Right-wing terrorist groups are looking to exploit the fear and chaos of the COVID-19 pandemic to advance their racist agenda.
That’s the view of international terrorism expert Robert Pape, who says law enforcement authorities need to urgently track and combat right-wing groups looking to “weaponize” the crisis.
Pape is a political scientist and international security specialist at the University of Chicago where he directs the Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism which tracks terrorist threats around the world. He says that while Islamic groups like ISIS have been prolific in reacting to the COVID-19 crisis on social media, they have not been calling for attacks on Western nations or the United States specifically.
“Their approach has been to label and glorify the COVID-19 virus as an act of God that is essentially visiting the angel of death on the West,” said Pape. “This approach is likely to backfire in the coming months as many Muslims succumb in the Middle East, in Africa and parts of Asia.”
But right-wing white supremacist terror groups “are calling for weaponizing COVID-19 and we have already seen a plot to do so,” said Pape.
He noted the case of Timothy Wilson, a 36-year-old Missouri man who died on March 24 in a confrontation with the FBI. Wilson was alleged to have been in the final stages of a plot to blow up a hospital caring for COVID-19 patients.
“He did this, and we know this from his posts on social media, because he believed the virus was a government conspiracy orchestrated by Jews,” said Pape.
According to Pape, one thing that needs to happen urgently is the increased tracking of right-wing groups by law enforcement and for political leaders to combat so-called alt-right propaganda predicting a breakdown of order.
“Our president, Gov. Pritzker, Mayor Lightfoot, should stress that law enforcement is not collapsing but strong and able to deal with whatever comes,” said Pape. “This would directly undermine much of the right-wing messaging that stresses that political order is breaking down.”
Another concern for Pape is the vulnerability of hospitals and grocery stores to attack, where he says security needs to be reassessed.
“They are now the only places of mass gathering and people come to them on a regular and predictable basis,” said Pape. “Many hospitals have protection, they also have barriers, but supermarkets are a different story.”
The Trump administration’s decision last month to fire Russell Travers, the acting director of the National Counterterrorism Center, set up after 9/11 to track and protect the nation from terrorist threats, was also unfortunate timing, said Pape.
Travers, a 40-year government professional, was reportedly ousted for resisting attempts to cut staff at the center.
“This is an unfortunate time to weaken our national counterterrorism center,” said Pape. “At this moment in time with the COVID-19 virus, we have real issues that we want to track carefully — international groups as well as domestic groups — and this is what the National Counterterrorism Center does best. This is an unfortunate period of time to be going through any kind of change and much less any kind of downsizing of the National Counterterrorism Center.”