LONDON (Reuters) - The coronavirus pandemic is fuelling extremism on the far-right and far-left in Europe and giving Islamic State and other militants cover to regain influence, the European Union’s counter-terrorism chief has warned.
While the priority must be tackling the health and economic fallout from COVID-19, governments should not overlook security issues, including the risk of frustration over lockdowns and economic hardships abetting radicalisation and recruitment, Gilles de Kerchove said.
He told Reuters he would shortly circulate a paper to member states setting out a list of concerns - including reports that far-right groups have been sending out messages online encouraging supporters to go out and infect “enemies”.
Beyond Europe, Islamic State and related groups are seeking to recoup ground in Iraq, Syria and the Sahel, exploiting the fact that governments are caught up in combating the virus or otherwise destabilised, including by the collapsed oil price.
“The virus has an impact on fragile states and gives Daesh new room to breathe,” he said in a telephone interview on Wednesday. “There are serious causes for concern.”
Iraq is a particular worry as it struggles to form a government after the appointment of a third prime minister-designate, and as oil prices - its main source of income - collapse on the back of the pandemic.
“I hope we do not lose sight of the security risks as we focus, quite rightly, on the immediate health and social impact,” said de Kerchove, a Belgian official who has overseen EU counter-terrorism since 2007.
“The massive amount of money that will be spent to address the economic, social and healthcare consequences of the virus risks being at the expense of security. We must prevent the one crisis ending up producing another.”
De Kerchove said he hoped his paper would encourage discussion as member states started to lift nearly two months of intense restrictions imposed due to the virus. “I hope it will lead to some decisions.”
Of note globally, he said, was a surge in far-right activity online, with websites including 4Chan and messaging apps such as Telegram being used to propagate hatred against Jews, Muslims, migrants and others who are often scapegoated at a time of crisis and are now being wrongly blamed for the pandemic.
He said his team had seen online calls for followers to infect their “enemies” with the virus. In Tunisia, there was an attempt to spread it among security forces, he said. Fringe blogs have played up conspiracy theories about the disease’s origin, blaming China or Iran or Israel, but ultimately looking to sow anger and paranoia among already alarmed populations.
“People are confined and are a lot more online. It’s an ideal opportunity to reach those who spend all day on their computers,” said De Kerchove.
“What is likely to happen is just a growing rise of right-wing violent extremism ... They are using COVID a lot to promote their cause. That is certainly an issue that needs to be at the top of the agenda of governments.”
He said there was radical activity on the far-left, too. People who believe 5G technology is spreading the disease have set fire to mobile masts in Britain and the Netherlands, and fringe blogs are using the virus to push an anti-capitalist, anti-globalisation agenda in multiple European languages.
The lockdowns across Europe have put a stop to large gatherings, reducing terrorism targets. But there have still been Islamic State-backed attacks in France and significant arrests in Spain and Germany.
De Kerchove said there was a need for heightened vigilance, especially in the weeks and months to come.
“For decades we’ve been talking about the development of a biological weapon by a terrorism group. That’s the sort of thing we cannot lose sight of,” he said.
Editing by Andrew Heavens