• Michael Padilla-Pagan Pay

Prevent one crisis from producing another and the rise of groups exploiting the COVID-19 Pandemic


Last night was speaking at a virtual conference about groups exploiting COVID-19, which are regaining influence as well as fuelling extremism on the far-right and far-left in Europe and giving Islamic State and other militants groups.


We are witnessing the impact of the COVID-19 upon the world. Across the world, the day to day lives of people have changed dramatically and it is unlikely these changes will diminish anytime soon. There has been a broad range of actions taken in response to COVID, stay at home orders, working from home; limitations on movement within and between countries; limited or no access to various public and private services. These actions have knock-on impacts such as a major downturn in economic activity, stressed supply chains, and disruptions to transport networks, amongst others. Both the threat posed by COVID-19 and the impact it has on our day to day lives appears set to continue for a considerable period.


The rise of Extremist

With the above, we have witnessed that extremists have taken full advantage of the uncertainty being faced and continue to exploit the circumstances to gain further support for their ideologies. The pandemic brings new opportunities for extremists to exploit discontent and uncertainty through fostering victimhood narratives, spreading distrust of government, pursuing disinformation campaigns, dangerously fuelling nationalistic feelings, and generally spreading animosity towards “others”. In this environment, we have seen a proliferation and continuation of divisions and hatred along with, unfortunately, acts of violence, but we have also seen that far-right groups have been sending out messages online encouraging supporters to go out and infect “enemies”.


In the Middle East and Africa regions, we have witnessed Islamic State and related groups are seeking to recoup ground in Iraq, Syria, and the Sahel, exploiting the fact that governments are caught up in combating the virus or otherwise destabilized, including by the collapsed oil price. What we are seeing is that the virus has an impact on fragile states and provides Daesh and other factions new room to breathe.


Oct 19th, 2020 ICESERVE24 reported that:


The Islamic State called on its followers to attack westerners in the Gulf yesterday, October 18. The Islamic State’s spokesperson, Abu Hamza al-Qurayshi criticized the recent normalization agreements between Israel and the UAE as well as Bahrain, while mentioning Saudi Arabia’s decision to open its airspace to Israeli flights. The IS spokesperson called on the group’s followers to carry out attacks against Westerners and Western companies in the Gulf, including against “pipelines, factories, and facilities”. Al-Qurayshi also congratulated the group’s Syrian affiliates for the recent killing of a Russian general (possibly referring to the killing of a Major-General in August), before focusing on branches outside the Middle East. Al-Qurayshi further called on the group’s members to carry out attacks against prisons in a bid to free IS prisoners, recalling similar recent attacks in Afghanistan, while also calling on all Muslims to revolt in Mali, Egypt, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Congo, and Chad, and mentioning recent “victories” in Mozambique and Somalia


Governments have taken extensive measures to protect populations and campaigns to inform the public on how to hinder the spread of the virus. These efforts have been delivered with varying levels of competence and success. A common feature in the measures to address the virus has been uncertainty. There is extensive uncertainty about the continuing impact and evolution of the virus and uncertainty about what measures work to counteract the virus. Hasty and often complex government guidelines have resulted in uncertainty throughout societies. And uncertainty about the economic impact that is going to result is a major force in people’s lives. With all of this uncertainty comes feelings of distrust, dissatisfaction, and division among and between societies. Feelings of hatred and grievances have become more pronounced as individuals seek to find spaces of more certainty and comfort in the face of the pandemics. In this sort of environment, extremism can thrive.


Weaponize Information:



The use of disinformation during the pandemic has been massive. The most obvious use of disinformation has been in the apportioning of blame for the virus upon particular groups or in the creation of various conspiracy theories. The continual production of disinformation in times of uncertainty fuels various conspiracies where blame is placed upon others, which even if it does not lead to direct violence remains damaging to societies. The blame dimension in messaging cuts across the ideological spectrum of extremism. We have tracked that Anti-immigration groups in France and Germany have circulated information that Muslims have been spreading the virus on purpose and the source of the virus has been tied to asylum and immigration centers.


Following on from blame, extremist narratives then attempt to motivate supporters to take action against the identified out-groups they deem to be responsible. ISIS directed its followers not to travel to Europe, as a highly infected area but has called on supporters already in Western states to launch attacks and support prison breaks to release more supporters. (which I noted above)


The COVID-19 world and the uncertainty it contains provide a context for narratives to connect with a wide range of emotions and grievances that people hold. It does not appear that matters will improve quickly, even if the virus is brought under control. The economic impact of COVID-19 is going to be multi-dimensional and potentially long-lasting. Governments need to continue with immense levels of public spending to support health care systems, to maintain employment levels, to provide public support due to job losses, and to maintain particular sectors of economic activity.


We already see that countries and societies are facing economic uncertainty will experience continued underdevelopment. But a trend we have been watching is that following a major financial crisis, extremism is likely to grow, we have witnessed in part of Africa and the Middle East over the last several decades. Our past data has shown that during and following financial crises uncertainty in society grows and that people are more easily taken in by extremist rhetoric. And it is already well established that economic deprivation and absence of opportunities for personal development fuel grievances as individuals feel excluded. And so if we follow the lesson of the past, I can say that the massive amount of money that will be spent to address the economic, social, and healthcare consequences of the virus risks being at the expense of security. And so will we learn from the past, will we prevent the one crisis from ending up producing another only time will tell.


Feelings of anger, disillusion, and contempt for others as a result of the pandemic will continue and this will continue to fuel radical views. Divisiveness is becoming a normal part of the political process, domestically and globally. This results in responses to the pandemic being designed based on competition rather than addressing the actual lived experiences of people in society. Attention needs to be given to the lived experiences of people, in particular the marginalized, as this is where radical groups can penetrate, either through service provision and support, or by providing supportive messages that people will grasp on to.

At this stage, it is unfortunate that the uncertainty of the current impact of COVID-19 will continue into the post-COVID world (whatever that may look like, another dimension of uncertainty) as conditions are likely to remain responsive to ideas and actions related to blame and hatred. Radicals will welcome these circumstances as it supports their objective of gaining further support for their ideologies, regardless of the damage it causes.


For me, I hope we do not lose sight of the security risks as we focus, quite rightly, on the immediate health and social impact.

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