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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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By disseminating COVID-19-related disinformation and conspiracies in their propaganda, extremist actors have muddled truths surrounding the health crisis in their attempts to radicalize and recruit new followers. Nonetheless, despite the evidence of high-mobilization levels online and offline, terrorist incidents remained rare. Exceptions mainly included individual attacks, arrests, and foiled plots. A potentially ideologically motivated 2020 shooting in Zagreb, the Republic of Croatia,1 and a separate, larger plot in the Republic of North Macedonia involving an 11-member cell – with one member reportedly having fought for Daesh in the Syrian Arab Republic – were the most notable incidents2.

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”;

The Balkan region has witnessed other types of extremist activities in 2020, notably political demonstrations involving a wide range of different conspiracy theorists and extremist actors. In some circumstances, extremists leveraged popular political demonstrations, creating an environment where extremist ideologies intersected with ideas across the political spectrum. This has resulted in extremist narratives around COVID-19 that include Daesh-inspired, ultra-nationalist and radical right groups and actors. This report, therefore, identifies broader trends in narratives that span all of these groups.

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

Most notably, the pandemic has bolstered the radical right and conspiracy theorist actors in the Balkans more than other ideologically motivated extremist actors. This might be related to the downward trend of distinct ideologically inspired groups and individuals, particularly after the demise of Daesh in Syria and the Republic of Iraq and the globally rising trend of radical right extremism.

The repatriation, prosecution, rehabilitation, and reintegration efforts of Foreign Terrorist Fighters (FTF) and returnees from Daesh-occupied territories continued, especially in the Western Balkan countries. Within this ideological spectrum, VE activities, terrorism, and new cases of radicalization and recruitment are rare, albeit it is noteworthy that a few arrests were made in 2020.3

The radical right, ultra-nationalist, and conspiracy theorist groups have rapidly expanded over the past few years, and their extremist activities often linked to COVID-19 conspiracies and narratives, continued to grow in 2020. At times, these organizations and individuals appear to intersect and overlap with mainstream social and political discussions in the region. Such groups and actors have therefore been very successful in instrumentalizing the pandemic circumstances to increase their visibility and reach through online spaces and social media platforms; this has been particularly effective due to an uptick in online activity in the region as a result of strict curfew enforcements leading citizens to spend more time browsing the Internet.4 Consequently, an increase in online radicalization and recruitment during 2020 has led to several serious incidents on the ground.

Romanian QAnon demonstrators. Source: 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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Disinformation and conspiracy theory campaigns have permeated the region, many of which originate from adherents of the QAnon offshoot known as “QAnon Balkan”.5 Such stories are picked up in the uncritical, or perhaps deliberate, dissemination of disinformation and fake news in mainstream media. Radicalized and VE actors have seemingly not decamped to new alternative social media. Disinformation campaigns often run on mainstream platforms. Attempts to counter fake news, when made by governments, may run afoul of a lack of confidence and trust in governments and politicians. Simultaneously, an aversion to COVID-19 restrictions created a breeding ground for conspiracy theories and anti-establishment propaganda that was often synchronized with ideas that existed before the spread of the virus.6

While extremist and violent narratives vary from country to country in their interpretation of the pandemic, there are collectively shared trends among different groups and individuals, distilled into five core elements below:

  • A robust online presence of QAnon groups and followers who disseminate misinformation, disinformation, and conspiracy theories on social media, mainly Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, Viber, and Telegram. The most common false theories include shared themes, including collective depictions of the detrimental nature of 5G technology, face masks, and vaccination (the latter often tied to Bill Gates); shared ideas about a secret society controlling the world and the virus, and governments’ attempts to accentuate dictatorship via lockdown measures; and theories about the location and purpose of the emergence of the virus;7
  • The propagation of conspiracies by religious and esoteric actors and leaders, including orthodox clerics and followers of various categories of alternative spiritual practices in the Republic of Serbia and the Republic of Moldova;8
  • Notable ideological overlaps between the broader radical right, including ultra- nationalist adherents, QAnon followers, esoteric groups, and lone actor narratives that are at times related to conspiracy theories;
  • The active circulation of religious interpretations of the pandemic being a divine punishment in the Republic of Albania and the Republic of Kosovo;9 and,
  • • A rise in radical right in form of ultra-nationalist VE narratives and incidents in the Republic of Slovenia, the Republic of Bulgaria, Serbia, Croatia, and the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina with historically deep roots linked to previous regional conflicts.

Policy recommendations

Based on the research and insights gathered in the development of this report focusing on the year 2020, several recommendations are provided below for governments and policymakers in the region:

  • With the evident widespread of disinformation and misinformation campaigns, conspiracy theories, and VE narratives online – including through mainstream media outlets – governments are advised to:
    1. Collaborate with technology and social media companies through partnering with credible organizations such as the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism (GIFCT) and Tech Against Terrorism (TaT), but also independently with other high- tech companies. Such partnerships can support the collaborative development of legislation between governments and social media companies dealing with terrorist narratives. These partnerships can also lead to developing streamlined communication mechanisms between governments and the tech sector on how to monitor and remove harmful content online.
    2. Fund training for journalists to increase their awareness, knowledge, and practical skills to accurately and unbiasedly report on issues related to radicalization, VE, terrorism, or inter-ethnic and inter-religious regional clashes. Partnerships with international organizations that focus on countering violent extremism (CVE) should be further developed; and,
    3. Launch public awareness campaigns to inform and educate citizens about the dangers of the rampant spread of disinformation and misinformation online inside a more comprehensive program of digital literacy education.
  • Increased regional collaboration and government funding are needed to investigate and prevent the alarming rise of the radical right, ultra-nationalist, and conspiracy theory movements, groups and actors, and related trends. Informed and evidence- based policymaking, and CVE National Action Plans (NAPs), especially in countries where implementation is nonexistent or slow, are required to prevent the spread of this form of VE and terrorism.
  • There is a need to intensify efforts on collaboration between the government and official religious clerics and moderates within the countries and involve them in the CVE efforts. Although ideologically motivated extremist groups and individuals, mainly those inspired by organizations such as Daesh and Al-Qaeda, were less active in 2020 – narratives by adherents of such ideologies still produced and spread harmful content online during the pandemic. Among other activities, this effort can involve training religious leaders and active community members on identifying and handling radicalization that can lead to VE.

Footnotes

[1]

Note: Information as to the motivations of Danijel Bezuk, the perpetrator of the Zagreb shooting, remains unclear. Although the State Attorney's Office of the Republic of Croatia evaluated the attack as terrorism, criminal charges were rejected due to the shooter’s death.Vecernji, “Proslo je godinu dana od napada Danijela Bezuka na Vladu: ‘to je bio terorizam,’” Vecernji.Hr, 12 October 2021

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[2]

EUROPOL, 'European Union Terrorism Situation and Trend Report, Publications Office of the European Union', EUROPOL, Luxembourg, 2021, p. 65, (accessed 23 September 2021).

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[3]

GCERF, “Rehabilitation and Reintegration of Returning Foreign Terrorist Fighters (RFTFs) and Their Families in the Western Balkans,” GCERF (accessed 20 January 2022).

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[4]

Matteo Mastracci, “Online Intimidation: Controlling the Narrative in the Balkans,” Balkan Insight, 16 December 2021 (access 20 January 2022).

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[5]

Joe Mulhall and Safya Khan-Ruf, eds., “State of Hate: Far-Right Extremism in Europe 2021,” Hope not Hate, p. 41. Charitable Trust and the Amadeu Antonio Stiftung

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[6]

Florian Bieber et al, “The Suspicious Virus: Conspiracies and COVID19 in the Balkans”, BiEPAG (accessed 20 January 2022).

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[7]

Ibid. and; Buletin, “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 Bucuresti, 21 October 2020 (accessed 20 January 2022).

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[8]

DW, “Korona ne poznaje Boga,” DW, 11 November 2020, https://www.dw.com/sr/korona-ne-poznaje-boga/a-55691345 and Europa Liberă, ‘Mitropolia Ortodoxă a Moldovei, supusă Moscovei, împrăștie teorii ale conspirației, Europa Liberă Romaniă, 20 May 2020 (accessed 20 January 2022).

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[9]

Armand Ali, Facebook

[10]

Thomas Hale, Noam Angrist, Rafael Goldszmidt, Beatriz Kira, Anna Petherick, Toby Phillips, Samuel Webster, Emily Cameron-Blake, Laura Hallas, Saptarshi Majumdar, and Helen Tatlow. (2021). “A global panel database of pandemic policies (Oxford COVID-19 Government Response Tracker).” Nature Human Behaviour. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-021-01079-8, as used by Our World In Data; and, Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), acleddata.com.

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[11]

COVID-19 data aggregated from Our World in Data (https://ourworldindata.org/covid-cases) based on confirmed cases sourced from the COVID-19 Data Repository by the Center for Systems Science (https://github.com/CSSEGISandData/COVID-19) and Engineering (CSSE)) at Johns Hopkins University; and, Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED, acleddata.com).

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Region reports

For full analysis and recommendations, download the region reports for 2020 and 2021.

2021 report coming soon.

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