With over 5 million documented cases including more than 330,000 deaths, the coronavirus pandemic continues to spread globally. As many countries are adopting strict measures in curbing the spread, such measures – amplified with the pandemic crisis – are already having drastic effects on the economy. In the US, over the past 6 weeks, more than 30 million Americans applied for unemployment benefits and still the numbers continue to rise. In the UK, the Bank of England is already warning that the UK economy is heading for its deepest recession ever recorded. In the new projections by the EU commission, it was forecasted that Europe’s economy will contract by 7.4% and a worse decline is expected should there be a second wave of the coronavirus pandemic. For the Middle East, the negative impact of the pandemic on the economy is expected to be a hefty one. The situation can specifically be more dire to post-conflict countries like Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen as well those countries with already preexisting financial turmoil such as Lebanon. The socioeconomic security of hundreds of millions of individuals across the world is at stake.
Government leaders are confronting the pandemic spread as well as the associated economic consequences simultaneously. However, other risks and threats to public safety and security may also re-emerge. This includes threats of terrorism and extremism. Terrorism may appear as a critical and a more serious threat due to the violent nature of terrorist groups and how radical groups as the Islamic State (IS) and Al-Qaeda have always dominated the scene. In fact, radical Islamic terrorist groups have been exploiting the pandemic crisis and adjusting their online propaganda as well as executing various attacks over the past 2 months. Given their recent attacks in Syria and Iraq, it is argued that the current pandemic have already demonstrated how durable and resilient IS are. This is particularly evident from IS resurgence of coordinated attacks in Iraq over the past few weeks along with their increased financial and military strength. The same pattern was also seen in Mozambique in April 2020, where more than 50 villagers and 30 members of Mozambique security forces were killed in 2 different attacks by IS affiliated groups.
Terrorism is undoubtedly a dangerous threat. Yet, extremism with its different forms, whether political, right-wing, left-wing or single-issue, can also pose a far more persistent threat to the civil order of any nation. Especially that extremism views can be developed and embraced by the general public in response to incidents that severely impact and disrupt the societal, economic and political structure. Such disruptions can be clearly seen with regards to how the ongoing coronavirus pandemic is currently impacting the world and leaving many people filled with anxiousness, doubt and uncertainty. Furthermore, governments are falling into more debt and economic fallout as a result of the pandemic crisis which is consequently making many firms across the world rush into layoffs, salary cuts, furloughs and eventually closures. This further puts a more cost of living and a pressure on the ordinary citizen. Such living pressures can possibly be viewed as an opportunity for extremist groups to attract more people to their cause and serve their agenda. In this respect, with the rise of unemployment resulting from the post-pandemic economic fallout, many of the unemployed will feel oppressed which can further serve as an opportunity for right and left wing groups to advocate for their causes and gain more supporters.
With their ideology of overthrowing capitalist systems and emphasizing egalitarianism, left-wing groups can very likely view the current economic situation as an exploitable opportunity. Firstly, economic recovery programs by governments aiming to support the private sector businesses may give left-wing groups the grounds to amplify their opposition and anti-government calls. Secondly, with the increasing level of employees layoffs and rise in unemployment, left-wing groups can further reach a much wider group of audience and emotionally weaponize the socio-economic impacts of the pandemic to promote their ideology and gain more supporters. In this respect, it is wise to anticipate and prepare for an increase in online and offline dissemination of anti-capitalist rhetoric by left-wing groups in the coming period. Additionally, a more parlous threat can derive from extreme left-wing terrorist movements who can possibly view the post-pandemic economic crisis as a means to propagate their objectives which is mainly aimed at violently overthrowing the lawful constitutional order of a nation.
In contrast, right-wing extremist groups are centered around the beliefs of discriminating a specific set of societal groups for political, economic, ethnic, religious, or any other reason. In comparison to the left-wing, right-wing groups specifically have been more associated with violence and hate crimes. As with the left-wing groups, the current pandemic along with the associated economic fallout gives the right-wing groups a window of opportunity to advance their agenda and recruit more supporters. For example, with the increasing unemployment rate that will be further fueled by the post-pandemic economic recession, right-wing groups are likely to heighten their ideology dissemination, xenophobic propaganda, anti-foreigners hate speech, anti-immigrant sentiments, racial slurs and ethnic based attacks which can easily cause social unrest. Furthermore, right-wing extremism is considered to be one of the major threats to democracy and among the major security challenges in 2020. This also appears to be in line with the recent report by the United Nations Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate where it was indicated that right-wing extremist groups are becoming more deadly and sophisticated.
Single-issue extremist groups like those associated with the environmental and climate change agenda, may view pandemic and its associated lockdowns as means of advocating as well as serving their cause. As many major cities and industrial hubs are temporary lockdowns, a decrease in pollution level was also noticed worldwide. The tremendous decrease in air and ground transportation over the past 3 months have also contributed to the latter. Thus, as many nations are keen to gradually end lockdowns ans re-open the economy, it is very likely that air pollution levels will rise again which can lead to possible confrontation with environmentalism related single-issue extremism groups. Industrial stakeholders should be prepared for such encounter where single-issue environmental groups can be a hindering force for many industries going forward.
In general, it has been sought that social and economic inclusion by governments can prevent violent extremism. However, implementing it at a satisfactory level to all concerned parties can a difficult process. Additionally, the current pandemic crisis presents an unprecedented social challenges for every nation that many governments nor its public were prepared to deal with. While countering-extremism effectively requires intergovernmental and international security cooperation, different nations will still have to tailor their domestic strategies to the specific extremism threat they face i.e. right-wing, left-wing or religious radicals.
Though different extremism groups differs in terms of the perilous extent that their ideologies can cause, yet a set of specific and common actions governments and national security leaders can implement to counter the extremism threat.
Firstly, the media and news outlets plays a key role in shaping the public opinion, views and attitudes. In this respect, it is now more important than ever that media outlets partners with national security bodies where the latter would constantly bring awareness to those responsible of mass media concerning the prevention of dissemination of information to the public that can directly and indirectly encourage racism. Furthermore, media and news outlets should refuse requests related to covering and interviewing extremist groups.
Secondly, social media platforms provides a highly fertile and immensely wide ground for extremists propaganda dissemination that was not available for such groups 10 years ago. Social media not only allows extremists reach a wider range of audience, but allows them to reach the audience directly. One post, tweet or a video by one extremist can be instantly reached and viewed instantly by hundreds of thousands across the world, allowing for more ideology dissemination. In this regards, it is crucial that national security and law enforcement agencies have access to continuous monitoring of social media trending posts as they develop in real-time in order prevent, takedown and counteract to online disseminated extremism propaganda, hate and racism speeches that can have an impact on national security. Similarly, extremism websites – including those on the dark web – should be continuously monitored and taken down by law enforcement agencies.
Thirdly, in besides to combatting extremism domestically on the ground, more efforts needs enforced overseas. To prevent extremism ideologies from spreading, intelligence sharing and collective security cooperation between countries should be intensified. One extremist, whether a religious radical, far-right or far-left in a given country can easily have his/her views and ideology shared online and have it embraced by others in different countries. Thus, breaking down such chain requires an intergovernmental security cooperation under a legal instrument.
Fourthly, as many of the extremism ideology and propaganda are distributed online and on social media, governments must be a step ahead in preventing its spread. Accordingly, national security and law enforcement agencies should form a solid partnership with technology firms and utilize the private sector technological developments.
Overall, the current pandemic crisis along with its associated economic fallout provides nations worldwide with an unprecedented challenges including national security risks resulting from extremist groups exploitation. Regardless of its category, extremism ideologies can negatively impact the social fabric of any given society and cause civil unrest. Depending on the category and level of extremism threat each country faces, implementing governmental countermeasures can be challenging especially in democratic societies where freedom of speech is one of its core values. Yet, the collective responsibility of governments, media, national security and law enforcement agencies should be commonly grounded on the prevention of abuse of freedom of speech as well as strictly making sure that freedom of speech goes hand in hand with the principles of inclusivity, compassion and peaceful coexistence and non-discrimination.