Terrorism in the Age of Coronavirus

CEP Senior Research Analyst


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Earlier this month, ISIS warned its followers through its al-Naba newsletter to “stay away from the land of the epidemic” by avoiding Europe and other areas affected by the novel coronavirus (COVID-19). While this initially seemed like a silver lining as the world grapples with the global pandemic, extremists around the world are adapting their tactics to take advantage of the pressure on the health-care industry and upheaval of the global economy caused by the virus.

The N.J. Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness (NJOHSP) has warned that domestic and foreign terrorists seek to inspire supporters to exploit the coronavirus. On Wednesday, the U.S. Justice Department called for those who intentionally spread the virus to be charged under terrorism laws.

Unfortunately, we have already seen multiple calls and attempts to weaponize the virus, which transmits via airborne droplets from sneezing or coughing, thus making it relatively easy to spread intentionally.

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. The Brotherhood is officially opposed to violence and so it is unlikely its leadership would approve of Saber’s actions. While the leadership may not approve, such actions are in line with the Brotherhood’s ideology, which has inspired various forms of terrorism around the world. And despite ISIS’s initial warning to its supporters to stay away from infected areas, NJOHSP has warned that group is actively encouraging followers to attack vulnerable populations. According to NJOHSP, some ISIS supporters have referred to the virus itself as a “soldier of Allah,” while others have called it a divine punishment against infidels.

The virus has resulted in disruptions to society caused by widespread quarantines and social distancing. While necessary to stem the spread of the coronavirus, these conditions are also ripe for white nationalist accelerationists seeking the collapse of society. In February, federal authorities reported conversations on the encrypted messaging service Telegram referencing the “obligation” of white nationalists to spread coronavirus if they should contract it. According to the Federal Protective Service of the Department of Homeland Security, these discussions took place among followers of neo-Nazi James Mason, author of the book Siege, an anthology of pro-Nazi newsletters that calls for the creation of independent terror cells to bring about a societal collapse. Siege inspired the white nationalist group Atomwaffen Division, which is linked to at least five murders in the United States. Mason announced Atomwaffen Division’s dissolution earlier this month because of increasing legal pressures, but Siege nevertheless continues to inspire others.

The FBI has also warned of white nationalists instructing followers to use spray bottles to spread bodily fluids infected with the virus, targeting law enforcement and Jews in particular out of misguided beliefs that Jews either created the virus or seek to capitalize on it financially.

While there is currently no evidence that the virus is transmitted through food, according to food safety experts, the virus presents a new threat to the security of our food supply as the virus can live for days on surfaces, including grocery items. Earlier this week, a grocery store in Pennsylvania threw out $35,000 worth of food after a woman coughed on meats, baked goods, and other products in what the store called “a very twisted prank.” Also this week, a New Jersey man was charged with making terrorist threats after he told an employee at a Wegmans grocery store he had the novel coronavirus and proceeded to cough on her. Another man in Missouri was charged this week with making a terrorist threat after he filmed himself licking deodorant at a Walmart.

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.