Covid-19 and Far Right Terror: The Quiet Before the Storm?

James Pierson
James Pierson

Senior Researcher, Tactics Institute For Security & Counter Terrorism

At first sight, it appears lockdown has been good for society’s battle against terrorism. According to data, in 2018 there were 1,056 arrests across the combined EU area and the UK for terror-related activity. In 2019 there were 1,004. But in 2020 that figure dropped to just 449. Deaths caused by terror attacks declined from 129 in 2019 to 60 in 2020. While we can’t be certain, there’s good reason to believe lockdown measures contributed to this decline: with venues closed there were fewer targets, while terrorists, like everyone else, were less able to travel. But with lockdowns ending, targets will reappear, while terrorists will enjoy freedom of movement once more.

So, logic tells us the trend should reverse. If only it were that simple. Intelligence agencies and police forces warn that isolation caused by lockdown has caused a spike in terrorist propaganda, and radicalisation.

And nowhere has this been more prevalent than in the far-right.

Far-right terror has long been a matter of concern. Indeed, in September 2019, the Metropolitan Police Deputy Commissioner, Neil Basu, briefed journalists that a quarter of all terrorist arrests in the previous year had been linked to far-right violence. And the trend has continued. In October 2020, the new head of MI5, Ken McCallum, told CNN nearly 30% of major terror attacks prevented since 2017 had been far-right plots. Referrals to Prevent, the UK Government’s scheme for diverting people away from terrorism, also provide evidence of this trend. In 2015/16, 98 people were referred to Prevent because of far-right concerns, while 262 people were referred because of Islamist radicalisation. In 2016/17, the number of far-right referrals grew to 124, while the number for Islamists dropped to 123. In 2017/18, the numbers were 169 for the far-right and 170 for Islamists. 2018/19 saw the far-right figure leap to 250, overtaking that of Islamists for the first time (208). While in 2019/20 the trend continued, with far-right referrals at 302 and the Islamist figure at 210.

So, far-right terrorism has long been a concern, but the evidence is lockdown has made the threat worse. Because while there has been a reduction in the number of attacks during the pandemics, there has been a major uptick in online activity. With people isolated from friends and family, stuck at home and more likely to be online, there are fears those vulnerable to exploitation are more at risk. And contact with state institutions such as schools, which might have been expected to pick up the signs of radicalisation, has been less frequent.

The pandemic and the resulting lockdown have led to a spike in online extremism across the board. Islamist extremists have also used the opportunity to spread their propaganda. But there is evidence the far-right has especially flourished. This is in part because its narrative dovetails with that of Covid conspiracies and anti-vaccine sceptics. Qanon, the sprawling movement borne from Trump’s MAGA, has spread beyond its right-wing origins of lionising the former President as a saviour battling an international paedophile cabal, to take in many worries. Reflecting its pedigree, it all too often feeds into anti-Semitic tropes. For example, targets for Qanon adherents include the Rothschilds and George Soros, both Jewish, and both regularly vilified by far-right groups. And this is similar to other covid conspiracy groups. Notorious antisemitic propaganda, which has been shared widely by anti-vaccine movements, includes the Committee of 300 and The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

With so many natural affinities between the beliefs pushed by the Covid conspiracy and anti-vaccine movement and their own, it’s little wonder the far-right has enjoyed a renewed success. And indeed, there’s hard data. In May 2020, the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, in collaboration with the BBC, published a report which mapped the scale and nature of online disinformation around Covid-19. While focused primarily on the US, it found hundreds of thousands of far-right posts on the subject, and a clear spike in the number discussing “elites” and linking Jeff Bezos, the Rothschilds and George Soros, and Bill Gates, to the “Deep State” and their supposed role in the pandemic.

Already there are signs of real-world effects. In October 2020, a fourteen-year-old from Eastleigh, Hampshire, was found not guilty of plotting an ISIS-inspired terror attack after filming himself exploding bottle bombs, he’d made. When the police raided his home, they found notes on his phone referencing “the extinction of the human race”. The prosecution claimed he was an adherent of extremist Islam. His defence successfully argued he was a victim of neglect and abuse, was living out a fantasy, and had no real desire to commit an act of terror. But both sides accept he began constructing the bombs during lockdown.

And here lies the rub: while in this case the person meant no harm, how many other vulnerable people have been radicalised into actually wishing harm on others? And if, as the evidence suggests, the far-right has flourished most, what are the chances the next attack, foiled or otherwise will come from this direction?

The police are certainly worried.

The most recent figures released show that in the year to March 2021, 13 per cent of suspects arrested in the UK for terrorism offences were aged under 18. Of the 21 children arrested, 15, or 71 per cent, were linked to extreme right-wing beliefs.

On July 7th, speaking to the London Assembly, Commander Richard Smith, head of the Metropolitan Police Service Counter-Terrorism Command, said: “One of the impacts of the pandemic has been to leave young people at greater risk of radicalisation and vulnerable people at greater risk of radicalisation online … There’s a real toxic mix that we may see as we come out of the pandemic in terms of the numbers of people who have been at risk of radicalisation.”

So worried are the authorities that they’re appealing for the public’s help in spotting those at risk, asking parents, relatives and friends to report those they are concerned about. A new website and helpline has been set up, Act Early, to encourage adults to report signs of young people at risk of being radicalised in the hope they can be diverted before it is too late.

Only time will tell whether this is enough, or too little too late, to counter the surge of far-right hate which was unleashed online over lockdown.

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