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'Wrath of God' vs 'infidels': Terrorists exploiting COVID-19

SINGAPORE – Framing COVID-19 as the “wrath of God” against “infidels,” terrorists have exploited the coronavirus pandemic to spread their ideology, analysts from a Singapore-based think tank warned.

Experts from the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research (ICPVTR), a think tank within the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) in Singapore, reported these findings in a journal issue released on Thursday, April 23.

Abdul Basit, a research fellow with the ICPVTR, outlined the ways terrorists are exploiting the COVID-19 crisis, in his article “The COVID-19 Pandemic: An Opportunity for Terrorist Groups?” It was published in the center’s publication, Counter Terrorist Trends and Analysesunder the theme “COVID-19 and Terrorism.”

Basit explained that terrorist groups in general “are opportunistic, exploitative, and byproducts of chaos,” and that they can turn crisis into opportunity. “For instance, presently terrorists are framing the coronavirus as ‘God’s wrath’ against their enemies. But if it starts affecting these groups, they will twist it as ‘God’s test.’”

Basit said COVID-19 in particular, however, has created openings for terrorists. For one, lockdowns imposed by countries “potentially increase the chances of radicalization as more people spend time on social media at home looking for answers amid uncertainties, exposing themselves to terrorist propaganda.”

At the same time, countries have reallocated resources, including military troops, to contain the pandemic, according to Basit. The International Crisis Group (ICG) has made a similar observation, noting that the United Kingdom, Spain, and France have announced the withdrawal of their troops from Iraq partly because of the global health crisis.

How ISIS exploits COVID-19

Basit used the terrorist group Islamic State (ISIS) as an example. He said the COVID-19 pandemic comes as ISIS “was on the rebound” in Iraq. The pandemic, according to Basit, feeds into the apocalyptic, end-of-time narratives of ISIS, and also weakens the anti-ISIS coalition as countries withdraw their troops from Iraq.

Basic described how ISIS uses the pandemic to spread its ideology. 

“When the virus first emerged in Wuhan, ISIS labeled it as God’s wrath against ‘communist China’ for abusing Uighur Muslims. Subsequently, when it hit Iran, ISIS conveniently labeled it God’s punishment for Shia Muslims’ ‘idolatry.’ Later, when the virus spread to the West, ISIS termed it as ‘God’s wrath’ against ‘infidels’ and ‘crusaders’ for waging a war against ‘the mujahideen,’” said Basit, citing a report by ICG. 

Basit wrote that ISIS, using such propaganda, “has called for lone-wolf attacks amid COVID-19 to further increase the pain and miseries of ‘crusader nations.’” 

Role of social media

Basit said social media companies should, therefore, step up in filtering extremist propaganda, and countries should not let their guard down.

“On the counternarrative front, social media companies need to be more vigilant and proactive to counter extremist propaganda and disinformation campaigns. At the same time, states need to evolve cost-effective counterterrorism mechanisms to ensure continued cooperation against various terrorist groups and deny them potential openings to revive and reassert themselves,” Basit wrote in the ICPVTR journal.

In the same publication, ICPVTR associate research fellows Kyler Ong and Nur Aziemah Azman also said Islamist terror groups have moved to intensify their operations as the world battles COVID-19.

Citing the Al-Naba newsletter of ISIS, Ong and Azman said that ISIS “has made renewed calls for the ‘mujahideen’ to launch attacks against the enemy.” It has also urged supporters “to exploit the COVID-19 pandemic to free ‘Muslim prisoners,’” including thousands of ISIS members in Syrian detention and refugee camps.

The two analysts said lone wolves or ISIS-inspired affiliates “may seek to autonomously weaponize COVID-19 and execute attacks.” They noted that in Indonesia, for example, a number of ISIS-linked networks “have called on infected followers to spread the coronavirus to law enforcement officials.”

Far-right groups, too

COVID-19 has also presented an opportunity for far-right extremists “to promote conspiracy theories and rhetoric online, which has also translated into explicit calls for attacks on various encrypted channels such as Telegram, whether through direct armed violence or using the virus as a biological weapon,” according to Ong and Azman.

Ong and Azman’s article is titled “Distinguishing Between the Extreme Far-right and Islamic State’s Calls to Exploit COVID-19.” 

Here, the two authors wrote that in the Telegram channel Eco-Fascist Central, a post in March “advocated for members to target Jewish communities by simply coughing on the door handles of local synagogues.” Drawing from a report by the SITE Intelligence Group, the authors said that “another poster called for the same tactic to be employed against critical infrastructure, that is, ‘cough on your local transit system.’”

“The COVID-19 pandemic provides a timely reminder of the extreme and sinister lengths both far-right extremists and Islamist terror groups will go to exploit periods of crisis and panic to destabilize societies and wreak further havoc, all in the name of advancing their respective warped ideologies,” Ong and Azman concluded.

They said propaganda channels of ISIS, as well as online chatter by pro-ISIS and far-right extremist groups, “must therefore be closely monitored for renewed calls to use COVID-19 as a bioweapon.”

'We want to prevail over the narrative'

In the Philippines, authorities in conflict-stricken southern Philippines have not received intelligence about terrorist groups using COVID-19 to spread their ideology, according to Zia Alonto Adiong, a regional official.

Adiong is a parliament member of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, the Muslim region created in the southern Philippines in 2019 to give greater autonomy to Muslims and put an end to a 4-decade secessionist movement.

Adiong is also spokesperson of the COVID-19 task force of Lanao del Sur province in Mindanao. 

In a Rappler Talk interview aired on Friday, April 24, Adiong said the government is nonetheless preparing for the possibility that extremists might exploit COVID-19. They have, for example, tapped religious leaders to explain to the public why they cannot pray in their mosques for now because of the pandemic. He said this can prevent extremists from twisting the situation to suit their ideology.

“In a way, we are anticipating or we are one step trying to gain the narrative ahead of these possible extremists using the quarantine,” Adiong said on Rappler Talk. He was referring to the possibility that extremists might try to provoke people into anger that they are prohibited from praying in mosques.

“They can twist the narrative. Imagine, these are effective propagandists, most of them, actually. We want to prevail over the narrative,” Adiong said. “We want to have the upper hand.” – Rappler.com

Paterno R. Esmaquel II

Paterno R. Esmaquel II, news editor of Rappler, specializes in covering religion and foreign affairs. He obtained his MA Journalism degree from Ateneo and later finished MSc Asian Studies (Religions in Plural Societies) at RSIS, Singapore. For story ideas or feedback, email him at pat.esmaquel@rappler.com.

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