Three months ago, towards the beginning of February there was a discussion going on about the growing implications of the conflict situation in the Middle East-- particularly in Iraq, Syria, the southern bordering regions of Turkey and also in some countries of North Africa. Attention was being particularly drawn to several aspects which were gradually emerging because of the illegal migration efforts to Europe. In this context there was anxiety also about certain sub-regions of South and South-east Asia and also Central Asia.
It does appear that the last ten weeks have witnessed a slight but gradual shift. Geo-strategists from different quarters have expressed their disappointment that the instability and chaos created by the COVID-19 pandemic is now being taken advantage of by some terrorists and extremist groups. They are very worried and are drawing attention of the European Union authorities and have openly reiterated that the EU should intensify its efforts to counter violent extremism, on the ground in Europe and in cooperation with partner countries.
One needs to remember at this point that since the breakout of the pandemic, countries in general have been particularly busy in containing this virus. However, efforts towards mitigation have given emphasis on certain particular areas. It is coming to the surface that the virus, is not only affecting the health and socio-economic security of citizens but is also acting as a potential multiplier of other threats.
It is unfortunate that terrorist and violent extremist groups with extremist views are wasting no time to look for ways to exploit this crisis, whether it be to further spread their propaganda and toxic ideology, or as a recruitment opportunity within the deteriorating scenario.
This morphing situation is gradually encouraging violent extremism and posing a threat to public security. This health crisis is exacerbating some of the drivers of radicalisation and testing countries' capacity to deal with terrorist threats worldwide.
These emerging challenges over the last ten days have led analysts to focus on the European Union and urge them to recognise that they must step up their actions preventing and countering these risks and challenges, both within the EU and in cooperation with their partner countries for the adjoining regions and elsewhere in Asia, Latin America and Africa.
It is indeed unfortunate that some political groups with extremist leanings have been using their newsletters and websites and trying to cause confusion that can subsequently be exploited by jihadist groups and right-wing extremists alike. We have watched with dismay how jihadists groups like the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) and al-Qaeda (AQ) have released several official statements. They have tried to portray that this virus pandemic as 'the wrath of Allah'.
Interestingly, the AQ publications have also been encouraging non-Muslims to use the current self-isolation as an opportunity to learn more about Islam. As opposed to this, the extreme ISIS has been more extreme and encouraging militants and followers to use the current chaos to launch attacks against 'infidels' and free imprisoned members of the organisation. This is particularly happening in Syria and Iraq.
However, such extremism attempting to re-paint their own narrative is not contained within the Muslim sub-groups. It is evident that far-right extremists are also trying to capitalise on the pandemic in parts of Europe. Various groups, such as Hundred-Handers and the Nordic Resistance Movement, have been disseminating hate speeches and xenophobic propaganda to recruit new supporters. Far-right movements have also advocated the closure of external borders and accused governments of using the COVID-19 crisis to divert public attention away from migrant and refugee issues. Anti-foreigner and -immigrant rhetoric is also popular on the internet, with some blaming minority ethnic communities for the spread of the "disease". Consequently, there has been an increase in racist attacks in parts of Europe.
The world has a severe and unprecedented economic crisis ahead of it. This is bound to severely affect the livelihoods of citizens worldwide not for just a few months. This precarious economic situation is likely to worsen. While millions have already lost their jobs, others are fearing the possibility of unemployment once lockdown measures are eased world-wide, including Bangladesh. This has led to increased levels of uncertainty, stress and anger; growing inequalities and deepening social fractures. Furthermore, weeks of confinement and social distancing is also resulting in an increased sense of isolation and vulnerability for those who live alone. This in turn is creating a fertile ground for potential extremist recruiters.
Social media usage that erases frontiers is rapidly growing. Many analysts are pointing out that the use of in-depth lock-down and misuse of virtual spaces during this period is playing a central role in radicalisation. Furthermore, the closure of schools and (non-) governmental anti-radicalisation programmes have also reduced the capacity of people at the frontline, such as teachers, youth workers, coaches, and first-line practitioners, to identify the first signs of radicalisation. This is making prevention of violent extremism and radicalisation much more challenging and also eroding trust in the current government and governance system.
Geo-strategists have in particular been referring towards Africa and the Middle East, and especially low-and-middle-income countries where terrorist groups have their strongholds. They are worried that COVID-19 can be used as a catalyst for terrorist attacks and also for enhancing popular support for extremist non-state actors who can step in where states fail to provide for basic needs. The situation is assuming another difficult dimension because non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are now also operating at reduced capacity.
Overcrowded refugee camps in north-eastern Syria, Libya and also the Rohingya presence in the several camps in Bangladesh are also creating another emergency due to inadequate health and sanitation infrastructure. These camps - especially al-Hol and Roj, which together hold some 70,000 people - are ticking time-bombs. With limited resources and fewer humanitarian support personnel on the ground, delivering assistance to and maintaining control over the security of thousands of refugees are becoming ineffective. Breakouts have already been reported, involving family members of foreign terrorist fighters (FTFs). Fortunately, till now, it has not exacerbated to any critical dimension in Bangladesh.
The European Union has to understand that countering radical and violent ideologies will remain a significant challenge for that territory. There has to be unified focus in trying to contain the after-effects of the virus. The European Members of Parliament and the different EU Members will need to identify how they can better support community-based projects and activities.
It may be noted here that Netherlands can be an example to follow. Its P/CVE programmes targeting all forms of extremism and radicalisation are being implemented locally, through multidisciplinary and inter-agency cooperation. At the same time, the national government identifies priority areas and provides advice and capacity-building measures through a comprehensive national counterterrorism strategy. This is proving to be quite effective. Cities and municipalities are also being empowered. For instance, Rotterdam and Mechelen are both examples of how cities can successfully address the root causes of radicalisation and violent extremism.
In South Asia, in Bangladesh and in India, efforts are underway to replicate such a paradigm.
We need to also understand that governments, be it in South Asia, Central Asia, Eastern Europe, Western Europe, Africa, North America or Latin America, have to function together, and not use false propaganda and fake news in trying to advance national interest by any.
Socio-economic development and countering international counterterrorism need cooperation beyond borders. There also has to be close collaboration with international and regional organisations, the UN agencies and financial institutions. This will boost resilience when needed and reduce the chance of exacerbation.
Muhammad Zamir, a former ambassador, is an analyst specialized in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance.
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