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Op-Ed: The newest variant of violent extremism? Using paranoia about the pandemic as a recruiting tool

A man jogs by a protest against vaccines and lockdowns.
Thomas Miller jogs by a protest against COVID-19 vaccines and lockdowns that was held near Dodger Stadium last January.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

For anti-government and anti-authority extremists, the COVID-19 pandemic has been a godsend. In many ways, it seems almost tailor-made for anti-government propaganda, exerting an almost magnetic pull on conspiracy theorists and other far-right extremists. The Omicron variant sweeping the globe has made vaccine mandates a global talking point, which has led a paranoid and growing fringe of extremists to threaten violence against healthcare workers, scientists and government officials in countries around the world.

The pandemic is essentially serving as a gateway drug for violent extremists to dabble in new ideologies and conspiracies. The anti-vaxxer movement could end up serving as a conveyor belt that delivers new members to other extremist groups, including militias and racially and ethnically motivated violent extremist organizations.

To counter this growing radicalization, public health officials should be meeting with counterterrorism agencies and law enforcement to help combat the newest variant of violent extremism, according to my recent analysis for the Soufan Center, a nonprofit research organization. No matter how well-intentioned, government responses to the pandemic are leading to new forms of extremism and a lowering of barriers to entry for individuals seeking to join this movement. It is crucial that governments realize that.

Around the world, protests and demonstrations against COVID-19 lockdowns, so-called health passports and vaccine mandates have turned violent. In dozens of cases, police and law enforcement officials attempting to contain the protests have been physically attacked. Many of these extremists commiserate, recruit and plan attacks over Telegram, an encrypted social media messaging app. In the United Kingdom, a Telegram channel known as Alpha Men Assemble, which boasts 2,800 followers, promotes combat training and mixed martial arts sessions while threatening “direct action” in response to coronavirus restrictions.

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Throughout Europe, an “anti-corona” ecosystem is fueling real-world violence. In Italy, where anti-vaxxers have linked up with far-right gangs, authorities disrupted a plot in September in which anti-vaxxers had planned to use explosives to carry out violent attacks. Last month, German police foiled a plot that involved six anti-vaxxer violent extremists allegedly targeting Michael Kretschmer, the state premier of Saxony in eastern Germany. In the Netherlands, protests against lockdowns and vaccines in Rotterdam, Amsterdam and The Hague led to riots that turned violent. In Australia, a man set himself on fire on New Year’s Day after screaming about vaccine mandates.

In the U.S., threats against Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s foremost infectious diseases expert, are symbolic of the country’s fractured response to the pandemic. Many Americans see Fauci as a straight-shooting hero in the age of COVID, but violent extremists have turned him into public enemy No. 1. Threats against him have grown so severe that he and his family require round-the-clock security. Online, he has been labeled a war criminal, while in Congress, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) has suggested Fauci be prosecuted and accused him of attempting “to exercise authoritarian control over millions of Americans.”

At a conservative political conference in December, Fox News host Jesse Watters used inflammatory language as he encouraged the young attendees — should they come upon Fauci in public — to “ambush” him with a “kill shot” of pointed questions “when he doesn’t see it coming.” Such violent rhetoric is extremely dangerous since it could push an individual contemplating an attack to move forward and make it a reality. Christopher Key, an American anti-vaxxer based in Alabama who calls himself the “Vaccine Police,” travels to anti-vaxxer protests around the U.S. with an arsenal of guns and ammunition. Key spews false information about the COVID vaccine, including that it is experimental and that pharmacists could be executed for administering them.

Anti-vaxxers have found common ground with conspiracy theorists, including QAnon adherents, as well as far-right extremists in general, particularly anti-government extremists who perceive every move by the federal government as tyrannical. Social media has also played a significant role by helping to bring individuals together for protests — and giving radicals a tool to spread disinformation that brings new recruits into the movement.

Disinformation campaigns are a tactic frequently used by Russia to divide and sow confusion in the West, and the pandemic has provided fertile ground for this approach. For instance, in early 2021 the U.S. Department of State’s Global Engagement Center identified three separate websites linked to Russia’s intelligence services that were flooding the internet with stories designed to undermine American citizens’ confidence in Western vaccines.

Anti-vaxxer ideology has also been explicitly endorsed by numerous politicians seeking to curry favor with a growing constituency, even if it is on the fringes of society. Some politicians have embraced the movement by promoting dangerous conspiracies related to vaccines, lockdown measures and mask mandates. Far-right Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) was permanently suspended from Twitter for numerous violations of the company’s COVID-19 misinformation policy. Greene had repeatedly spread lies and disinformation to her 465,000 followers on the social media site, including falsehoods about “extremely high amounts of covid vaccine deaths,” an incendiary claim with no basis in reality.

In many ways, the pandemic has become a political flashpoint, dividing citizens the world over between those in favor of stricter measures and those against even the most minor encroachments on everyday life, such as wearing a face covering in the grocery store. Anti-government extremists have framed every proposed state or federal measure intended to combat the coronavirus as an affront to their freedom, while encouraging Americans to prepare for civil war. According to a December poll, a third of Americans say that violence against the government is “sometimes justified,” with the most common reason for such behavior being that “Government violates or takes away rights or freedoms/Oppresses people.”

During the pandemic specific subcultures have emerged that embrace anti-vaxxer messaging, including the wellness influencer community that boasts a large following on Instagram and other social media platforms and includes yoga instructors and those promoting homeopathic remedies, holistic cures and other forms of alternative medicine. These communities can offer an online gateway for anti-vaxxer narratives, which often dovetail with extremist propaganda.

Western countries need to develop, fund and implement a strategy to counter violent extremism related to lockdowns and vaccines. This means identifying and dealing with violent extremists motivated by the pandemic the same way law enforcement and security services deal with other terrorists — by sharing intelligence, arresting and prosecuting those plotting violence, and disrupting these networks before they have the opportunity to launch attacks.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation defines terrorism in part as “violent, criminal acts committed by individuals and/or groups to further ideological goals.” It shouldn’t matter if those ideological goals seek to further global jihad or to protest COVID lockdowns or vaccine mandates.

Failing to take the threat seriously will result in the continued growth of the newest variant of violent extremism.

Colin P. Clarke is the director of policy and research at the Soufan Group and a senior research fellow at the Soufan Center.


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