LONDON – As countries in Europe reopen after lengthy Covid-19 shutdowns, cinemas, pubs and restaurants are eager to resume operations.
But as entertainment and nightlife venues begin to fill up again, counterterrorism experts and law enforcement officials warn of a renewed threat: the rise of domestic, fueled terrorism. by an increase in far-right ideology and conspiracy theories that flourished during the pandemic, or violent Islamist ideology.
“What is likely to happen is simply a growing rise in violent right-wing extremism,” Gilles de Kerchove, EU counterterrorism chief, said in April. “They use the Covid a lot to promote their cause. It is certainly an issue that must be high on the agenda of governments. “
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The threat of ideologically motivated mass murder is very present in Europe. Last week marked four years that an Islamist suicide bomber killed 22 people outside singer Ariana Grande’s concert in Manchester, England. This November will mark the sixth anniversary of the deaths of 90 people in the Bataclan concert hall in Paris.
Since the defeat of ISIS forces in the Middle East, terrorist attacks in Western Europe have declined. But the threat, police say, could now increase again.
The London Metropolitan Police, the UK’s largest force, said this month it had foiled at least four late-stage terrorist plots since the start of the pandemic. The force declined to release details of these cases, but said the four were either inspired by the far right or by a violent Islamist ideology.
“While the rest of us have focused on protecting ourselves and our families from Covid-19, terrorists haven’t stopped planning attacks or radicalizing vulnerable people online,” Deputy Constable Matt Twist told reporters earlier this month at the notorious Scotland Yard Metropolitan Police headquarters.
“Now that we are moving out of confinement to normality, we again need the help of the public to fight terrorism in all its forms. “
Due to the slowdown in public life due to the pandemic, terrorism arrests in the UK have fallen to their lowest level in nearly a decade. According to the Metropolitan Police, 185 people have been arrested for terrorism since the start of 2020, a drop of 34% from the previous 12 months.
But police fear successive lockdowns have created the ideal conditions for terrorism to thrive, fueling long-standing grievances, exacerbating economic inequalities and stoking mistrust of authority.
Additionally, people looking for explanations for these bewildering circumstances can find them in the flourishing conspiracy theory networks on social media, especially on platforms such as Telegram.
“Covid-19 has caused a lot of people to spend more time online,” Twist said. “And we have seen an increased body of extremism and hatred online, much of which falls below the criminal threshold but creates a disturbing and permissive environment that makes it easier for terrorists to peddle their brand of hate.”
Put it all together, he said, and you have a situation of “real concern”.
We may already be seeing the consequences. A huge manhunt is underway in Belgium after an armed soldier, who made threats against top public health experts, disappeared last week. The country’s top virologist and his family are in hiding after receiving death threats.
Police fear that increased activism by anti-authority and anti-lockdown movements could lead to similar cases or incidents like the attacks on 5G cell towers in England in April 2020, which the UK government says , were “apparently inspired by some crazy conspiracy theories circulating online.”
Potential Islamist plots still account for around 69% of Metropolitan Police counterterrorism cases, the force said, but right-wing cases represent 30% and their proportion is increasing.
“Radical right-wing extremism was already on the rise before the pandemic,” the Center for Analysis of the Radical Right, a British think tank, wrote in an article published May 25, “but its co-opting of skepticism and conspiracy of Covid is very likely to exacerbate this ever-growing threat.
Certainly, the pandemic has allowed conspiracy theories and the groups that espouse them to flourish like never before.
“With the emergence of Covid-19, many existing conspiracy theory networks in the UK, which already had links with the far right as well as the far left, were really able to capitalize on this moment,” he said. said David Lawrence. , researcher with the British anti-extremist campaign group Hope Not Hate, which tracks the growth of the far right across Europe.
“They have achieved new national and international importance. “
Thousands of people, many of whom argue that the increased powers deployed by governments during the Covid-19 crisis are undemocratic, have witnessed a series of anti-containment marches across Europe over the past year.
Fed by semi-public Telegram channels sharing memes, videos, cartoons and strident warnings against those in power, organizers claimed 10,000 people attended a march in London in April. (Police have not confirmed a figure.)
Many protesters also espoused anti-vaccine views and expressed strong doubts about the safety of the shots, which have now been given to more than 38 million people in the UK, more than half the population.
The diverse mix of people – which includes both left and right groups – embodies an unusual mix of anti-authority backlash and long-standing populism, Lawrence said.
“There is a fusion of different groups all uniting around this populist, anti-elite, conspiracy-theory-driven agenda,” he said.
“Conspiracy theories and populist politics share a framework: they divide society between these corrupt, sinister and controlling elites and a purely unconscious people. There is a binary worldview that gives them a natural fit in some ways.