The European Union’s law enforcement agency, Europol, says terrorists are taking advantage of the global pandemic to promote their various causes. Europol released the Terrorism Situation and Trend Report 2021 this week. The report warns COVID is having ramifications on how terror groups promote and recruit. Increasingly, terrorists are harnessing the online environment.
The report deals with terror trends and acts within EU member states. There were 57 completed, failed, and foiled attacks across the 27 EU member states in 2020. In total, 449 people were arrested for terror-related offences, and there were 422 concluded court proceedings.
Arrest numbers were down on previous years, and the number of terrorist attacks remained stable. But there is a distinct trend towards harder to detect unsophisticated lone wolf attacks. Europol suggests the pandemic could be one reason why.
“The online domain plays a crucial role in enabling violent extremists to spread their propaganda and sow hatred among potentially vulnerable and receptive audiences,” said Catherine De Bolle, Executive Director of Europol.
The report found Jihadist terrorism remains the greatest threat to the EU. But the report also flagged the rising importance of online communities in right-wing terror activity.
COVID restrictions have hampered the ability of terrorists to organise large scale sophisticated terror attacks. Across Europe, targets like museums, churches and stadiums mostly remained closed.
With physical meetings more difficult, Europol noted a discernible increase in online networking. Organisers use the online environment to promote, recruit, and radicalise individuals. Concurrently, Europol noted radicalised individuals were becoming younger than usual, and the risk of lone-wolf attacks increased. This fits with the notion of young people sitting at home during the pandemic, interacting with online communities on their computers.
Europol says right-wing white supremacist or neo-Nazi groups, in particular, have increasingly relied on online communities to spread their propaganda and recruit members. The 2019 Christchurch shooting that killed 51 people was linked to transnational online communities.
“Suspects, linked to online communities with different degrees of organisation, are increasingly younger – with some of them being minors at the time of arrest. Right-wing propaganda is mainly disseminated online, and gaming platforms have been increasingly used for spreading extremist and terrorist narratives,” said Europol in a statement.
The crime agency also suggests the pandemic increased social polarisation. This, in turn, increased wider acceptance of violent behaviour. Europol also believes the stress caused by the pandemic and associated restrictions may facilitate violence, especially among unstable or otherwise vulnerable people.
“Terrorists exploit different events, controversies and vulnerable individuals,” said Claudio Galzerano, Head of Europol’s Counter-Terrorism Centre.
Europol’s Executive Director, Catherine De Bolle, used the report’s release this week to call for greater investigative powers and increased co-operation from the private sector, particularly those operating online platforms that host extremist material and facilitate radicalisation.
De Bolle would like to see more real-time information sharing, greater uses of technology, and a stronger data protection framework. She argues this is essential to keep the EU safe from terrorism.