COVID-19 has been a boon to extremist groups across the world. In Europe, leaders need to wake up and tackle the growing threat of terrorism, argues Sofi Heikkinen.
Sofi Heikkinen is a Helsinki-based counter-terrorism and crisis management consultant.
With the attention of world leaders focused on fatality rates and tanking economies, it has been hard to notice the persistent rise of global security threats. In more ways than one, the COVID-19 has been a godsend for extremist groups all over the world, creating new vulnerabilities and adding fuel to radicalist narratives.
Nowhere have these rising dangers been felt more strongly than on the European continent. With terror attacks on the rise in Europe, it is imperative that European leaders wake up and notice the threat at hand.
Recently, international media reported the impending release of militant prisoners in Syria as prisons become overcrowded.
According to reports, Kurdish authorities have decided to release 15,000 inmates from the Al-Hol camp in northeast Syria after rising infection rates have worsened conditions in the already overcrowded facility.
Al-Hol is known to house thousands of Islamic State fighters and their families whom the Kurds themselves have warned pose a major security threat to the region. Managers of Al-Hol have warned they cannot maintain responsibility for some 65,000 residents indefinitely. The added challenge of the pandemic has only hastened the inevitable.
This massive and sudden release of jihadist militants poses a major threat to Europeans. Experts are warning that any radicals who are tempted to flee the camp could join the majority of Syrian migrants and head to Europe.
Hans-Jakob Schindler, director of think-tank the Counter Extremism Project, expanded on what the security risk involved with the Al-Hol release would look like. “There is a significant [number] of Syrians in Al-Hol who did not de-radicalize — if anything they re-radicalized and will come out with a new furor in their ideological thinking,” he said.
Al-Hol is far from an isolated example. As overcrowded boats travel from war-torn nations, like Syria and Libya, en route to Europe, terrorists are disguising themselves as legitimate migrants, exploiting this vulnerability. This technique is not new, but only the resurgence of a well-known tactic used by terrorists in recent years.
A case in point is that of Salah Abdeslam, one of the perpetrators of the Paris terror atrocities in 2015 which killed 130 people and left more than 350 injured. Abdeslam is believed to have made four trips to Hungary during which he picked up other terrorists linked to attacks in both Brussels and Paris.
Following the Paris attacks and similar incidents in neighbouring countries, the security threat of migrant routes became a central focus of the European establishment.
Authorities were shocked that although some of these extremists’ names were on European counter-terrorism databases, many of them posed as refugees and carried fake Syrian passports to evade detection.
Furthermore, the vulnerability of migrant routes was not limited to the individual militant travelling through them.
The masses of refugees along these journeys provide extremists with an ample pool of recruits that could be targeted for radicalization. Over the past five years, substantial measures were taken to clamp down on the terror threat of migrant routes.
Now, with COVID-19 shifting energy and resources to health and financial systems, the ability to keep these routes to Europe secure is becoming increasingly limited. As experts have pointed out, managerial challenges of the pandemic have increased the security risks to Europe at every level.
Not only is less manpower available to monitor and police the influx of foreigners, but even the very health protocols designed to slow the spread of the virus can be capitalized on by infiltrating extremists. The norm of wearing facemasks for instance now makes it easier for would-be attackers to disguise themselves while crossing international borders.
Events over the past months have shown extremist violence is still a threat to Europe. Despite lockdowns across the continent that have substantially limited mass gatherings and curtailed potential targets, jihadist attacks have been identified in major cities in France, Spain, and Germany since early 2020.
And yet extremists have capitalized on the pandemic in more ways than sneaking attacks past already strained governments. The advent of COVID-19 has given militant groups ripe material for propaganda, whether it be blaming the West for the virus’s spread or promoting conspiracy theories as to the disease’s origin.
ISIS has even asserted the coronavirus is a sign of the approaching Day of Judgment and a sign that the faithful should rally to their militant causes.
How can Europe combat this increasing danger of extremist infiltration into Europe? The answer lies in a fresh look at border security.
For too long, Europe has taken an overly lax position on movement between countries on the continent. Under the Schengen Agreement of 1995, travel across borders without passport checks is allowed between 26 countries on the European mainland.
While this freedom of travel has produced its benefits, the costs are now becoming more manifest than ever. Despite authorities being alert to the threat of porous borders for several years, the disarray of 2020 has made addressing this threat within the framework of the status quo all but impossible.
Adding to that the increased danger of extremist violence triggered by COVID-19, and it is becoming clearer than ever that a new paradigm on border security must be adopted in Europe.
While the threat of extremist violence is rising for Europeans, authorities still have the ability to get ahead of this danger. The rapidly changing world of 2020 has given governments and its defence agencies the opportunity to reassess one of the most basic elements of their national security.