Researching radicalisation and resilience in times of Corona

Introducing the blog and what we know already about the effects of the pandemic on our object of study

What was our experience of the pandemic during fieldwork?
A research project of the calibre of PAVE is not proposed, approved and started in a short timeframe. So when we embarked on this project some time ago, none of us could have imagined a pandemic, or how COVID-19 would affect us and our work. Like almost everyone else around the world, one of the main lessons we learned during this last year – our first project year – was how to adapt: we became Zoom pros and even though we met only once in person, we managed to create a team spirit. Now that we are into our second year of the project (and the pandemic), data collection is our main task. Field research is the core element in addressing some of the big questions that we aim to answer with PAVE. We have also gained some initial observations on how the pandemic has impacted radicalisation dynamics, violent extremist groups but also communities in general and their ability to react and adapt to shocks – in other words, their resilience. This ‘Insights’ section is a space for open reflection on the impact of the pandemic on ourselves and our object of study. Presented in the form of a blog, it will offer some glimpses into our team’s experience doing field research in a pandemic: reflecting on how they do research under these conditions, and exploring ethical questions and practical issues such as travel restrictions. We look at questions such as when, where and how to meet interviewees to talk about a sensitive topic – should we do so, perhaps, in an open space with half of our faces covered by masks? And how does this solution, or conducting an interview online, affect trust and open speech?

Effects of the pandemic on our field of study
The effects on our object of study have yet to be explored: after all, we are not done with the pandemic and a full analysis will have to take into account the impacts that may only become visible in hindsight. The lessons learned so far were analysed comprehensively by experts at a recent roundtable on the ‘Global impact of COVID-19 on violent extremism‘, co-organised by Hedayaha (www.hedayahcenter.org) and the Euro-Arab Foundation (FUNDEA; www.fundea.org), one of the PAVE partners. Participating experts included Ahmed Al Qasimi and, as a discussant, Ivo Veenkamp (both Hedayah Center), Arie Kruglanski (University of Maryland), Chelsea L. Daymon (American University School of Public Affairs) and Daniela Pisoiu (Austrian Institute for International Affairs). Summarising from that event, there are some obvious conclusions that I will share here as a starting point for our ‘Insights’ section. I should point out that much research has yet to be conducted or completed before we can make a final assessment and some of the knowledge gained so far is anecdotal rather than science-based. First, all four experts on the panel agreed that a central aspect of how the pandemic has affected radicalisation and violent extremists was on an emotional level: people were confronted with their own feelings – confusion, fear, sorrow, frustration and isolation – while also having to deal with a lack of social mobility and opportunities; there was a general sense of disempowerment, combined at times with a need to shake off that feeling by doing something significant. The psychological effects of the pandemic are also some of the factors known to increase vulnerability to being attracted by a radical ideology, which offers certainty and often someone to blame. Extremists attempted to take advantage of this emotional vulnerability. The spreading of misinformation and misinterpretations, incitement and indoctrination efforts spiked. Restricted by the regulations to counter the spread of the pandemic, people were spending significantly more time online and as a result, were possibly more exposed to extremist content and outreach. However, there is no data available so far proving that the spike in online activity resulted in heightened levels of successful recruitment.

Different radical scenes – similar effects for all?
In the Salafist Islamist scene, the COVID-19 virus was integrated into the narratives and utilised in various ways. The virus was either claimed to be send by God or, alternatively, was described as being a soldier of God fighting for the just cause by striking down those who were not (true) believers. When Iran and the US, two of the well-established ‘enemies’ in Islamist doctrine, were hit hard by the virus, this was used to confirm the narrative. The restrictions on religious services as part of the overall pandemic response were at times portrayed as proof of the repressiveness of governments, while the inability of (Western) states to control the virus was depicted as a weakness of democratic systems. Nonetheless, despite these various efforts to utilise the pandemic for extremist aims, the integration of COVID-19 into the narrative remained limited overall. Besides the narrative aspect, violent Islamist actors also undertook to offer more practical support to followers in response to the pandemic. This included information on how to protect oneself against the virus, but it also included the provision of religious support and inspiration to use the lockdowns to connect to God. In regions with weak governance, violent extremist actors at times enforced stay-at-home orders or sold face masks. This was made easier by the fact that international troops in countries such as Iraq, Syria and Africa were themselves facing restrictions and the reduced capacity and ability of all security actors left a gap to be exploited. As with the assessment of the effects on recruitment , however, the exploitation of the pandemic as an opportunity to conduct violent attacks has yet to be fully researched. Early results based on the ACLED dataset indicate that there was no marked increase in attacks. In comparison, on the far-right extremist spectrum, the pandemic was woven much more deeply into the existing narratives and used to fully exploit existing themes, such as the clash of civilisations. Another key aspect of COVID-19 that was built into the narrative was that there were hidden figures seeking to take control: by turns, they included George Soros, Bill Gates and big pharma, to name just a few. An overlap of far-right extremists and growing anti-lockdown protesters became entwined in conspiracy theories that either the virus was not real or its effects were exaggerated. The restrictions on individual freedom were interpreted to support the pre-existing claim that governments were not legitimate or were anti-democratic. Overall, as experts agreed, the noticeable increase in far-right activism and support was unlikely to be caused by the COVID-19 pandemic; rather, it provided a conducive framework for pre-existing trends in Europe and the US to accelerate and is now threatening to insinuate itself into mainstream thought. Interestingly, the anti-vaccination stance of the far-right extremist and anti-coronavirus scene is shared by Islamist extremists, just as the overall boost of rhetoric that identified supposed culprits (governments, US, minorities, Jews, immigrants, etc.) has served as a targeted outlet for anger and frustration.

How has the pandemic impacted the extremists?
On the other hand, extremist actors did not only seek to exploit the pandemic but were themselves impacted by it. Generating revenue from criminal activities, for example, became more difficult as restrictions on movements impeded kidnapping schemes or a decrease in people’s incomes caused a drop in taxation or donations to the cause. Supply chains have been affected, along with other logistical aspects that impeded organisational planning, reducing access to explosives and potentially resulting in a shift to more primitive weapons such as knives. Overall, the effects of the pandemic on radicalisation dynamics and violent extremist actors are diverse and context-specific but some trends deserve to be further researched. Another effect of the pandemic that has yet to be felt fully is the expected decrease in funding for C/PVE programmes. If programmes are cut or cancelled, the lack of support for communities and individuals to resist radicalisation or to de-radicalise could ultimately have more severe effects on radicalisation dynamics than the pandemic itself. For the moment, though, it will be interesting to see if any of the strategies that were adapted by communities to cope with the pandemic might also be utilised to strengthen their resilience against violent extremism.