coronavirus, COVID-19, ISIS, white supremacists|Apr 03, 2020|CEP Staff

Online Extremists Exploit Coronavirus Pandemic To Incite Violence & Encourage Terrorism

Terror Groups Urge Members Online To Target Health Care Systems & Spread Virus Intentionally

As the world continues to grapple with the ongoing pandemic, far-right and Islamic extremist groups are plotting to exploit the health crisis to advance their radical agendas. Last week, FBI agents thwarted a car bomb attack on a hospital in Missouri by 36-year-old neo-Nazi Timothy Wilson, while the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) identified a clipping from an ISIS newsletter urging supporters to conduct attacks against “overburdened health care systems in various Western countries.” The March 19 issue of the ISIS magazine Al-Naba, after originally encouraging members to stay away from areas impacted by COVID-19, urged followers to leverage the pandemic to free prisoners that have been arrested by Western forces and take advantage of vulnerable health care systems.

As the Counter Extremism Project (CEP) has previously found, Telegram is a platform of choice for white supremacist extremist groups that encourage their members to purposely infect minority populations. Speaking to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, CEP researcher Joshua Fisher-Birch stated, “These are people who have violent intent, especially with accelerationists who are looking at this as an opportunity.” Accelerationism is a strain of white supremacist ideology that is intent on stoking societal tensions to create radical change. Fisher-Birch also told Newsweek that militant neo-Nazis “really are trying to exploit the crisis … They see that people are afraid. They want people to be even more afraid. They want people to panic … They’re trying to create cleavages in society. They’re trying to get people to turn against one another.”

In a recent blog post, CEP Senior Research Analyst Josh Lipowsky further concurred, saying, “The novel coronavirus has changed the way society behaves, from social interactions to employment. As we adapt in order to stem the spread of the virus, we must at the same time consider how to adapt our security measures as this pandemic brings with it new threats of bioterrorism.” One measure is that mainstream and lesser-known online platforms alike must adapt their content moderation policies to account for the pandemic.

For example, on March 1, New York-based Bahgat Saber posted a video to his Facebook account calling on Egyptians to intentionally infect friends and family who work for the government of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Saber is an alleged supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist organization that briefly ruled Egypt in 2012 and 2013. Additionally, ISIS online supporters on the RocketChat platform praised the coronavirus for killing Americans, Europeans, and Iranians. Users also stated that the coronavirus did not exist in ISIS-controlled areas, implying that the group is impervious to infection. Official ISIS publications have warned their members of the coronavirus.

A letter from the U.S. House Committee on Homeland Security sent last week to the DHS echoed these concerns, pointing out that white supremacist groups and ISIS sought to use the COVID-19 pandemic to leverage political deals and accelerate the collapse of society. For example, on March 25, the pro-ISIS Al-Qitaal Media Center released the second issue of an online magazine titled “Voice of Hind.” The magazine has a track record of inflaming tensions between the country’s Muslim and Hindu populations. The magazine called COVID-19 a divine punishment, and urged attacks on police and military forces deployed in virus related missions.