Kansas City was meant to go into a state of ‘lockdown’ on 25th March, to prevent the spread of COVID19. Just one day before, Timothy Wilson, a 36 year-old white supremacist was killed in a firefight with police.
Police raided his residence with suspicions he was to launch an imminent attack. His plan had been to target a hospital in the city where many sick people were being treated, including those likely affected by the coronavirus.
The firefight came at the end of a six-month police investigation. Investigators said that Wilson had been planning for some time, but had moved his planned attack forward in light of the coronavirus-imposed ‘lockdown’.
The FBI began investigating Timothy Wilson, who was killed as agents tried to arrest him in March, the same month it arrested a soldier in Ft. Riley, KS who had discussed plans to bomb a major news network. Wilson and the soldier had been in communication. https://t.co/2DjXuPpeD5
— Steve Vockrodt (@SteveVockrodt) April 15, 2020
This story was buried in the press among discussions about the state’s response to the virus and mounting death tolls and case numbers.
Wilson was radicalised before the emergence of the virus and used it as his opportunity to strike. But many recruiters will take advantage of the vulnerable mental state of people who are stuck in isolation, or amplify racial slurs about the virus’ origin to radicalise others.
How radicalisation could grow during the pandemic
Racism and hate crimes
During the course of the pandemic there has been a rise in hate crimes against people of Asian origin. In London, a student from Singapore was beaten by four men. Attackers shouted at him: “I don’t want your coronavirus in our country”. This was just one case of many that have been reported across Europe and the US. An event like a global pandemic can intensify a fear of the other that helps disinformation to grow and people to radicalise. Radical discourses and ‘othering’, including the rhetoric about a ‘Chinese virus’, could have a long-lasting impact, beyond the global pandemic.
Companies are currently reporting a 12-15% increase in internet usage. Many vulnerable people are isolated in their homes, unable to maintain strong social connections that make them resilient to radicalisation. This increases the vulnerability of already lonely or isolated people. A particular worry are children who are off school and spending more time online. Just last week Singapore suspended the use of Zoom due to so-called ‘zoom-bombing’. The internet is one of the main mediums through which young people are radicalized – often through poorly regulated forums, such as 4chan or 8chan, or online gaming communities. The COVID19 lockdowns are fertile ground for recruiters. Imposed isolation is likely to reduce the resilience of vulnerable people to radicalisation
We haven’t seen any significant acts of anarchist violence yet during the COVID19 pandemic, but it may only be a matter of time. COVID19 is an unprecedented moment in modern history that anarchist groups may tout as a chance to violently ‘remake’ the world order. While much of the anarchist discourse surrounding the pandemic has been about forming networks to help and support each other, anarchists have also shown support for prison breaks and claimed that the lockdown is a totalitarian action, without regard for the reasoning behind it – to ‘flatten the curve’.
Disinformation and justification
Radical groups have used this moment to spread disinformation about the pandemic that suits their objectives. Due to increased levels of fear and uncertainty that people feel during the pandemic, they may be more vulnerable to disinformation campaigns. ISIS, for example have claimed the pandemic is divine retribution against China for the way it has treated its native Uyghur population. The company YonderAI, which looks for patterns in online conversations, said it usually takes 6-8 months for a “fringe narrative” to enter the mainstream. During COVID-19, that has contracted to 14 days.
Radical groups have encouraged members to spread the virus to those they target. An FBI report last month warned about neo-Nazis who were encouraging members of their groups to spread the virus to Jewish populations by spending time near Synagogues. They also encouraged members to fill bottles with bodily fluids and spray them at police. Others have been arrested for using their bodily fluids to terrorise or attack others in the supermarket, for example, and by targeting elderly people and the police.
What can we do about it?
Time interviewed a former right-wing radical and spoke to him about the effect of COVID19 on radicalisation. He said that:
“My views intensified because I was left alone to look at this stuff for a long time. I kept consuming it, and a lot of these ideas ended up sticking in my head. And it didn’t take terribly long before I started believing it all – probably months.”
When people are stuck at home and unable to work, it is more difficult for the right interventions to be made at the right time. And it is very easy for isolated and vulnerable people to become radicalised. It is also difficult for communities that help build resilience to provide the same kind of support remotely.
One law enforcement agency has launched a campaign to specifically address the current situation. The North Yorkshire Police launched their “Let’s Talk About It” campaign, to tackle online radicalisation during the COVID19 epidemic. The campaign is aimed at young and vulnerable people who are at high risk of being groomed by extremists. Currently, this is the only campaign specifically dealing with the COVID19 threat that can be found online.
There is a very real risk that once the pandemic calms down and our cities and countries open up again, the seeds sown now will have germinated. Extremists who groom young people now have the time and resources to cultivate relationships, while the ability to make interventions is lower.
We may find that the hate speech and disinformation that is rapidly spreading due to the virus will become ingrained in mentalities and the effects will be felt for much longer than the pandemic itself.
That’s why it’s so important for law enforcement agencies, governments, and NGOs to run public awareness campaigns to limit the risk of radicalisation now.
If you are concerned that your child or loved one is at risk of radicalisation, consult our Family Information Portal. It is designed to help you identify the signs of radicalisation and decide on the next steps.