Gilles de Kerchove: Terrorists and extremists seek to exploit pandemic to stage attacks

The EU Counter-Terrorism Coordinator Gilles de Kerchove warns that the coronavirus pandemic is being used by extremists as an opportunity to spread their message and could be exploited to carry out attacks. In a confidential briefing to member nations obtained on Wednesday by AP, he cautioned that right-wing extremists and Islamic militants “could view attacks on medical personnel and facilities as highly effective, because these would generate a massive shock in society.”

De Kerchove noted that in the US, the FBI in March shot and killed a white supremacist while trying to arrest him for plotting to blow up a hospital treating COVID-19 patients, after initially considering an attack on an African-American school, mosque or synagogue.

From past experience, he said it’s known that “terrorists and violent extremists, aiming to change societies and governmental systems through violence, seek to exploit major crises to achieve their objectives”. De Kerchove also recalls that the Islamic State group, for example, emerged after the US-led invasion of Iraq and then gained strength during the Arab Spring uprisings.

In Europe, left-wing extremists are paying “extensive attention” to the pandemic, blaming governments and “the capitalist system as a whole” for it, saying politicians have underfunded health care services, de Kerchove wrote in the analysis provided to EU member nations on 7 May and first reported on Wednesday by Germany's Die Zeit newspaper's online edition. IS has “incited its supporters in the West to take advantage of the current crisis to stage attacks,” but so far there has been no uptick in any violence, he said.

Currently, most extremists seem to be using the crisis for propaganda purposes, taking advantage of the fact that with lockdown measures people are spending more time online than usual.

“To increase their support base, violent extremists use people’s insecurities, vulnerabilities and grievances, creating a simple narrative which ‘explains’ problems by blaming outsiders,” de Kerchove also wrote.

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