Life in Europe was halted by Covid. Domestic terror efforts weren't.

LONDON – As countries across Europe reopen after long Covid-19 lockdowns, cinemas, pubs and restaurants look forward to doing business again.

But as the entertainment and nightlife options fill up again, counter-terrorism experts and law enforcement officials are warning of a renewed threat: rising domestic terrorism, fueled by an increase in far-right ideology and conspiracy theories that flourished during the pandemic, or violent Islamist ideology.

“What is likely to happen is just a growing surge in right-wing violent extremism,” said Gilles de Kerchove, European Union chief for counter-terrorism. said In April. “They often use Covid to promote their cause. That is certainly an issue that needs to be high on the agenda of governments. “

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The danger of ideologically motivated mass murders is great in Europe. Last week it was four years since an Islamist bomber killed 22 people in front of singer Ariana Grande’s concert in Manchester, England. This November it will be six years since 90 people were killed in the Bataclan concert hall in Paris.

Terrorist attacks across Western Europe have subsided since the defeat of the Islamic state forces in the Middle East. But the threat, say the police, could now increase again.

The London Metropolitan Police, the UK’s largest force, announced this month that it has foiled at least four late-stage terrorist attacks since the pandemic began. The troop declined to release details of these cases, but said all four were inspired by either a far-right or a violent Islamist ideology.

“While the rest of us have focused on protecting ourselves and our families from Covid-19, terrorists have not stopped planning attacks or radicalizing vulnerable people online,” deputy cop Matt Twist told journalists at the earlier this month famous Scotland Yard the Metropolitan Police headquarters.

“Now that we are beyond normalcy, we again need public help in fighting terrorism in all its forms.”

French gendarmes secure the area around the Notre-Dame de l’Assomption basilica in Nice on October 31, 2020, two days after a knife attacker killed three people.Valery Hache / AFP via the Getty Images file

As a result of the slowdown in public life due to the pandemic, terrorism arrests in Britain fell to their lowest level in nearly a decade. According to the Metropolitan Police, 185 people have been arrested for terrorism since early 2020, a 34 percent decrease from the previous 12 months.

Police are concerned, however, that successive lockdowns have created the perfect conditions for terrorism to flourish, fueling long-standing grievances, exacerbating economic inequalities and creating suspicion of authority.

In addition, people looking for explanations for these confusing circumstances may find them in the thriving networks of conspiracy theory on social media, particularly platforms like Telegram.

“Covid-19 has made large numbers of people spend more time online,” said Twist. “And we’ve seen an increase in online extremism and hatred, much of it below the criminal line, but which creates a worryingly permissive environment that makes it easier for terrorists to spread their hatred.”

All together, he said, and you have a “real concern” situation.

Protesters clash with metropolitan police officers during a rally against vaccines in Trafalgar Square, London in 2020.Hollie Adams / Getty Images File

We may already see the consequences. A major manhunt is underway in Belgium after an armed soldier who threatened leading public health experts disappeared last week. The country’s leading virologist and his family go into hiding after receiving death threats.

Police fear that increased activism by anti-authority and anti-lockdown movements could lead to similar cases or incidents like the April 2020 attack on 5G cell towers in England, which the UK government said “appears to have been spread online by crackpot.” -Conspiracy theories were inspired. ”

Potential Islamist conspiracies still make up around 69 percent of the Metropolitan Police’s counterterrorism, the force said, but right-wing cases make up 30 percent and their proportion is growing.

“Radical right-wing extremism was already on the rise before the pandemic,” wrote the Center for Analysis of the Radical Right, a British think tank an article published on May 25th“But the co-optation of Covid’s skepticism and conspiracy will most likely exacerbate this ever-growing threat.”

Certainly, the pandemic has allowed conspiracy theories and the groups they advocate to flourish like never before.

“With the advent of Covid-19, many existing conspiracy theory networks in the UK that already had links to the far right and far left were able to really take advantage of this moment,” said David Lawrence, a researcher with UK anti-extremist campaign group Hope Not Hate that has followed the growth of the right across Europe.

“They have acquired a new meaning nationally and internationally.”

A man looks at flowers placed outside the Bois d’Aulne secondary school outside Paris as a tribute to the murdered history teacher Samuel Paty, who was beheaded by an assailant for showing cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in his citizenship class.Anne-Christine Poujoulat / AFP via the Getty Images file

Thousands of people, many of whom argue that the expanded powers used by governments during the Covid-19 crisis are anti-democratic, have participated in a number of anti-lockdown demonstrations across Europe over the past year.

Fueled by semi-public telegram channels sharing memes, videos, cartoons and stern warnings about those in power, organizers said 10,000 attended a march in London in April. (The police would not confirm a number.)

Many protesters have also spoken out in favor of anti-vaccine views and expressed strong doubts about the safety of the shots, which have now been given to more than 38 million people in the UK, more than half the population.

The diverse mix of people – which includes both left and right groups – embodies an unusual mix of anti-authority response and longstanding populism, Lawrence said.

“There is an amalgamation of different groups, all of whom are grouping around this populist, anti-elite, conspiracy-driven agenda,” he said.

“Both conspiracy theories and populist politics share a framework: They divide society between these corrupt, dark, controlling elites and a pure, ignorant people. There’s a binary worldview that in some ways gives them a natural fit. “

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