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Illustration by Security Management

Terrorists Used COVID-19 Pandemic to Spread Propaganda, Exacerbate Mistrust, Europol Finds

Terrorist organizations used the disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic to spread hate propaganda and exacerbate mistrust in public institutions, according to an annual report by Europol.

Europol’s Terrorism Situation and Trend Report 2021 assessed that there were 57 completed, failed, and foiled terror attacks in the European Union in 2020; that 21 people were killed in these attacks; and that 449 individuals were arrested on suspicion of terrorism-related offenses—a one-third decrease from previous years.

Lone actors were behind all of the deadly terror attacks in 2020, Europol said, and the threat of Jihadist terrorism remains the greatest threat to the European Union. The number of completed terror attacks increased in 2020, compared to 2019.

“Some of the lone actors have displayed a combination of extreme ideologies and mental health issues,” Europol said in a press release. “Social isolation with fewer contacts who could pick up signs of crisis and increased stress as a result of the pandemic may have played a role in some cases.”

In addition to these findings, Europol also assessed that the COVID-19 pandemic “accelerated” the polarization of political discourse in the European Union. Terrorists often exploit polarization to spread their ideologies.

“There has been a notable increase in intolerance of political opponents, while the number of individuals conducting verbal or physical violence is also increasing,” according to a Europol press release on the report. “Mental health remains an issue in relation to terrorism and violent extremism. The situation created by the pandemic might be an additional stress factor, potentially encouraging vulnerable individuals to turn to violence.”

Europol also found that the increasing amount of time individuals spent online in 2020 may have created new opportunities for extremists and terrorists to spread their ideologies.

“The online domain plays a crucial role in enabling the spread of terrorist and extremist propaganda,” said Europol Executive Director Catherine De Bolle in a statement. “In a world, which has become considerably more digital, targeting the propagation of hatred and violent ideologies spread online is an imperative.”

One ideology that increased in prominence online in 2020 was right-wing extremism. These extremists used new narratives to infiltrate other online communities and expose them to some of their views.

“As an example, Identitarian movements have succeeded in reaching out to younger, more educated populations,” Europol said. “Some are connected to protests against government measures aimed at containing the COVID-19 pandemic. Increased social awareness concerning climate and ecological issues has also impacted right-wing propaganda. Blaming the climate crisis on increased immigration and overpopulation, for example, eco-fascism aims to act as a bridge towards ideologies based on accelerationism, anti-Semitism, and nationalism.” 

Right-wing propaganda is increasingly disseminated online and through gaming platforms. Multiple violent far-right attacks have been linked to “chan culture”—subcultures built and proliferated on websites and message boards, such as 4chan, 8chan, or 8kun, according to previous reporting by Security Management.

“The connection between chan sites and violence is concerning not only because of the chans’ tangible connection to specific far-right attacks but of the widespread community support that exists within these online subcultures—in which violence is both trivialized and glorified,” wrote the authors of Memetic Irony and the Promotion of Violence within Chan Cultures, published in December 2020 and analyzed by Managing Editor Claire Meyer. The report found that memes are often used to promote extremist narratives, lowering the barrier for participation and attracting a younger audience.

Along with the spread of propaganda and extremist views, Europol also highlighted that terrorists turned to simple weaponry—knives, vehicle attacks, and arson—and “easy-to-make” explosive devices to carry out their attacks in 2020.

“Homemade explosives are mainly used by terrorists, with an increased proliferation of low-explosive mixtures such as gunpowder and a decreased use of the unstable triacetone triperoxide (TATP),” Europol said. “The dissemination of bomb-making instructions and new ideas on bomb manufacturing decreased in 2020. This may explain the decreased use of more sophisticated improvised explosive devices.”