Main Image Credit The Prime Minister of Hungary, Viktor Orbán. Courtesy of Viktor Orbán/Flickr
Extremist groups across the ideological spectrum are capitalising on the uncertainty created by the pandemic.
The terrorist organisation which calls itself the ‘Islamic State’ (ISIS) claims coronavirus is a divine punishment against the infidels. In Afghanistan, the Taliban portrays itself as better able to manage the pandemic than the country’s government, arguing that regime officials only wish to loot foreign funds. And at another point on the ideological spectrum, far-right groups and individuals are actively exploiting the crisis by promoting disinformation and conspiracy theories to enhance their anti-immigrant or anti-government agendas and attract a new range of followers.
Definitional Challenges, Common Denominators
‘Far-right’ is a controversial classification, as it can blur the line between aspects of mainstream conservatism and extremist ideology. However, it is increasingly used to describe extreme right-wing social, political and religious groups and individuals which encourage extreme ideology – and, in some cases, corresponding violent action. Building on American radical white nationalist Louis Beam’s concept of ‘leaderless resistance’, the far-right tends to be more decentralised than, for example, radical Islamist groups. Rather than organising in traditional group structures, the majority of individuals adhering to a wide range of ideological strands within the broader umbrella of the far-right tend to loosely connect in small groups and online networks – with individuals often taking violent action without the knowledge or involvement of others who are active in the same networks and platforms. A common strategy of far-right extremist communities is to attract individuals who are engaging with more mainstream right-wing content in traditional media and online into more extreme and often restricted communities on platforms such as Telegram or Gab. The goal of this strategy is to inspire as many individuals as possible to take violent action on the basis of extreme far-right beliefs and ideologies.
The current situation of uncertainty created by the pandemic in combination with its evolving social and economic implications provide a perfect environment for disinformation and conspiracy theories. Many individuals and online groups on the far-right have quickly become adept at taking advantage of the widespread fear over the virus and associated government actions to insert and propagate a wide range of these theories into longstanding extreme far-right narratives – encouraging racially motivated violence, political violence and even bioterrorism.
Far-Right Political Parties and Media Coverage
While not themselves promoting extremist violence, the rhetoric of mainstream right-wing political parties and media voices often mirrors closely and feeds into extremist far-right narratives. Many right-wing political parties are similarly trying to capitalise on the pandemic to serve their own agendas – with varying levels of success. Some right-wing parties which used to be in the ascendancy – such as the Alternative for Germany (AfD), which came third in the last national election with 12.9% of the popular vote – have struggled to maintain momentum, as voters largely turn to experts and governments for guidance and leadership through the crisis. Other democratically elected populist parties and leaders with extreme right-wing tendencies are using the situation to consolidate their power. For example, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has drawn links between illegal migration and the pandemic. He used this narrative to justify the indefinite suspension of the admission of migrants into Hungary’s two transit zones with Serbia. He also took the opportunity to pass an Act indefinitely extending Hungary’s state of emergency with powers for him to rule the country by decree. Although some of the decrees he issued were rescinded this week, critics continue to argue that he is well on his way to establishing an authoritarian government. Additionally, there have been multiple political leaders, such as President Donald Trump and Matteo Salvini, the leader of the Italian Northern League, who have used the threat of the virus to call for the halt of immigration.
Similarly, coverage of the pandemic in so-called ‘alt-media’ has enabled the spread of extreme far-right ideology. Media outlets such as Breitbart or the US-based websites The Daily Stormer and Renegade Tribune have continued to disregard the health threat the virus poses, while highlighting the economic damage caused by associated prevention and lockdown strategies. A host on The Alex Jones Show, a programme on the right-wing conspiracy theory outlet Infowars, threatened to mobilise the audience to revolt against government recommendations on social distancing if the restrictions were not lifted within a week. Although these political parties and media pundits do not advocate violence, they are expressing many of the same views that extreme far-right individuals and groups are capitalising on to draw in a wider following and recruit more members. Far-right organisations have been making their presence known at the protests being held across the US against the lockdown measures and are taking advantage of this platform.
Extreme Far-Right Calls for Violence and Accelerationism
While no successful large-scale acts of far-right terrorism have been reported in the context of the coronavirus pandemic so far, politicised coverage of the pandemic and associated conspiracy theories propagated widely online have already led to the mobilisation of violence against minority communities. For example, reports of hate crimes against people of Asian descent have surged in the US and Europe. Similarly, the pandemic has amplified anti-Semitic tropes and calls for violence against Jewish communities. There have also been calls online by groups such as the British National Socialist Movement for the virus to be ‘weaponised’, through purposeful transfer of infections to minority communities or law enforcement agents or even through transfer of infected saliva by means of spray bottles.
In the US, deep-seated hatred against migrants and religious minorities motivated a man to plan a terror attack on a hospital amidst the coronavirus outbreak, using a vehicle-borne improvised explosive. The man, who was shot and killed by the FBI before he could execute the attack, was the subject of a months-long domestic terrorism investigation and frequented various neo-Nazi chatrooms, where he voiced his racial and religious hatred and anti-government sentiments. Having previously considered predominantly black schools, mosques or synagogues as potential targets, he decided on a local hospital when he became frustrated with local government action to mitigate the spread of the virus in the state of Missouri.
This failed terror attack can be understood in the context of the extreme far-right theory of accelerationism. This theory centres on the idea that rebuilding a racially pure world order requires stoking chaos through mass attacks and taking up arms to spark a race war. This narrative has been served well by the current chaotic global health situation, as well as by theories that the economic collapse due to coronavirus preventive measures will destabilise governments and security forces, ultimately leading to massive civil unrest. In the US there have been unprecedented levels of gun sales in recent weeks, which can be closely linked to concerns over civil unrest and/or anti-government sentiment.
Direct Security Implications and Future Challenges
The potential for violence, ranging from individual hate crimes to attacks on supermarkets, hospitals or other critical infrastructure is, therefore, considerable. This is recognised by governments even as they focus on the immediate health or socioeconomic impacts of coronavirus. At the end of March, German police conducted a massive countrywide raid on a far-right extremist group called Reichsbürger (Citizens of the Reich). In the UK, a minor was charged in Newcastle for supporting the far-right terrorist group National Action. And even in the US, where counterterrorism actions against far-right extremist groups have been challenged by difficulties of legal definitions, President Donald Trump has declared the first US designation of a white supremacy group, the Russian Imperialist Movement, as a terrorist organisation.
The actions taken to combat far-right extremism amid a global crisis indicate that the level of threat it poses is high, even if it is often made up of more loosely organised groups and networks than other extremist threats. The current flood of far-right conspiracy theories and accelerationist ideas in more mainstream media and online channels presents an additional threat – with many vulnerable individuals having an abundant amount of time to spend on the internet during worldwide lockdown measures. This, in combination with high levels of public fear and suspicion, presents a unique recruitment opportunity for extreme far-right groups and networks.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
Dr Jessica White
Senior Research Fellow
Terrorism and Conflict