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OPINION: How has a global pandemic encouraged right wing extreme terrorism?


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Like many countries, political polarization has been building in the U.S. over the past two decades. Reasons vary from scandals in the personal lives of politicians to wild conspiracy theories, serious fraud allegations to institutionalised discrimination, nepotism to incompetence, all of which are amplified by easy access to unfettered social media and rolling news stories. The new ways of gaining our news and information are readily manipulated by extremists on both the left and right of the political arena, with some being willing to break the law and threaten public safety and national security in pursuit of their cause.

Since March 2020, the global COVID-19 crisis has rapidly increased this polarization. Job losses, reduced income and the closure of businesses have all led to uncertainty and discontent.  Many people are forced to stay at home due to unemployment, self-isolation and lockdown measures. Reduced social contact, social distancing and lack of human interaction are all impacting on mental health and increasing a sense of disconnection and paranoia about who is ‘safe’ to be around.  Many of us are spending much more time online with increased exposure to social media sites tracking our preferences and reinforce our beliefs with targeted adverts and posts. Some people are even finding themselves on websites designed to radicalise them through stealth or, worse, move them into the dark web. Combine this with limited outlets for day-to-day conversations and social engagement, which would usually challenge faulty thinking or dangerous beliefs, and you have the perfect storm.

Individuals are now subject to a constant stream of information, disinformation, conspiracy theories and outright lies that question government policy, practice and motives. This is amplified by echo chambers created by artificial intelligence technology to manipulate searches, clicks, posts, friends and organizational connections.  To make it more complicated, foreign threat actors, who have mastered the manipulation of digital platforms and social media, deliberately encourage discontent to promote distrust and uncertainty.  The COVID-19 pandemic is the ideal situation for foreign threat influencers to create an atmosphere of uncertainty, fear and hostility.

On Wednesday, January 6th, 2021 the world was shocked when news that the Capitol Building in Washington D.C. was under a siege by people identifying themselves as supporters of President Trump. Scenes of protest are not uncommon in Washington D.C.: during the summer of 2020, many violent protests occurred in the capital along with other cities in the U.S.  However, this one was different because the initial rally was instigated by the President of the United States and was directed at the foundations of the democratic process by questioning the validity of the presidential election. More concerning, the rally shifted to a protest that directly threatened a democratic process and the people entrusted to carry it out: the Certification of Electoral votes in a building that is symbolic of democracy.

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This protest did not emerge out of thin air. President Trump had started a campaign of rejecting the election outcome far in advance of the election itself. His allegations were that the electoral process was flawed and fraudulent. As the outcome of the election became known, the President and his supporters planned a rally in Washington. The rally would run concurrent to the certification of Senator Joe Biden as the President Elect at the Capitol Building on January 6th. Unfortunately, the rally turned towards the Capitol building itself and grew in intensity with chants of “stop the steal”.  A select group of protestors then breached security and gained access to the building in a way that seemed to catch many people off guard. Frankly, it all seemed too easy.

Many of those involved were ready for violence, some were wearing body armour and in possession of plastic-cuffs, pepper spray and tasers. The ensuing scenes, on the streets of a country that prides itself in upholding democracy, seemed both disturbing and bizarre. The protest turned violent, with the police either unable or unwilling to stop the initial breach which led to a much more serious situation inside the building. Five people died, many more were injured, and the United States suddenly looked damaged and fragile.

Now that the initial shock has passed, investigations and evidence are showing that many of those involved were linked to right wing extremists such as the conspiracy theory groups ‘Q’ or Q Anon. There is also growing evidence that serving personnel from the military and police were amongst the protestors. The groups behind this incident seem to have been able to recruit highly motivated and determined people to enact their beliefs in ways that led to death and harm at the seat of U.S. democracy.

Right-wing extremist ideology is nothing new to the world but is often not discussed in terms of terrorism and rarely in terms of domestic terrorism. In the middle of the 20th Century, it became all too clear what happens should it go unchecked: the rise of the Nazis and subsequent Second World War. This is why the warning signs we’re seeing over the past year are of such concern for governments, law enforcement and intelligence organizations.

Right-wing extremism is an emerging and dangerous threat, politically, socially and economically. According to the Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP) Global Terrorism Index for 2020, in North America, Western Europe, and Oceania, far-right attacks have increased by 250% since 2014, with deaths increasing by 709% over the same period. [1] Further, a new report by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) has linked more than 6,600 right-wing extremism social media accounts and channels to Canada. The current COVID-19 pandemic is being strategically leveraged by right-wing extremist who have mastered the use of digital platforms to build disenfranchisement. This is often accomplished by highlighting incompetence and inequalities on how the pandemic is being handled with little evidence to support any claims.

Governments around the world are now acutely aware of the growing threat from right-wing extremist domestic terrorism.  They are developing policies and have begun to both monitor and take action to slow the momentum of these organizations.  In 2019, the Canadian government added two extreme-right neo-Nazi groups, Blood & Honour and Combat 18, to its terrorism list. It is also considering declaring the “Proud Boys” as a terrorist organization.

The uncertainty and discontent we are all experiencing as part of the global pandemic is only serving to fuel the risks to our individual and state security. Polarised societies always lead to local and national threats to our safety and prosperity. Whilst governments may write policies and police the streets, they are not able to provide all the support companies need to ensure their people, products and buildings are safe. At Globe Risk International, we monitor emerging and growing threats such as right-wing extremist movements. We study their tactics and techniques so that we can best understand how to mitigate the threat for our existing and potential clients. Within the current environment, it is essential that organizations have enhanced screening, reporting and monitoring of right-wing extremist behaviour. You cannot risk staff, customers or members of the public damaging your business through direct or indirect action that supports domestic terrorism. We all need to be alert to this emerging threat and to know how we can prevent it from spreading. Here’s to a peaceful and positive Presidential inauguration this week.

Alan Bell is the president at Globe Risk International Inc. This column is reprinted with permission and was originally published on Jan. 19, 2021.

[1] Institute for Economics & Peace. Global Terrorism Index 2020: Measuring the Impact of Terrorism, Sydney, November 2020. Available from: https://visionofhumanity.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/GTI-2020-web-1.pdf