From neo-Nazis to jihadists, the COVID-19 pandemic has proved to many terrorists that the United States is not the ever-prepared, all-knowing power it once appeared to be, and nor are many of its Western allies.
As the world looks on in awe at the governmental, economic, and societal vulnerabilities exposed by COVID-19, terrorists are taking note, and because a novel coronavirus was able to cripple the planet, bad actors are taking the idea of weaponizing disease more seriously than they have for years. Some have discussed ways to use the coronavirus itself to promote their various anarchic and apocalyptic agendas.
Over the last few years, ISIS-linked media groups have called for “bio terror” as revenge for events like the 2019 massacre at mosques in New Zealand, and launched all-out media campaigns promoting bioweapons. One disturbingly detailed video from July of 2018, titled “Bio-Terror,” directly suggests hantaviruses, cholera, and typhoid as weapons for lone wolf terrorists. The video, produced by a prominent ISIS-linked media group, even advises how to disseminate these “silent destructive weapon[s]” in “enemy nations.”
In the past, despite fears about terrorist intentions, the SITE Intelligence Group and others determined terrorists were unlikely to pull off any significant bio-attack. As my organization wrote in a 258-page report for the Department of Defense in 2006, many jihadi bioterrorism brainstorms showed “a poor understanding of chemical and biological agents.” But the novel coronavirus is renewing interest in what once appeared only a theoretical threat, and perhaps even suggesting more viable methods to conduct biological terrorism.
The so-called Islamic State has been watching the COVID-19 pandemic with great interest. In a recent issue of its online weekly, Naba, it told followers the pandemic disproves the myth “that nothing is absent from the ear and eye of intelligence… and nothing happens without the will of [their] rule.” Which is to say in the view of ISIS, the United States and other Western powers not only are not all-seeing, they are flying blind.
When it comes to weaponizing biological agents, the current pandemic is a proof of concept demonstration about the potential impact of a new or undetected disease. As the same ISIS-linked “Bio-Terror” video from 2018 put it, plagues like those it suggested “cannot be detected or tracked… escaped or avoided.”
Similar sentiments and incitements come from neo-Nazi and white nationalist terrorists, as SITE detailed in a recent report on the far-right’s COVID-19 response. One far-right channel’s post, distributed among many others, used a Getty image of a gas-mask-wearing protester with a Molotov cocktail, reading:
Now the facade’s all cracked and all we can see is the world for what it is.
There’s no “system” which can stop such a pathetic little thing as a virus, this microbe is singlehandedly responsible for shattering man-made concepts, currencies, transactions and beliefs.
Far-right terrorists have been particularly aggressive, embracing COVID-19 itself as a weapon, directing their community members to “go visit your local synagogue and hug as many jews as possible, cough on all the door knobs.” While such messages may sound insincere—even ludicrous—recent events show far-right terrorists are quite willing to attack during this pandemic using any means at their disposal.
Timothy Wilson, a neo-Nazi who sought to bomb a hospital in Missouri, was sharing exactly these sorts of messages. One he posted from another user as early as Jan. 29 called on far-right activists to infect politicians, police officers, and medical personnel with the coronavirus:
-spit on every doorknob or doorbar or handle or whatever you touch
-lick fruit and vegetables in the local grocery store and put it back
-spit into a super soaker and start blasting people
-cough in people’s faces
-go to your local town hall and start spitting in politicians faces and shooting them with the super soaker
-when you get arrested, spit and cough all over the car and cops
-don’t wash your hands (i forgot to mention this earlier)
-try to infect as many police officers as you can
-if they bring you to a hospital if your symptoms worsen, infect the doctors as well; rip off their facemasks and spit at them
Wilson was killed last month in a shootout with the FBI, which reported he was motivated “by racial, religious, and anti-government animus” and had considered several targets for a truck bombing. He “ultimately settled on an area hospital in an attempt to harm many people, targeting a facility that is providing critical medical care in today's environment.”
Wilson’s story fits into the growing record of far-right attacks in recent years that show we cannot dismiss the willingness of individuals to act.
The energy going into the far-right’s capitalization on the COVID-19 crisis is extraordinary. Some of the activists have even taken the time to create fake CDC-branded public health posters, presenting as safe various activities that are likely in fact to spread the disease.
Encouraging the spread of a plague in one’s own homeland might seem contrary to the interests of white nationalists, but it actually fits well with many of their objectives. Far-right extremists increasingly embrace a political philosophy called “accelerationism,” which encourages terrorists to accelerate the forces destroying society so that they may rebuild their own in the ashes. To that end, every effect of this crisis—from the social isolation and the economic meltdown to the crisis of public health and confusion about basic information—is a potential situation to be exploited or tool to be weaponized.
Groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda, meanwhile, have much experience capitalizing on crisis. They read every development, study public perception, and hone their outreach accordingly. And, given the suicide bombings, incarceration, and other lengths jihadi terrorists endorse and endure while pursuing so-called “martyrdom,” do we believe motivated ISIS supporters would hesitate to infect themselves with Ebola or some other contagion to spread it further?
Just last week, for example, Tunisian counterterrorism police arrested an ISIS operative for inciting followers with COVID-19 symptoms to infect security personnel.
To an ISIS member or accelerationist neo-Nazi, the spectacle of novel coronavirus paralyzing the most powerful nations on earth is a source of inspiration. Suicide bombs and mass shootings pale by comparison. On Sept. 11, 2001, 19 hijackers killed 2,977 people. The number of COVID-19 dead in New York City alone surpassed that number weeks ago. Nationwide, more than 50,000 have died; worldwide, more than 200,000 as of this writing.
And while the toll mounts, contradictory advice from public figures, scarce medical supplies, and conflicting mitigation measures among different levels of government show that America and other countries lack the infrastructure and preparedness to handle potential bioterrorism threats.
It is imperative that governments confront the fact that these can happen, and the likelihood they will. What’s required is some big-picture rethinking about terrorism in contexts not typically addressed in the past: public health infrastructure is a fundamental part of domestic security; health-care facilities and food distribution outlets are now plausible targets for terrorists.
We are still in an early moment when we can greatly mitigate these threats if we prioritize them, organize preventive measures and responses, and act with urgency. As the world takes to increasingly desperate and draconian measures to combat the coronavirus pandemic, it is all too clear what things look like when governments and societies fail to prepare for the worst.
Phil Cole, a Senior Analyst at SITE, contributed to this article.