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The Reshaping of the Terrorist and Extremist Landscape in a Post Pandemic World
RESEARCH PROGRAM

The Reshaping of the Terrorist and Extremist Landscape in a Post Pandemic World

A major research program investigating the impact of COVID-19 on terrorist and extremist narratives.

Regions

The Balkans

Across the Balkans, COVID-19 pandemic circumstances and related weaponized conspiracies significantly impacted the nature and trends in violent extremist (VE) activities. The radical right, esoteric conspiratorial groups, and, to a lesser extent, Daesh-inspired and ideologically motivated actors capitalized on the pandemic to promote their ideologies.

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This report analyzes violent extremism trends in the Balkans from January to December 2021, during a time when COVID-19 was still significantly present in the region. During this period, research findings demonstrate a general continuation of violent extremism trends from 2020, including intensified radical right activity and violent protests across the region,1 new COVID-19 conspiracy theories often leveraged by extremist organizations, and the continued spread of mis- and disinformation. Recent trends in 2021 highlighted an increase in vaccine-related conspiracy theories, included those espoused by violent extremist organizations, as opposed to those more common in 2020 that denied the existence of the virus altogether. Terrorist activities, while rare, nevertheless continued, culminating in foiled plots and arrests in Kosovo and Croatia.

Examples of extremist narratives and propoganda in the Balkans

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Examples of extremist narratives and propoganda in the Balkans

Bill Gates on Facebook portrayed as the mastermind who is controlling COVID-19 agenda to spread fear and control to the global population.

Source: Facebook

COVID-19-related extremist narratives changed from denying the effectiveness of the vaccine to claiming that it was intended to control the population and that it would be used as, as part of a “plandemy,” and as a “weapon” to deny citizens’ rights and freedoms. Bill Gates – a boogeyman of the radical right – was often associated with this type of narrative.

Post on the Facebook Page, “Corona – Največja prevara stoletja” (“Corona – The greatest deception of the century”).

Source: Facebook (redacted)

A significant number of the Slovenian broader public (that also includes members of extremist groups) has also engaged in online propagation and dissemination of conspiracy theories related to the COVID-19 pandemic. This has been mainly on Facebook. For instance, a popular group on Facebook was established that seemingly remains active is called “Corona – the Greatest deception of the century.” The posts continue to mock the pandemic, spread misinformation and disinformation, and conspiracy theories related to COVID-19.

QAnon protestors against restrictions in Romania

Buletin.de Bucuresti, “QAnon, o mișcare din SUA care a convins mii de români că Donald Trump e salvatorul lumii. Își trimit copiii cu măști false la școală și se pregătesc de distrugerea ocultei mondiale satanice buletin.de,” (accessed 15 October 2021).

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A comparatively high number of demonstrations occurred, in its majority reuniting various kinds of ideological orientations and including “career protesters” as well as regular citizens. A correlation between social media narratives and mobilization for demonstrations was observed in the case of the radical right and QAnon. For instance, some social media groups only emerged to mobilize for demonstrations, after which they disappeared again.

Croatian anti-vaxxers claim in a Facebook post from 6 October 2020 that “Anyone who dies within 14 days of vaccination is considered unvaccinated – this is how the statistics improve!”

Source: Facebook (redacted)

In Croatia, Facebook is the most used social media platform for spreading extremist views and fake news about the COVID-19 pandemic. This is particularly evident where individuals and groups that spread propaganda expressing opposition to COVID-19 restrictions and vaccines.

Radical right nationalists

Lola Đorđević, “Protest zbog održavanja festivala ‘Mirdita dobar dan:’ Prisutne jake policijske snage,” 22 October 2020, https://rs-lat.sputniknews. com/20201022/protest-zbog-odrzavanja-festivala-mirdita-dobar-dan-prisutne-jake-policijske-snage-foto-1123646397.html, (accessed 13 January 2021).

Protest in front of the Center for Cultural Decontamination due to the festival “Mirëdita, good day.” The slogan on the flag (on the right-hand side) says, “No Surrender.” 25 August 2020

Radical right nationalists

Michael Colborne, “Levijatan: Serbian Animal Rights Vigilantes Go To The Polls,” Bellingcat, 18 June 2020, https://www.bellingcat.com/ news/2020/06/18/levijatan-serbian-animal-rights-vigilantes-go-to-the-polls/, (accessed 13 January 2021).

Levijatan (Leviathan) has been quite active in 2020 in its VE activities. In May 2020, Filip Radovanović, a group member, drove into a reception center for refugees in Obrenovac, a remote municipality in the capital of Belgrade. After the arrest, Levijatan organized a protest in front of the center under the slogan “Stop illegal immigrants.” Levijatan members have also initiated violent attacks against the LGBTQIA+ and Roma communities and groups standing against glorifying convicted war criminals such as Ratko Mladić, whom they consider a national hero. For instance, in April 2020, a dozen members of the Levijatan entered the home of a Roma family, harassed, abused, and confiscated their dog.

Protests in Serbia

“Serbian president backtracks on COVID-19 curfew as protests enter second day,” Euronews, 9 July 2020, https://www.euronews.com/2020/07/08/ coronavirus-protesters-attempt-to-storm-parliament-in-serbia-as-lockdown-measures-are-rein,(accessed13January2022).

Protesters clash with police in front of Serbia’s National Assembly building on 8 July 2020.

Symbols of “Blood and Honor” and “Combat 18” groups are written in the center of Prijedor.

Nermina Kuloglija, “Ultra-Right Groups Show Their Face in Bosnian Town” Balkan Insight, 12 May 2020 (accessed 14 January 2022).

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Symbols of two globally renowned radical right organizations, Blood and Honour and its affiliate, Combat 18, began appearing throughout Prijedor. Such graffitis are mainly painted by KVART volunteers from the city, who have been acting on behalf of the aforementioned radical right organizations.

Neo-Nazi bikers club

Nermina Kuloglija, “Ultra-Right Groups Show Their Face in Bosnian Town” Balkan Insight, 12 May 2020, https://balkaninsight.com/2020/05/12/ ultra-right-groups-show-their-face-in-bosnian-town/, (accessed 14 January 2022).

In 2020, several VE activities took place by the Members of the Neo-Nazi bikers club “MC Srbi” who are also present in the city of Samac. Image shows MC Srbi members at the celebration of the Orthodox Christian Feast of the Holy Cross Event in Prijedor.

The image taken from the organization’s website was published as the “new pamphlet.” It states: “The Bosnian National Pride Movement is a radical nationalist organization that believes in the fanatical struggle and will of Bosniaks.”

Bosanski Pokret Nacionalnog Ponosa, Website (accessed 25 December 2021).

A novel radical right movement – Bosanski Pokret Nacionalnog Ponosa (the Bosnian Movement of National Pride, or BPNP) – has gained an unknown number of followers. The BPNP mainly operates on its website, where the group states that it “fights for Bosniaks irrespective of their religion and subrace.” On the website, the BPNP directly state whom they consider a ‘Bosniak: “Every individual belonging to the European genetic and cultural heritage, who is loyal to the state of Bosnia, speaks the Bosnian language and who identifies with the history of Bosnia, regardless of religious and ethnic affiliation, to be a member of the only state-building Bosniak people.”This ultra-nationalist group seems to promote a territorial expansion of Bosnia with a homogenous Bosniak population.

According to this October 2020 Facebook post (from a page called Inicijativa Iskorak) by a conspiracy theorist, “Everything that is happening now was written back in 1980

Source: Facebook (redacted)

Bosnia and Herzegovina’s citizens, differing from the neighboring countries’ experience, marched in favor of vaccination and urged its government to provide the population with enough vaccines. Nonetheless, online activities, predominantly by conspiracy theorists were popular. COVID-19 related posts in this regard generally focused on the idea that the pandemic is a project aiming to destroy populations.

Extremist graffiti

TRT World, “Bosnians in Montenegro wake up to anti-Muslim graffiti,” TRT World, 12 August 2020, https://www.trtworld.com/magazine/bosnians- in-montenegro-wake-up-to-anti-muslim-graffiti-38844.

.In August 2020, images of Serb war criminals were spotted on Muslim homes. Pavle Djurisic and Draza Mihailovic, both members of the Chetniks, a Serb nationalist force during World War II, had their images emerge in Berane, Montenegro, overnight. There is a sizable Muslim community there.

 

Our belief about democracy, participation in elections, and those who invite people into democracy” On the right, a part of the text states: “Those ‘imams’ who call for laic parties and glorify democracy are criminals and enemies of Allah”

Source: Facebook (redacted)

In Kosovo, another social media site on Facebook was “Islami eshte Hak” (Islam is debt). One Facebook page with a large following of over 4,500, “Thirrja ne Teuhid” (Call to Teuhid, see image XV), has changed its content significantly after the territorial losses of Daesh. Postings became more moderate – though, before that, many posts were intended as information about “the holy war.” Two of the most prominent Facebook pages in the past were: “Come to Islam” and “Islamic World” (original: “Eja ne Islam” and “Bota Islame”).

Popular Imam in Kosovo answering the question of whether he believes that COVID-19 is a punishment from Allah. In most of his answers, he is supportive of this thesis

Source: Facebook (redacted)

Religious leaders in Kosovo also played a role in dissiminating flasehoods. Imam Shefqet Krasniqi, for instance, propagated through his Facebook page that COVID-19 is God’s punishment for non-believers.

Anti-vaccine protests coincide with radical right actors.

Source: D. Tolj, 'Tko je Marko Francišković, glavna zvijezda zagrebačkog prosvjeda? Bio je u zatvoru, prešao na islam i želi vjersku državu, zalaže se za uvođenje šerijatskog prava u Hrvatskoj!', Slobodna Dalmacija, 21 November 2021, https://slobodnadalmacija.hr/vijesti/hrvatska/tko-je-marko-franciskovic-glavna-zvijezda-zagrebackog-prosvjeda-bio-je-u-zatvoru-presao-na-islam-i-zeli-vjersku-drzavu-zalaze-se-uvodenje-serijatskog-prava-u-hrvatskoj-1144758 (accessed 25 November 2021)

Anti-vaccine protests coincide with radical right actors: the use of Ustasha (a historical fascist party) salutes and marches by linked military-styled battalions in Croatia dovetail with anti-vaccine narratives.

Religion and weaponized conspiracy theories blend together in the Balkans.

Source: Radio Europa Libera, ' Protest al preoților și enoriașilor în centrul Chișinăului: „Nu trebuie să fim vaccinați cu sila. Dați-ne libertate!”', Facebook, 3 August 2021, https://www.facebook.com/europalibera.org/ videos/protest-al-preoților-și-enoriașilor-în-centrul-chișinăului-nu-trebuie-să-fim-vac/539237947388788/, (accessed 28 October 2021)

A number of priests belonging to the Metropolitan Church of Moldova organized an anti-vaccination demonstration in August where many also claimed the vaccine was a biological weapon to reduce the world population through microchips, or that certain religious psalms protect against the pandemic.

Continued narratives across the Balkans contended that "the virus does not exist and the [public health] measures are in place to control the population by fear”;

Source: K. Tsabala, ' Mistrust and Disinformation: Covid-19 conspiracies in Bulgaria', Lossi36.com, 26 May 2021, https://lossi36.com/2021/05/26/mistrust-and-disinformation-covid-19-conspiracies-in-bulgaria/, (accessed 28 October 2021); Screenshot from Vucic, ʻHate, Lies and Vigilantes’

Continued narratives across the Balkans contended that “the virus does not exist and the [public health] measures are in place to control the population by fear”;

Violent extremist organizations and extremist actors continued to proliferate anti-immigration and Islamophobic narratives and sentiments, agitate against gender equality, promote conspiracy theories, and exploit the COVID-19 crisis.2 New xenophobic radical right initiatives presented themselves as “purifiers of society” and “correctives of government,” and often engaged in attacks against the LGBT+ communities and anti-fascist activists. This trend was noted in multiple countries. Evidence also suggests that radical right extremists managed to capitalize on the situation better than other extremist movements. Further continuing trends have been:

  • the continuous presence of COVID-19-related conspiracy theories, disinformation, and misinformation campaigns in extremist organizations’ propaganda, including indigenous narratives and those imported from foreign outlets;
  • accelerated protest movements and hate speech directed again migrant and LGBT+ communities by radical right actors, many of which included violent and anti-government acts; and
  • the continued importance of communication channels and platforms for extremist actors and groups, namely Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, WhatsApp, Viber, Telegram, and TamTam, as well as websites and blogs. Platform led content removal, takedowns, and societally initiated de-platforming3 remained limited in scope and impact.

As in 2020, public debates in 2021 were strongly defined and framed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Extremist narratives fed into public discourse involving conspiracy theories, hateful language, and disinformation around concerns about vaccination, along with protests against governments’ rule of law, democratic principles, and specific communities, including migrants, Roma/Romany, LGBT+, and journalists. Social media remained critical for spreading extremist content, often in form of narratives. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and WhatsApp, along with less discussed platforms like TamTam, Viber, and Telegram continued to be the most used platforms for spreading fake news and disinformation about COVID-19 and vaccination. Stand-along blogs for mis- and disinformation continued to be hosted online. Finally, a sweeping metanarrative also focused on falsehoods about the adverse side effects of vaccines and alleged inconsistent or excessive measures taken by the governments.

Despite challenges posed to institutions, societies and industries by COVID-19, several countries (notably Albania, Kosovo, and North Macedonia) repatriated former foreign terrorist fighters (FTFs) and their families from Iraq and Syria in 2021. During July 2021, Kosovo repatriated 11 foreign terrorist fighters or related returnees from Syria and Iraq (six men, one woman, and four children). In the same month, North Macedonia repatriated 23 of its citizens (four men, five women and 14 children) from Syria and Iraq.4 These states are now implementing programs for their rehabilitation and reintegration. For example, in March 2021, Bosnia-Herzegovina (BiH) adopted the Decision on the formation of the Coordination Team for the process of repatriation of BiH citizens from conflict zones in Syria and Iraq.5 Relatedly, as illustrated by the Balkan Investigative Research Network (BIRN) Terrorism Database, 28 BiH citizens have been convicted by Bosnian courts to date for their involvement in the war in Syria, and 16 for domestic terrorism-related crimes.6 Repatriation and prosecutorial efforts elsewhere in the region varies.

In the other countries of the region, only sporadic violent extremist-related activity could be observed. In North Macedonia, two extremist affinities stood out, namely among long-term supporters of the imprisoned imams Shukri Aliu and Rexhep Memishi, as previously flagged in the 2020 findings of this report series7. In Kosovo, authorities arrested five people suspected of plotting terrorist attacks, allegedly preparing to use explosives in multiple locations throughout the country.8 In Croatia, two people were arrested at an anti-COVID protest in November 2021 and charged with public incitement to terrorism after allegedly encouraging citizens in Croatia and abroad to engage in physical attacks.9

Policy Recommendations:

  • Focus campaigns on countering conspiracy theories and misinformation about COVID-19 from the radical right. The findings of this report indicated an increase in the activities of conspiracy theorists, anti-COVID-19 believers, and anti-government activists. Some of this material is repurposed by the radical right and other extremist organizations. A more consolidated effort is consequently needed from national governments in the region to effectively counter widespread misinformation about COVID-19 and vaccines. Suggestions include launching social media campaigns targeting dis- and misinformation, and responding with science-based counter-narratives (for example, by engaging relevant scientists as credible messengers to relay scientific data).
  • Provide training and support that enhances digital literacy in the education system. Disinformation campaigns can have severe impacts on the general population as they may not have the digital literacy training or skills to distinguish between factual information and false or fake news. Establishing media and digital literacy modules incorporated in nation-wide educational curricula as well as having programs available for the broader population will help diminish this threat.
  • Establish working relationships and monitoring protocols between the security sector and the private sector to better track terrorist groups online. Ideologically motivated extremists and the radical right have not fully been countered by authorities during the reporting period. These groups and individuals have limited their offline activities while continuing to maintain an online presence. National governments in the region need to continue to improve monitoring capabilities of online extremism to ensure they are informed on developing security threats at an early stage. Additionally, they need to develop or adapt protocols and enable transnational structures, including cooperation on law enforcement in virtual environments, to effectively counter the use of the internet to spread terrorism and extremism. Partnerships with entities like the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism (GIFCT) and Tech Against Terrorism (TaT) can help in this regard.
  • Adapt counter-narratives to the local context for the Balkans. The development and dissemination of country-specific counter-narratives addressing terrorist and extremist propaganda is crucial in ongoing preventing and countering violent extremism (P/CVE) efforts in the region. Apart from the development of online counter-narrative and inclusion campaigns, a whole-of-society approach should be taken. For example, supplying corresponding educational material to schools and similar institutions to promote inter-group trust, social cohesion, and common values (such as inclusive social norms) should be prioritized.

Footnotes

[1]

Countries of focus for this study include Albania, Bulgaria, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosovo, North Macedonia, Montenegro, Moldova, Romania, Serbia, and Slovenia.

[2]

M. Halilović and N. Veljan, Exploring ethno-nationalist extremism in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Atlantic Initiative, 2021.

[3]

Note: For example, to prevent someone holding views regarded as unacceptable or offensive from contributing to a forum or debate, especially by individuals blocking them on particular social media platforms or other websites.

[4]

I. Kadriu, “North Macedonia repatriates 23 citizens from Syria”, Radio Free Europe, 18 July 2021, (accessed 9 October 2021)

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[5]

The Council of Ministers of BiH, Decision on the formation of the Coordination Team for the process of repatriation of BiH citizens from conflict zones in Syria and Iraq', Službeni list BiH br. 63/21, 4 March 2021, (accessed 15 March 2021)

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[6]

See: BIRN, ʻRegional Terrorism and Foreign Fighters Database,ʼ (accessed 8 October 2021)

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[7]

Shembulli, ‘Large police action in Skopje, Imam Rexhep Memishi and 8 other people are arrested’, 6 August 2015, Shembulli, , (accessed 08 October 2021)

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[8]

P. Isufi, ‘Kosovo Arrests Five Suspects for Plotting Terrorist Attacks’, BIRN / Balkan Insight, 11 October 2021, (accessed 15 October 2021)

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[9]

ʻFrancišković i Kovačević ostaju u pritvoru, ostali jučer uhićeni pušteni,ʼ Index.hr, 4 December 2021, (accessed 15 December 2021)

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