COVID-19 gave terrorists new opportunities to spread message, Europol says

The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the spread of violent ideologies with terrorists and extremists capitalising on the increased time spent online, a new Europol report has found.

The latest “EU Terrorism Situation and Trend Report” by the bloc’s law enforcement agency warns that “a notable increase” in intolerance of political opponents occurred in 2020, spurred in part by the global health crisis.

It noted that extremists and terrorists have found new opportunities in the increased time spent online as people were under lockdown and that the pandemic might have been “an additional stress factor” used to encourage vulnerable individuals to turn to violence.

It flagged that 57 completed, failed and foiled terrorist attacks were reported across the bloc in 2020, although they occurred in just six member states: Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Italy and Spain.

Twenty-one people died as a result of these attacks while 449 individuals were arrested on suspicion of terrorism-related offences in 17 member states — a third lower than in 2019.

Lone-wolf jihadist attacks on the rise

Jihadist terrorism remains the greatest threat to the 27-country bloc, according to Europol, with the number of completed attacks increasing year-on-year to 10. These killed 12 people and injured nearly 50 more.

All were carried out by lone actors, some of whom were in contact with terrorist groups, including the perpetrator of the November 2020 Vienna attack who killed four people.

A collaboration between Telegram and Europol drastically reduced jihadist groups’ ability to disseminate their message via Telegram since late 2019 forcing such groups to find new dissemination channels. As a result, jihadist propaganda has become dispersed across a variety of channels, Europol said.

Groups including the so-called Islamic State and Al-Qaeda have exploited different events to amplify their propaganda with the latter using the issue of discrimination in Western societies to cast itself as an alternative protecting the rights of the oppressed. Others used the controversy concerning the republication of cartoons depicting Prophet Muhammad to gain new supporters and inspire attacks.

Right-wing terrorism becoming younger

Ring-wing extremists have meanwhile sought to incorporate newly emerging narratives to infiltrate communities that may not, at first glance, share their core views.

This includes increased social awareness concerning climate change with right-wing propaganda blaming immigration and overpopulation for the climate crisis and using that as a bridge towards ideologies based on nationalism, anti-Semitism and accelerationism, referring to some white nationalists’ goal to “accelerate” racial conflict in the hope of creating a white ethnostate.

This approach, disseminated online and through gaming platforms, has succeeded in reaching out to younger, more educated people, Europol flagged. Suspects are therefore increasingly younger, some of them minors at the time of arrests.

The February 2020 attack in Hanau, Germany, in which nine people were killed was the only completed right-wing terrorist attack that year. Three others failed or were foiled in Belgium, France and Germany.

Meanwhile, the number of left-wing and anarchist terrorist attacks remained stable, with Italy reporting 24 of the 25 attacks. These primarily targeted private and public property such as financial institutions and government buildings.

Topics fuelling left-wing terrorism include anti-fascism, anti-racism and perceived state oppression but have now expanded to integrate new ones such as skepticism about technological and scientific developments, COVID-19 containment measures and environmental issues.