Extremists, Anti-Government Agendas, and the Coronavirus Pandemic: A Crisis Exploited | Samuel Stockwell
Crises – Golden ‘Opportunities’ for Extremists
The onset of a crisis provides ample opportunity for extremists of different ideological shades to seize on division, uncertainty and anger for the advancement of their radical ambitions. Although they have stark differences on a range of issues, far-right, far-left and Islamist extremists share a common bond over their desire to remove and replace existing forms of governance. Indeed, such overlap in anti-government narratives have come to foreground in light of the coronavirus outbreak – especially in the United Kingdom (UK) and United States (US).
Public confidence in government within both countries has been massively undermined by the ways in which their respective administrations have badly handled containing the virus. Edelman’s 2020 ‘Trust Barometer’ found that trust in the UK government was at a dangerously-low 36%, whilst that in the US government was only marginally better at 39 per cent. In addition, a 2019 Pew Research Center poll highlighted that there was also more systemic dissatisfaction with democracy in general. 66 per cent of Brits believed that current democratic processes were not working adequately, rising to 67 per cent for Americans who shared this sentiment. It is against this backdrop of deep democratic dissatisfaction that extremists can successfully further their anti-establishment narratives.
The Far-Right, Anti-Lockdown Protests and the Virus of Anti-Semitism
Extremist speculation over the origins of the coronavirus since it emerged have led to far-right groups reviving centuries-old tropes about Jewish global influence to generate resentment against the community, whilst simultaneously weakening the credibility of state-led coronavirus efforts. It has been fictitiously claimed that Jews are behind the creation of a supranational government, as a means of achieving world domination through the manipulation of “events to expand their power”. Indeed, a recent report by The Henry Jackson Society found that there had been “an explosion of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories online” in light of the ongoing pandemic, with the neo-Nazi BNSM group promoting pictures of Jews being “pleased with the effects of [the virus]”. Similarly, conspiratorial content circulating on Twitter by American far-right organisations accused the Federal Emergency Management Agency of preparing to impose martial law as a result of being under the control of the Hasidic ‘Chabad Lubavitch’ movement, in an effort to stifle federal aid relief.
In a similar vein, the far-right seized upon anti-lockdown protests on both sides of the Atlantic to intensify anti-government discontent. They were instrumental in shifting the debates within the demonstrations away from economic grievances and towards more fundamental concerns that challenge the very essence of the democratic state – including ‘liberty’ and ‘human rights’. The impetus driving this strategy centres on their accelerationist beliefs that “rebuilding a racially pure world order requires stoking chaos” in democratic society. This was reflected by American Revolution 2.0 (AR2), one of the most prominent anti-lockdown protest groups in the US, which received extensive assistance from “well-established far-right actors”, such as fervent pro-gun advocates like the ‘Three Percent’ militiamen. Likewise, Jayda Fransen, the former deputy leader of the far-right Britain First group, was accused of encouraging Bristolians to violate lockdown regulations to express concerns over “the loss of [our] civil liberties”.
The Far-Left, 5G, and the End of Capitalism
Whilst far-right ideologues have managed to direct protests over the coronavirus towards an attack on democracy, left-wing radicals also perceive the pandemic as the coming of their own desired ideological outcome – “the long-awaited end of capitalism”. Just like with the 2008 financial crisis, the far-left have sought to reframe the coronavirus situation as a crisis of capitalism. Yet the way in which they have reacted to the pandemic has exposed their desire to actively operate against government efforts to contain the virus, as a means of facilitating social unrest. Recently, the wave of arson attacks carried out in Britain on telephone signal masts was strongly connected to left-wing “fringe blogs” that tied new 5G technology with the virus, largely constructed around an “anti-capitalist, anti-globalisation agenda”. Perhaps more worryingly, the radical left also aimed to smear free-market capitalism through absurdly claiming that the pandemic allowed the Johnson administration to ‘remove’ Britain’s “elderly, disabled, and immunocompromised” that were seen as a ‘nuisance’ to market dynamics.
Islamism and Divine Punishment for ‘Crusader Nations’
Islamist extremists have historically exploited natural disasters as “divine retribution” against their enemies. It is therefore unsurprising that the pandemic has been called a “painful torment” for all “Crusader nations” in the West, despite the fact that a number of Sunni-Majority countries – such as Bangladesh and Pakistan – have now suffered from a notable number of COVID-19 deaths. Like their radical far-left and far-right counterparts, Islamists are exploiting the COVID-19 pandemic to press ahead with their efforts to undermine models of liberal democratic governance. This revolves around calls for the establishment of a theocratic Islamic Caliphate, seen as a solution that will protect Muslims in contrast to Western governments. In the US, this has taken the form of al-Sahab, al-Qaeda’s media arm, publishing an article that cites the “abandonment” of the elderly in light of the coronavirus, calling it a “shocking reflection of the savage reality of Western materialism”. Similarly, Islamist extremist group Hizb ut-Tahrir has flooded social media in the UK with conspiracy theories accusing the Johnson administration of attempting to use future vaccines to “deliberately harm minority communities”, and that COVID-19 is a conspiracy used to “control the population”.
Stopping the Advancing Tide of Extremism
It is clear that extremists from all sides of the political spectrum in the UK and US have cleverly exploited the current pandemic to garner greater influence in broader society. By carefully crafting fringe narratives around mainstream dissatisfaction towards the coronavirus response of Western governments, radical anti-democratic templates become to be seen as more logical and acceptable by the general public.
If we are to halt the recent advancing strides made by these groups, extensive repairs must be made to the much-damaged relationship between state and citizen. A critical first step will be to provide coherent, scientific-based advice to the populace, since the governments of both countries have suffered from a mixture of contradictory and, in the case of the US, outright nonsensical guidelines over COVID-19. Such incoherent information provides abundant ammunition for extremists to gain leverage in furthering their anti-state agendas. From a counter-terrorism perspective, governments must also work alongside social media companies to aggressively remove coronavirus-related content that is clearly both conspiratorial and malicious in intent, since these platforms are enabling radical organisations to spread their message globally to a far wider audience.
Indeed, it is only through shining light on the absurdity of these extremist claims that we can expose and prevent the materialisation of their dangerous ‘solutions’ to liberal democracy that lurk in the shadows.
Samuel Stockwell is a War Studies postgraduate student at King’s College London, specialising in the area of terrorism and deradicalisation in the Western world. He has also worked as a research intern with the Henry Jackson Society’s Centre on Radicalisation & Terrorism. Twitter: @_stockwell_