Why, suddenly, has Islamist terrorism made a resurgence in the West?

As countries globally continued to tackle COVID-19, for a while there it seemed that Islamist terrorism in the West had gone quiet. With ISIS losing its physical caliphate of Syria and Iraq last year, tighter territorial and border controls as a result of global lockdowns, and international travel essentially grinding to a halt, it seemed on face value that ISIS had lost both its “capacity, if not its willingness, to launch attacks around the world” in non-conflict zones. The reality? This was just the calm before the “perfect storm”.

What we now know is that despite the original lull of physical attacks in the West, ISIS was launching a different kind of attack online. They were attacking, and continue to attack, the minds of young people hardest hit by the pandemic. Those lost, alone, anxious and desperate for a sense of community and purpose; the perfect prey for terrorist recruiters who have years of experience developing bonds via social media and know exactly how to “exploit the far reaching disruption and negative socioeconomic and political impacts of the pandemic”.

In June 2020 the UN Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate released a paper on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on terrorism, counter-terrorism and countering violent extremism. The paper cited the fact that with over 1 billion students no longer in full-time education, terrorists groups have a captive audience.

“The increase in the number of young people engaging in unsupervised internet usage – particularly on gaming platforms – offers terrorist groups the opportunity to expose a greater number of people to their ideas…”

The June 2020 paper also indicated that terrorist groups have integrated COVID-19 into their online propaganda rhetoric. From the outset, ISIS promoted an explanation for COVID-19 in line with its apocalyptic narratives, with ISIS and al-Qaeda each claiming that COVID-19 is “God’s wrath upon the West“, and the disease itself is a “soldier of Allah” sent to avenge the Muslim people’s suffering brought by the US and its allies.

In the article Terrorism in the time of the pandemic: exploiting mayhem, Kruglanski et al provides a list of examples of ISIS using COVID-19 propaganda online to incite violence against the US and its allies. For example, on 28 May 2020, ISIS Spokesman Abu Hamza al-Quashi made a speech published online, claiming that amongst other things, the pandemic was divine retribution for the deaths in ISIS held territories of Syria and Iraq caused by the US led coalition. He claimed that this is evidenced by the parallels between people having to stay locked in their homes, and a similar number of deaths. Kruglanski et al explains that this assertion has also been seen tweeted on pro-ISIS platforms with statements such as “#coraonavirus is doing the work of the mujihadeen, alhamdullah”.

Ultimately, ISIS’ skillful use of the internet to radicalise individuals together with the economic and social impacts of COVID-19 has created what some analysts are calling the “perfect storm“. With this in mind, in August 2020, Vladamir Voronkov, the Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations Office of Counter-Terrorism cited ISIS’ rising online presence as a major concern warning that its “opportunistic propaganda efforts during the pandemic could be fueling continued attacks carried out by individuals inspired online”.

Voronkov’s warning first proved true with the 25 September 2020 Paris stabbing attack outside the former headquarters of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. Suddenly, ISIS’ welcomed quiet in the West had been broken. Seven people were arrested and taken into custody, suspected of being pro-Islamist, as footage emerged of a 25-year-old suspect “weeping and denouncing the publication of cartoons of the prophet Muhammad”.

Just 9 days later, on 4 October 2020, there was the deadly knife attack in the German city of Dresden, where two men were stabbed by a 20-year-old Syrian asylum seeker who was likely motivated by Islamist extremism.

October saw two other Islamist terrorist attacks in Europe, both in France.

The first, on 16 October 2020, was the stabbing of history teacher Samuel Paty by an 18-year old Russian man of Chechen origin. Paty had reportedly shown caricatures of the Islamic prophet Muhammad to his class, which incited the pro-Islamic violence. The second, on 29 October 2020, was a beheading and stabbing attack in front of the Notre-Dame de Nice, by a 21-year-old Tunisian man. Three people were killed as he shouted “Allahu Akbar” (God is Greatest).

3 days later, on 2 November 2020, five people were killed and another 15 injured in an Islamist terrorist attack in Central Vienna. The assailant was 20 years old, held dual citizenship in Austria and North Macedonia, and was already known to Austrian police having been sentenced to jail in April 2019 for trying to join ISIS in Syria, but was released on parole last December. Another 21 peopled aged between 16 and 28 are reportedly under investigation for being suspected accomplices, 10 of them are already in custody.

Accordingly, although there is no data on the “success” of ISIS’ propagandistic campaigns via the internet, it is difficult to ignore the correlation between ISIS’ opportunistic online propaganda efforts during COVID-19, the recent increased spate of Islamist terrorist attacks in the West, and the fact that the assailants/their accomplices are all aged between 16 and 28, (the prime online age group). As such, it seems that that the analysts who anticipated the “perfect storm” are unfortunately correct, and as a result of ISIS’ exploitation of the cyber world, we sadly may be in for more Islamist fuelled terrorism before the year is out. This is why the work of the Online Hate Prevention Institute is so important – the less online hate and extremism there is on the internet, hopefully the less terrorism we will suffer.

Researched and written by: Ellena Kouris

Ellena is a Law Graduate working in a commercial law firm. She graduated La Trobe University with a Bachelor of Laws (Hons) and Bachelor of International Relations, and has a keen interest in the intersection between terrorism, privacy, and 21st century society.

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This article is part of our November 2020 campaign to Counter Terrorism. We are now preparing for our December campaign to Tackle Cyberbullying and welcome donations through the campaign fundraiser to increase its scope & impact.