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Interview Geneva Centre for Security Policy: “Extremist Groups’ Response to the Current COVID-19 Crisis”
Dr. Andreea Stoian Karadeli – independent researcher based in Turkey, Associate Fellow at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy - GCSP (Global Fellowship Initiative), Jean-Paul Rouiller – head of the Terrorism-Joint Analysis Group (T-JAG) at the GCSP and Jean-Pierre Keller – senior analyst and deputy at T-JAG / GCSP, in the light of their common CT-related projects, analyzed the extremist groups’ responses to the current COVID-19 crisis and the ways in which they exploited the pandemic, in an interview to the Geostrategic Pulse.

     Dr. Andreea Stoian Karadeli – independent researcher based in Turkey, Associate Fellow at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy - GCSP (Global Fellowship Initiative), Jean-Paul Rouiller – head of the Terrorism-Joint Analysis Group (T-JAG) at the GCSP and Jean-Pierre Keller – senior analyst and deputy at T-JAG / GCSP, in the light of their common CT-related projects, analyzed the extremist groups’ responses to the current COVID-19 crisis and the ways in which they exploited the pandemic, in an interview to the Geostrategic Pulse.

      What are the general responses of extremist groups to the current COVID-19 crisis?

The response of extremist groups has been diverse, although all of them (by “them” we refer to the “Trinity of Terrorism”, meaning Jihadists, Far Right and Far Left extremists) have been quick to use it in their respective narrative lines, their infographics, memes and documents. As a matter of fact, all major propaganda channels of the “Trinity” were very quick in their appropriation of the COVID-19 crisis.

As far as we could see, Jihadist groups (Islamic State, Al-Qa’eda and their affiliates, proxies…) developed very structured responses to the COVID-19 crisis. First came the “religious” interpretation (using ideas like ”COVID-19 is God’s punishment”) of the crisis, then came the editorials and essays explaining why and how the crisis could be turned to their advantage. Both the “religious interpretation” and “operationalization” were delivered by official and core communication channels and medias of both the Islamic State and Al-Qa’eda. Supporters and sympathizers’ channels were then responsible for the development of the “mass propaganda campaigns” that followed.

Far Right and Far Left Extremist groups simply jumped stage one (interpretation and incitement) and immediately went for the mass propaganda campaigns. They did it in a pretty fluid and easy manner as they simply considered COVID-19 as one more piece of evidence supporting their well-established worldview and narratives. Far Right Extremists clearly considered COVID-19 as evidence of the apocalypse to come, whereas Far Left Extremists repeatedly asked their audience not to be confused and not to lose track of the real enemy: capitalism, the governments and police forces implementing measures of quarantine/confinement.

To make a long story short, each segment of the Trinity of Terror tried to take advantage of the COVID-19 crisis. Each of them did it by integrating the crisis into pre-existing propaganda campaigns and narrative lines.

     What are the main trends in the Salafi-jihadi propaganda strategy for COVID-19?

One strategic narrative lined developed by Salafi-jihadi groups, and a strategy so far supported by the figures of the contamination and losses of European and North American countries, has been to describe the virus as a God-sent punishment hitting (in priority but not exclusively, both the Islamic State and Al-Qa’eda were very clear on that) first the unbelievers and only second, the Muslims.

Interestingly, Al-Qa’eda and associated groups tried to take advantage of that conclusion as a mean to demonstrate the crisis management capacities of their surrogate groups in Syria and in other parts of the world.

The Islamic State on the other hand, developed a not so surprising narrative line, turning the crisis into an opportunity to command and inspire attacks on all countries that had fought against the Caliphate.

The Islamic State propaganda machine has instrumentalized the COVID-19 crisis, infusing it heavily (although not exclusively) into two narrative lines it had developed over the last 18 months.

First, associating COVID-19 and the fall of the Caliphate. Here the pandemic is present as God’s Punishment for the crimes committed by the SDF and the coalition in Baghûz, Syria. The last redoubt of the Islamic State was a small village on the Euphrates river, Baghûz. Officially the last redoubt of IS fell on March the 23rd, 2019. Chronologically, the COVID-19 crisis literally became a problem for the whole world in March 2020.

In phase with its internal timeline, and surfing on the emotional weight attached to the first anniversary of the “Fall of Baghûz”, the Islamic State propaganda machine didn’t resist the chronological collision and therefore interpreted the virus as the punishment of God, unleashed onto the Unbelievers for what they had done to the Men, Women and Children of the Caliphate in Baghûz.

Second, the Islamic State exploited the COVID-19 in line with the narrative it has thoroughly been developing (and feeding) over two years and focusing on the fate of the IS men, women, and children detained in prisons and camps in Iraq and in Syria. Here the COVID-19 virus becomes one more piece of evidence of the unspoken, dark and irrevocable will of the enemies of the Islamic State, as both the SDF and the States behind the coalition don’t do anything against the virus and let its “people” die miserably in camps and prisons. IS therefore calls its soldiers and supporters to “break through walls” of the prisons and camps, to free the jailed mujahideen, the detained muhajirat and the walled cubs of the Caliphate.

     What are the main trends in the extremist right wing and left-wing propaganda strategy for COVID-19?

Both Far Right and Far Left Extremist organizations/groups and their propaganda channels have used the COVID-19 crisis in their propaganda.

Like their jihadist brothers in hate, both the Far Right and Far Left extremists have infused a COVID-19 dimension in already existing narrative lines.

Unlike their jihadist opponents, Far Right and Far Left extremists skipped the “immanent” dimension of COVID-19. No abstruse exegetics of the how and why of the virus posited by the ideologues of hate. No lengthy holistic demonstration of the intrinsically capitalistic nature of the pandemic! The Alpha and the Omega of extremism acted in harmony, developing an incredible variety of infographics, memes and slogans associating COVID-19 with their favorite rants and themes!

Propagandist on extreme right associated COVID-19 with immigration, they saw it as one more step in the direction of the end of the current and corrupted world order.

The left side propagandists used COVID-19 as a reminder of who the real enemy is: the police, the state and capitalism.

Last but not least, when jihadist organizations suggested immediate action to their fighters and sympathizers, both far right and far left groups and channels adopted a different position. Both sides told their soldiers, adherents and sympathizers to wait for the actual world order to crumble. Then, and only then, would the time be right to take the arms and finally conquer the world.

Weaponizing COVID-19?

A great topic for journalists and TV-shows. The truth is way less spectacular as there has been no clue of a serious attempt to weaponize COVID-19… A handful of sympathizers on jihadist forums fantasizing about the sacrifice of a contaminated brother infecting a whole city of unbelievers… A “skull and bones” iconized member of a far-right Telegram channel suggesting the discrete introduction of contaminated materials stolen from a hospital into a refugee shelter in an unspecified European country… Just two samples of the fantasies expressed online by the tenants of the Trinity of Terror.

Provocative as it is, the above summarizes what we have been able to gather on the possible weaponization of the COVID-19. In a very few words: we didn’t find traces of any serious discussions/plans to weaponize the virus. This conclusion is the one derived from our early warning monitoring of the propaganda channels of the “Trinity of Terror”. It cannot be generalized as we know that the Islamic State, Al-Qa’eda and Far Right groups have tried to acquire/produce biological and chemical weapons.

What is the situation in the camps in Syria?

Following the “October the 9th 2019” aftermath, almost all medical facilities were suspended, therefore having a direct impact on the living conditions of the 65000 IS related families kept in Al-Hol. The transfer of the so-called third country nationals (TCN) to A- Roj camp tried to decongest the Al-Hol annex, where 10000 TCN currently live (women, children, orphans). Recent information provided by Kurdish sources alluded to the future creation of a new camp in the Hasakah Governorate.

Due to concerns about the pandemic, few people may visit the camps, where the medical treatments and basic health are poor; as WHO stated, “any areas with large groups of people such as camps & cities hosting mass gatherings are of greater concern”. The prisons share the same common denominator: a vulnerability to non-existing health standards, therefore a fertile ground for spreading the virus. As diseases developed easily within a contained space, prisoners are easy targets. Already two riots started in the Hasakah prison within the last two months, where more than 5000 ISIS fighters are detained. These uprisings coincided with mounting fears across the region that the COVID-19 will arrive in this war-ravaged area but apparently it was due to some of the detainees having Tuberculosis which is common in bad prison conditions. Former ISIS fighters are in constant tension and analysis projects an explosion of the situation especially as the virus will amplify the strains.

Overall, the situation for these detainees remains desperate and hopeless as a wave of panic may spark and the virus will start to spread within camps/prisons. As it is already hard to wash their hands on a normal time, it is even worse now. In conclusion, the necessary attention of home countries is even less present, as they are all focused on the pandemic, therefore delaying the repatriation, trial and, above all, the lessening of the burden on the SDF shoulders.

What kind of CT response should be developed in the post COVID-19 reality?

Since the beginning of the pandemic, ISIS has encouraged its members and supporters to exploit the weaknesses of the so-called superpowers, of the coalition members and of the European states. As the troops and security forces of those states are now deployed and stretched to the limits of their capacities (if not reduced), they could become easy targets as they are preoccupied with protecting their own population, if not themselves.

The virus handicapped domestic security efforts. It also nearly halted the international operations to counter ISIS all over the world. Major coalition partners pulled back from the field, halted training activities for both their middle eastern and/or African partners.

The post COVID world will most certainly be more fragmented, more dangerous and hence less predictable.

Far right and far left extremists will most certainly follow the roadmaps their propaganda channels have suggested: monitor, prepare and plan… The COVID crisis has given both extreme side reasons to intensify their preparations and if given an opportunity, they will most certainly act upon it.

As for jihadists, the latest news coming from the field show that the fight continues: in Africa, the Islamic State and al-Qa’eda are at each other throats. It could be good news, but both sides do not forget to attack locals and members of the foreign troops deployed in the area. In Iraq, in Syria, in Central and South-East Asia, Islamic State affiliated groups are on the offensive.

CT practitioners, analysts and operators will not be short of work. This, depending on who you are, might be good news. The bad one is that if more will be expected from our armed forces and our security/intelligence services, they will have to perform their current and new tasks with less money, and most certainly, with less political and public support. The Trinity of Terror will not dissolve itself into the abyss. But the world has experienced an unexpected foe. One that doesn’t claim its victories but will most certainly occupy the minds of our fellow citizens for the years to come.

CT practitioners, analysts and operators will therefore learn to achieve a lot more with less. The times of unlimited resources and funds are gone. To face the challenges ahead, both the intelligence and law-enforcement communities will have to optimize their processes. Willing or not, CT analysts will have to embrace new tools, new methods. They will have to share their tasks with different sorts of AI. And there will be very little time to learn and to understand the implications of what is coming.

The pictures have been collected by the T-JAG team through the social media channels used by Salafi-jihadi, far-right and left-wing extremist groups.