) and revenge (Intiqam).  Doctrines of jihad may differ, but these three concepts are at the forefront of all the actions and propaganda of terrorist groups.  Indeed, terrorists assume that the current state of the world is catastrophic and they take it upon themselves to embody God’s punishment and sanction to those who don’t follow their idea of a righteous path.  As the true Muslims are in their view continuously oppressed, jihadists should revenge against the oppressors and conduct a continuous world against them.  This oppressor is often impersonated by the tenant of the Western World: States, Religious Groups etc. The COVID-19 pandemic has been framed within this lexicon, as it was quickly interpreted as God’s punishment for the unfaithful. Terrorist propaganda insisted, for instance, that the COVID-19 upsurge in China was a chastisement inflicted by God for China’s treatment of Uyghur Muslims.

Terrorist groups have a longstanding habit of exploiting security gaps where states have shown fragilities. For instance, when states aren’t capable of providing basic services like health or protection, actions are quickly undertaken by terrorist to provide those services and thus gain legitimacy and sympathy within the populations. When it comes to this global pandemic, the same type of strategy was utilised. Terrorist groups have taken advantage of the lack of clear information and consensus on the main causes of the disease and the increased attention on conspiracy theories to promote their own view and simplistic explanation of the disease. Also, the shared anxiety and distrust among populations towards states have created a fertile ground for anarchist and anti-state theories like those of jihadist groups to spread. Indeed, terrorist propaganda has continuously targeted states and their handling of this health crisis as a mean to validate and strengthen their ideological convictions. This instrumentalisation of the COVID-19 pandemic has been amplified by the generalisation of the lockdowns that have increased significantly the screen time of millions of people. This isolation of people at home has reduced daily activities and, in most cases, confined populations have come to rely on the Internet to overcome the difficulties and boredom of imposed solitude. Individuals who already regularly visited extremist sites, and others who have come across the doctrine propagated by jihadists, have experienced significant increases in the time they spend on the Internet. Using several techniques to attract people, especially young people, to their sites, terrorist propaganda websites have flourished during lockdowns. One of the techniques of jihadist sites is to present their websites as harmless, in order to attract new visitors and start them watching radical content.

Terrorist propaganda and the spread of hate speech online is a pandemic in itself, touching young and fragile individuals, causing massive distress for the societies it affects. Online campaigns should target and identify the audiences most prone to adhere to theories that link COVID-19 and divine punishment, while promoting counter-narratives that explain the science behind tackling and dealing with a global pandemic. The regulation of social media could become a viable strategy to limit hate speech and, thus, promote a more peaceful global community. Indeed, a strict set of rules for online political debates should be issued to avoid upsurges in conspiracy theories, hate speech, and direct calls for violence. Facebook and Twitter’s recent stance on hate speeches and their efforts to promote a transparent and safe environment for communication on their platform could prove helpful in the fight against online extremism.