How COVID-19 Has Impacted Counter-Extremism Efforts

A specialist working on the UK’s Prevent program combatting radical right extremism speaks on the challenges COVID-19 has created.
Left: The August 2017 Charlottesville “Unite the Right” Rally (Photo Credit: Anthony Crider/Creative Commons). Right: Jayda Fransen and Paul Goulding, leaders of the far-right group Britain First, at a rally in London on November 4, 2017. (AP)

Left: The August 2017 Charlottesville “Unite the Right” Rally (Photo Credit: Anthony Crider/Creative Commons). Right: Jayda Fransen and Paul Goulding, leaders of the far-right group Britain First, at a rally in London on November 4, 2017. (AP)

Sean Arbuthnot is a Prevent Coordinator for the region of Leicester, Leicestershire and Rutland in the UK.

During recent months, there has been an understandable focus on how extremists have attempted to capitalize on the COVID-19 global health crisis. Whilst Islamist groups like Daesh assert that COVID-19 is an act of God and seek to take advantage of the fact that governments are vulnerable and distracted, radical right extremists have linked the pandemic to existing anti-immigrant grievances and conspiracies.

Even as news cycles have become saturated by the international pandemic, the danger of extremism is therefore rarely far from the headlines, with the violence that erupted during anti-Black Lives Matter protests exploited by the far right in London to the horrific knife attack in Reading that claimed the lives of three innocent victims. What is less clear to the wider public, however, is how government attempts to counter radicalization have adapted in the current situation.

There has been much disruption to daily life, with the long-term consequences being potentially enormous. Like almost everything else, the work of the government’s Prevent strategy to safeguard vulnerable people from extremism has been impacted by COVID-19.

As a Prevent Coordinator, I work at the so-called “coalface” of local delivery and I have witnessed the impact of COVID-19 on UK’s counter-radicalization program in a number of ways.

The most obvious obstacle provided by the pandemic that needed to be overcome will be familiar to many. Like everybody else, Prevent practitioners have had to embrace online platforms and new, remote ways of working to maintain contact and productivity whilst working on their caseloads from the confines of their home. And whilst we are not immune to interruptions from children, pets and Amazon deliveries, or the whims and frustrations of the mute function on Zoom, I am pleased to report that all of our regular meetings, in particular our Channel panel that provides support for vulnerable people at risk of radicalization, have flourished. Modern technology has allowed Channel panels to be expertly chaired by senior representatives from local authorities with good participation from partner agencies and safeguarding professionals in order for this to happen.

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More complex has been the more hands-on issue of how we effectively provide tangible support for vulnerable people during lockdown when face-to-face contact has been restricted. In some cases, online interactions have been positive but in others have been less practical, not least because not everybody has equal access to technology, devices and strong Wi-Fi connections. Thankfully, we have been able to maintain positive mentoring for the most high-risk referrals.

On a case-by-case basis, we have also continued to provide intervention sessions in line with Government health advice around social distancing. In other cases, individual Prevent officers and social workers have gone above and beyond the call of duty and provided consistent, reassuring support and contact to people with complex needs when all other protective factors (school, employment etc.) had drifted away. Many of the civil society organizations that we work with have adapted their delivery in order to engage online with audiences that they would normally meet in person.

Perhaps our most significant challenge has been a national decline in the number of people referred to Prevent since COVID-19 restrictions were imposed. Prior to lockdown, the education sector was the most significant contributor to Prevent, accounting for 33% of all referrals in 2018-19. However, as many students stayed at home, the opportunity for schools to spot concerns or warning signs has naturally dissipated too. But the risks have not gone away. In fact, they may even have increased, and I expect referrals to rise considerably as more and more students return to education.

Such an increase in radicalization is not unexpected: many young people have been at home for an extended period and are likely to have spent increased amounts of time online. The internet is of course a wonderful resource and a necessity for many children in accessing schoolwork, but it would be naïve to ignore the potentially harmful content that is also readily accessible.

Radical right extremists have used the COVID-19 outbreak to promote hateful views, sometimes through conspiracy theories, blaming a particular group for the virus, anti-Semitism, or through spreading misinformation. In addition, recent Channel cases suggest that potential right-wing terrorists or lone actors may be inspired by various radical right ideologies, often taking inspiration from more than one as they dabble with multiple conspiracy theories in the online space. They can adopt a “pick n mix” approach, finding different outlets for their issues and grievances on a variety of websites, forums, and social media platforms, resulting in a highly personalized process of radicalization.

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In the offline world, the strain of lockdown coupled with the power of important social movements such as Black Lives Matter may also provide a touchstone for the radical right. One person, inspired by radical right ideologies, recently stated to me that he wanted to see things “kick off” in the UK like they have done in the US. He hoped that this would lead to rioting, looting, and violent clashes on the streets, providing the perfect excuse for the radical right to take to the streets and subsequently provoking a “race war.” In my view, such aspirations point to the emerging threat of an accelerationist discourse amongst the radical right and global white supremacists.

And yet despite everything said so far, perhaps in some isolated and unpredictable ways, lockdown may have actually been a protective factor for some people. Anecdotally, I know of one case where an individual had been referred to Channel on the grounds that he was fascinated by weapons and violence and aspired to commit a mass school or college attack. In the early stages of the referral’s Channel journey, his engagement was limited and inconsistent. But being out of education, staying at home, reconnecting with his family and even enjoying playing board games with them, appears to have had a profoundly positive impact on him, significantly reducing his social isolation, vulnerability, and risk. Such a story suggests the need for an individual, tailored approach to supporting people that is specific to the personal factors that have placed them at risk of radicalization to violent extremism in the first place.

Ultimately, whilst the present is challenging and the future uncertain, we cannot bury our heads in the sand and wait for things to return to normal. We don’t know how long that will take or indeed, what “normal” will look like. But I am reassured by numerous examples of innovation and good practice within the network of Prevent practitioners and officers, both locally and nationally.

Under unique and testing circumstances we have continued to respond to complex risks and keep people safe. It has always been the case that the threats of violent extremism and terrorism transform and evolve over time. Therefore, our responses and efforts to counter radicalization have always had to be flexible and dynamic too. So, in these most unprecedented of times, in many ways it’s business as usual.

This article is brought to you by the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). Through their research, CARR intends to lead discussions on the development of radical right extremism around the world.

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Opinion // CARR / Coronavirus / Extremism / Radical Right / White Supremacist Terrorism