How is the pandemic affecting terrorist networks in Europe?
The world driven by the pandemic reality is not one where, due to the fact that people spend less time outside socializing, terrorism has disappeared. COVID-19 has not eliminated the extremism threat merely because the in-person recruitment and events where the vulnerable youth were targeted to be radicalised have been prohibited and have not taken place for almost a year now. We need to remember that just as we are slowly getting used to our lives largely confined inside of our houses and the majority of our work being conducted with online meetings, usually taking place via communication platforms, so are extremists from all radical illegal networks operating in Europe and around the world.
Necessity is always the driver for change or development, in terms of technological advances, medical innovation or economic or societal progress.
Assuming that terrorist networks would cease to exist altogether and would not follow the same path of change to accommodate the changing reality to assure survival is naïve. In fact, radical networks have moved their activities to the virtual space just as most of us have moved our professional lives to the online world. As a result, extremist groups are now more present online than ever. This poses an increased threat to the young part of the society who, confined in their homes, using social media channels more than ever before.
Moreover, we are more vulnerable to the hateful narrative espoused by the terrorist networks in the time of the pandemic, where we all grapple with tension, uncertainty and the feeling of disconnection from the rest of our society, our close ones and the human interaction in general. Extremist network prey on people who experience these sentiments and, in the pandemic ridden world, the majority of the global community suffers at a varying degree. In this sense, having to restrict some of its radicalisation and recruitment activities, the extremism groups may benefit from it in a long term. Indeed, an increased concentration of all activities in virtual space makes it easier to target the new potential of radicalism. This is because terrorist networks do not need to physically travel to diverse places where social gatherings take place such as are: concerts, schools etc. to reach out to the potential new members in person. Engaging in this activity in the virtual domain allows the terrorists to enjoy relatively more safety (they do not need to interact with anyone in person which poses less risk of being caught by authorities while doing so. Also, operating in virtual space permits us to find vulnerable people with more ease - mainly by infiltrating young people’s social media accounts and personal information accessible through these channels. Following this viewpoint, the pandemic which forced the extremist networks to invest more in the virtual means of radicalisation may well benefit the radical groups in a long run. The extremist narrative becomes more and more complex and further develops in order to address those in front of their computers. As a result, the message framing, propaganda mechanisms and targeted radical narrative become more difficult than ever to take advantage of the increased number of people online every day.
At the same time, as the world’s attention is, in the majority, directed towards policies relating to the pandemic, the problem of terrorism, although not forgotten, is not reported on as extensively as it had been the case before 2020. CT measures and new regulations are now less frequently the first points/priorities on the international and intergovernmental meetings’ agenda. Additionally, not only is the internet used by terrorists as a mean or a channel to expand their ideology; the societal feelings created by the pandemic are being employed by the radicals too in order to promote their message and to increase the recruitment efficiency and speed. Indeed, Jihadi networks claim that the pandemic is the punishment from god for those who do not adhere to Islamic values, while the extreme right uses the pandemic to promote the idea according to which COVID19 has spread so quickly due to the globalised world, open borders and the large numbers of minorities in Europe as well as the EU assistance to refugees.
According to Catherine de Bolle, the chief of the EU Agency for Law Enforcement Cooperation (Europol) international police cooperation is essential to prevent these growing threats. Europol is known to have cooperated on an international level with the U.S., New Zealand and South America to identify transnational extremist networks operating across the borders and in cyberspace. To fight the threat coming from the network that is not constricted by borders, only cooperation that does not restrict itself within a particular geographical area, can have an impact. Only regular information and expertise exchange, regular dialogue and standardised regulations that aim to protect people and vulnerable security infrastructures will be able to slow down the rate at which terrorist networks expand in staff and scope. For that, prioritising Europol’s objectives and placing CT as a priority also in virtual space is essential. Only then, the relevant European, national and regional agencies will be equipped well enough to respond to the terrorist threat with the preparedness that could match the advantages that the extremist groups benefit from.