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The COVID-19 Pandemic and Response on Violent Extremist Recruitment and Radicalisation

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This rapid evidence review provides evidence on the potential impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and response on violent extremist recruitment and radicalisation. It draws on a mixture of academic and grey literature from multinational and bilateral institutions as well as nongovernment organisations (NGOs) and think tanks. Given the rapidly developing global context, it also draws on emerging opinion from blog posts and journalistic reports to provide evidence of current developments. The review found limited evidence on past pandemics, radicalisation and violent extremism. Evidence was, however, identified on the impact of disasters on radicalisation and violent extremism that may warrant further exploration.

The report is structured in four main sections, section two provides an overview of literature on the drivers of radicalisation identified in the literature. To understand how COVID-19 may impact on radicalisation and violent extremist recruitment it is important to explore how the pandemic may intersect and potentially exacerbate existing drivers. Section three explores emerging narratives regarding violent extremism during the pandemic response, this section draws heavily on opinion pieces and journalistic commentary. Section three should be considered emblematic of some of the ways, as yet poorly understood, that COVID-19 may influence radicalisation and violent extremist recruitment. The final section seeks to reflect more broadly on how the pandemic may impact over short, medium and long term time frames. It is clear that such impacts will be mediated by local context and how the pandemic unfolds (particularly its severity).
Given the rapidly evolving nature of the crisis and uncertainty about its development, this report should be considered a discussion piece and treated accordingly.

A number of drivers of radicalisation have been identified, it is important to note that these are contested, subject to much debate and require interrogation when assessed in different contexts.

These include, though are not limited to:

  • Historical grievances and the role of authoritarianism

  • Political climate

  • Governance

  • Socio-economic factors

  • Marginalisation of young people

  • International events, funding and the role of migrants

  • Radicalisation in prisons

  • Inter-group/religious rivalries

These drivers operate differently across individuals and communities and may intersect. It is important to note that the COVID-19 pandemic and responses to it may amplify some of these drivers acting as an additive factor. Commentary from a number of contexts suggests that the impact of COVID-19 on radicalisation will play out differently over short, medium and long time frames. Here it is important to stress that the points below are based on a rapid analysis of available, limited and rapidly evolving sources of information. These points should therefore be considered as discussion topics that require further investigation.

  • The short term impacts of COVID-19 on radicalisation and violent extremism are multifaceted and complex, these result from the immediate impact of response to the pandemic. These include social distancing and restrictions of day to day activities. Such responses have been seized on by radical ideologues to validate their world views.
    Discourses pertaining to the closure of mosques in Nigeria have been framed as evidence of anti-Islam sentiments in government. Further to this, the failure or inability of government to reach certain areas or groups may lead to a void in which violent extremists may step. As shown, in certain areas of the Sahel, such groups have provided services and acted as the de facto authority in contexts where national government is absent. This may contribute to a sense that national authorities should no longer be considered legitimate given their inability to act. It pay also provide credence to claims that areas or groups are treated in different ways by government, thereby exacerbating inter-regional or group tensions.