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

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.

Narrative #03

Weaponised Conspiracies

Conspiratorial explanations of COVID-19 have been examined by researchers elsewhere but take on specifically problematic connotations when repurposed by VEOs and ideologically motivated extremist groups. Common conspiratorial narratives include that the pandemic was the work of Western or Chinese interests; claims that vaccines are dangerous or contain undesirable substances; and more general mis- and disinformation about the virus.

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About this narrative

In East Africa, Al-Shabaab disseminated various COVID-19 conspiracy theories during 2020 and 2021, including that the virus transmission is caused by the presence of military troops from Christian majority nations and was spread by “Crusaders” who had invaded Somalia.1 The group also claimed that the disease was an American, European, and Chinese problem: not an African one.2 Following the lead of European regulators as they questioned the safety of the AstraZeneca vaccine in 2021, Al-Shabaab advised Muslims to instead medications found in the Qur’an such as “black seed and honey,”and to “not trust the disbelievers to benefit you in any way,” when directly referring to the WHO and UNICEF.3 Another notable narrative spread by VEOs was that claim that COVID-19 was manufactured in Western countries – or deliberately spread – to further a eugenics-based elimination of black people.3 In this framing, the virus became described as a weapon of intentional destruction.

Examples of Weaponised Conspiracy Narratives

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Examples of Weaponised Conspiracy Narratives

A Ugandan publication illustrating mainstream anti-foreigner and anti-Chinese sentiments elicited by the pandemic.

Sources: “Coronavirus: Fighting al-Shabab propaganda in Somalia,” BBC, 2 April 2020, (accessed 5 October 2021); “Panic as Chinese National Quaratines in Arua Hotel,” Monitor, 19 July 2020, (Accessed 16 January 2022); L. Storer, J. Osuta, D. Anguala, “Do COVID-19 conspiracy theories challenge public health delivery,” LSE Blog, 21 April 2020.

Conspiratorial narratives across E Africa and globally drew on racialized anti-Chinese sentiment, contending that the virus originated in China as punishment for actions against Uighurs, or simply situated the problem as a Chinese one: a “Chinese sickness.”

A propaganda piece from Hizb ut Tahrir in Kenya offering its ideology as a means to combat perceived corruption during COVID-19.

Source: Key Informant Interviews with Personnel from Kenya, 2021; “Coronavirus Fight has Produced Another Virus of Corruption Creating Covid-19 Millionaires,” Central Media Office of Hizb ut Tahrir in Kenya, October 5 2020. (Link redacted).

Interviews conducted with government personnel from Kenya confirmed that VEOs and individual actors incorporated the pandemic into already existing narratives and intensified the creation and dissemination of online propaganda. For instance, multiple respondents from Kenya said they had seen narratives on social media from VEOs operating in Somalia, namely Al-Shabaab, as well as from extremist groups further afield, including Daesh, Boko Haram, Hizb ut Tahrir and their affiliates.

Anti-Chinese propaganda circulated on pro-Daesh and mainstream ideological Telegram channels beginning in March 2020.

Source: Telegram

A significant violent extremist narrative of the pandemic casts SARS-CoV-2 as a bioweapon deployed by China and/or spread by Chinese migrant workers. Although anti-Chinese conspiracy theories and disinformation are common in Malaysia and the Philippines, they have the most traction in Indonesia.

Bill Gates on Facebook portrayed as the mastermind who is controlling the 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.

Supporters of the Vazrazhdane party in Sofia, protesting against the government, vaccines, and 5G technology

Source: RFE/RL's Bulgarian Service, “Bulgarian Ultranationalists Protest Government's Coronavirus Measures”,, (accessed 15 October 2021).

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Given the ongoing broader demonstrations against the government, minimal protests were aimed specifically at COVID-19. An exception nonetheless was a demonstration in May 2020, which was organized at the same time as another protest in Romania and at which ultranationalist and right-wing groups participated.

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.

Extremist meme with text reading that "The Taliban expelled the colonial forces (America) from its country. Thus anyone who hates the Taliban is someone who, if Indonesia is attacked and colonised by Chinese forces, will immediately turn lackey and collaborator"


Poster promotes the Taliban takeover against the US-backed government in Afghanistan. Suggests a parallel with China as a colonial force in Indonesia.

Al-Shabaab statement on AstraZeneca vaccine

Al-Shabaab forbids the use of AstraZeneca vaccine at the same time that European regulators voice conerns about the vaccine.

Al-Shabaab claims COVID-19 vaccines are unfit for consumption by Muslims (Haram) and suggests traditional remedies.

Source: ‘Al-Shabaab recommends use of honey in fight against COVID-19 pandemic’, Garowe Online (11 April 2021),, accessed 20 October 2021.

Al-Shabaab claims COVID-19 vaccines are unfit for consumption by Muslims (Haram) and suggests traditional remedies.

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, (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.

Conspiracy theories in the Balkans were strongly associated with radical right groups, intensified online disinformation campaigns, and the QAnon movement. In all countries studied, there was evidence of both a rise over 2020 and 2021 in the number of individuals who supported radical right extremist narratives (for instance, anti-immigration, anti-LGBT+, and anti-abortion narratives), and the development of radical right groups that claimed, for example, that they were ‘purifiers of society’ and out to correct governments. Disinformation on COVID-19 included speculation that the virus and vaccines were weapons and perhaps even created by the American army or developed by the Chinese.4 Many variations of these forms of narratives were identified in Balkan countries. The following examples demonstrate how the radical right and conspiracy theorists shifted their focus to spread narratives about the pandemic and undermine governments regionally. Through these, COVID-19 became a “lie” (Croatia);5 a virus that did not exist but was invented (QAnon Bosnia-Herzegovina);6 and a virus spread by 5G. Other misinformation contended that COVID-19 originated from a laboratory in Wuhan (Albania)7 or in US labs (Moldova).8 Misinformation about Bill Gates along with radical right diatribes against globalism often featured in conspiracies behind the pandemic (in North Macedonia, Moldova, and Bulgaria).9 Racism – a hallmark of the radical right – also figured in these narratives as Sinti and Roma minority communities became supposed “hotbeds of infections”, and COVID-19 became a biological weapon designed to control the world population (Bulgaria).10

Anti-vaccination messaging was also prominent, particularly in the Balkans and Southeast Asia. In the Balkans, radical right extremist groups and individual conspiracy theorists shifted from COVID-19 denialism in the early stages of the pandemic to subsequently proliferate sentiments such as that “the vaccine is a poison…still in the testing phase” or that “vaccination is a type of organized genocide” (Croatia).11 Additional dis- and misinformation about the vaccines circulated widely, playing on religious and ideological beliefs across the region. In Bulgaria, for example, there were several types of conspiracy theories circulating in 2021, including: “COVID-19 is a man-made virus spread by global movements, transnational corporations, aliens or the Illuminati;” “the virus is real but not as deadly, which make measures unnecessary;” and that “Bill Gates [and] 5G…[are] efforts to control the world population” through COVID-19 vaccines.12

In Southeast Asia, vaccines – particularly those developed in China such as Sinovac – were also the subject of disinformation narratives. Common narratives spread across diverse ideologically motivated groups, despite occupying very different spaces on the extremist spectrum. In 2020, violent extremist networks claimed Chinese-manufactured vaccines were part of a plot by China to incapacitate local populations and occupy the region, narratives reflective of anti-Chinese prejudices held by many ideologically motivated VEOs in the region.13 Other conspiracy theories in the area also demonstrated this prejudice. Another VE-linked narrative explained SARS-CoV-2 as a bioweapon deployed by China – perhaps spread via Chinese migrant workers.14 Such racist and nativist narratives were primarily found in Indonesia but were also present in Malaysia and the Philippines. Anti-Chinese conspiracy narratives functioned as a unifying commonality between different extremist groups and their followers (including Dash-affiliates and the Islamic Defenders Front). As the pandemic became entrenched and there were no indications of it abating, regional extremist groups also began re-posting and adapting COVID-19 mis- and disinformation from US and Western sources, though their use of such messaging gradually decreased over 2021.15

The research team did not locate specific conspiracy theory narratives in extremist communications in West Africa beyond generalized global narratives on COVID-19. Given that local VEOs such as Boko Haram have previously rejected vaccines (such as the polio vaccine) and attacked vaccine distributors, it was expected that VEOs in West Africa would campaign against the COVID-19 vaccine. However, this did not happen. While groups operating elsewhere in Africa, such as Al-Shabaab, have released statements rejecting the AstraZeneca vaccine, their counterparts in the Sahel and the Lake Chad region did not issue any public statements regarding the vaccine. This may be partly a result of the reality of lower vaccine distribution compared to many other countries. Still, VEOs in this region did disseminate generic mis- and disinformation about COVID-19, even without novel adaptations, which may have contributed to non-compliance with public health measures across general populations.16



“Coronavirus: Fighting al-Shabab propaganda in Somalia,” BBC News (accessed 2 April 2020).

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R. Aula, COVID -19 Pandemic and Al Shabab’s Operations, Nairobi, Kenya, BRAVE Insight, 2020.


Office of Politics and Wilaayat, ‘Muslims of Somalia must reject the unsafe coronavirus vaccine [AstraZenica]’, 30 March 2021, in Morad News (@MoradNews), ‘BREAKING: #AlShabaab calls on #Somalia people’, Twitter, 30 March 2021, accessed 12 April 2022.

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See, for example of framing, V. Laterza and L.C. Romer, “Coronavirus, herd immunity and the eugenics of the market,” Al Jazeera, 14 April 2020

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F. Bieber, T. Prelec, Z. Nechev, 'Policy Brief: The Suspicious Virus: Conspiracies and COVID19 in the Balkans', BiEPAG, 2020 (accessed 23 September 2021).

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’Rights and Freedom Initiative’, Facebook (accessed 23 September 2021).


Balkan Research Network (BIRN), ’QAnon u BiH: Teorije zavjere pod plaštom slobode govora’, VOA News, 4 September 2020 (accessed 1 August 2021).

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F. Bieber, T. Prelec, Z. Nechev, 'Policy Brief: The Suspicious Virus: Conspiracies and COVID19 in the Balkans', BiEPAG, 2020 (accessed 23 September 2021).

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“COVID-19 is a man-made biological weapon invented by the West to introduce “US hegemony,” Europa Libera, 'Mitropolia Ortodoxă a Moldovei, supusă Moscovei, împrăștie teorii ale conspirației', Europa Liberă Romania, 20 May 2020 (accessed 23 September 2021).

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Digi24, 'Biserica din Republica Moldova se opune vaccinării împotriva COVID-19 și citează conspirații cu 5G și Bill Gates', Digi24, 19 May 2020, (accessed 23 September 2021).

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See, for example, the conspiracy peuedo-news site, Istinom protiv laži (accessed 1 December 2021).


K. Tsabala, ' Mistrust and Disinformation: Covid-19 conspiracies in Bulgaria',, 26 May 2021, (accessed 28 October 2021); Н. Киров, '„Тренд“: За 23% от българите коронавирусът не съществува, VESTI, 11 June 2020, (accessed 23 September 2021).

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Pro-Daesh Telegram channels, 2020-2021.


“COVID-19 and ISIS in Indonesia”, Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC), Short Briefing No.1, April 2, 2020.


Telegram channels, 2020; Facebook, 2020.


Edu-Afful, F. (2020). COVD-19 exacerbates the risk of violent extremism in the Sahel and West Africa.

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Explore the other narratives

Divine Retribution


Restrictions as Repression


Explore the regions

Southeast Asia
Region #01

Southeast Asia

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West Africa and the Sahel
Region #02

West Africa and the Sahel

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East Africa
Region #03

East Africa

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The Balkans
Region #04

The Balkans

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All views and opinions expressed on this page are based on open-source information and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Hedayah, the International Center of Excellence for Countering Violent Extremism (“we”). We make no representation or warranty of any kind, express or implied, regarding the accuracy, adequacy, validity, reliability, availability or completeness of any information in the report. Under no circumstance shall we have any liability to any party for any loss or damage of any kind incurred as a result of the use of the report or reliance on any information provided therein.