COVID-19 and the apocalypse: A boon for terrorism?

How terrorists may use COVID-19 to plan attacks to bring about the apocalyspe.

How terrorists may use COVID-19 to plan attacks to bring about the apocalyspe.

OTTAWA — We are living in interesting times, aren’t we (this is apparently a Chinese curse along those lines – are we indeed damned?)? What with the very serious coronavirus pandemic, the massive economic disruption, physical isolation, international tensions, etc., is it any wonder that many in our midst are turning to religion to help them through this difficult period (hopefully not in mass crowds, however, unlike what some groups are doing like the Tablighi Jamaat)? I have already commented on this phenomenon, which I see as extremist in nature.

If faith is your solace when things are tough that is great. If you act better, both towards yourself and towards others, then we are all better off. I am not advocating religion for all – we do live in a world that (thankfully!) we each have a choice to believe in a greater being or not. To each their own.

What is slightly worrying, however, is an uptick in what are sometimes known as ‘millennarian’ views, i.e. the end of the world. These beliefs centre on events that are to usher in the termination of society as we know it, with the concomitant assurance that the righteous will be saved, leaving the rest of us to suffer in some form of hell forever.

If you are a terrorist bent on the end times what better way to hasten it then take advantage of the coronavirus?

Most of this I submit is harmless drivel, meaningful of course to the ‘true believers’ but inconsequential to the vast majority. If you want to sell everything you own and join some moron on a hilltop waiting to be ‘assumed’ into heaven, fill your boots. Just leave the rest of us alone.

“Death on the Pale Horse,” painted by the American artist Benjamin West in 1796.
“Death on the Pale Horse,” by the American artist Benjamin West in 1796.

‘Punishment from God’

Not surprisingly, these kinds of convictions often increase in times of great tension, either national or international. And what worldwide crisis can you think of bigger than COVID-19? Every nation is affected and there is no light at the end of the tunnel (yet).

There is also a tendency within some fundamentalist (i.e. extremist) movements to see the coronavirus as a ‘punishment from God’. Under this interpretation, the Great Designer is wielding a virus to convince us to change our sinful ways. And what are those sinful practices? Pick one (or several): gay marriage, secularism, pornography, liberal democracy, atheism…. God is angry with us and he will end it all to show just how powerful he (she? Blasphemy!!) is.

This is all fine as we have always had Cassandras in our midst warning us that the end is nigh. We can safely ignore them and let them hold their signs or loudly read sacred scripture on street corners.

What many might not know, however, is that terrorist groups, and particularly Islamist extremist ones, also have a deep commitment to the ‘end times’. Jihadis have an entire literature derived from actual Islamic sources that they cling to in the hopes that their paroxysms of violence are somehow tied to Allah’s plan for us all. If you are interested in more on this topic I humbly recommend you have a look at chapter three of my first book on terrorism The Threat from Within.

In an editorial to Issue 227 of the Islamic State’s (ISIS) al-Naba newspaper, the current pandemic is seen from the perspective that it is God alone who causes disease and controls all matters, and only the “foolish” believe that the US government and its intelligence and military possess divine qualities and are capable of dictating the fate of others.

This viewpoint pervades much jihadi literature and this topic has been covered by many scholars over the years, even at times when we were not faced with an international pandemic. As a consequence it is of little consequence in ‘normal’ times. These are not, alas, normal times.

I am not making any predictions here as I am not a seer. But I would not be surprised to see groups like ISIS plan, or claim they have planned, terrorist attacks to hasten Armageddon and the return of the Mahdi (a crucial end of time figure in mainstream Islam). After all, it is not as if ISIS needs an excuse to wield violence now, does it? But the conviction that he is ‘doing Allah’s work’ might just be enough to satisfy some terrorist that he is a somebody rather than a pathetic loser.

On the other hand, the International Crisis Group (ICG) recently wrote that

It is almost certainly correct that COVID-19 will handicap domestic security efforts and international counter-ISIS cooperation, allowing the jihadists to better prepare spectacular terror attacks.

And as Rita Katz, founder of the SITE Enterprise put it:

Whether it’s a devastating tsunami, earthquake, wildfire, or the unprecedented situation we are facing now, groups like the Islamic State and al-Qaeda always bend the story into a ‘God’s will’ narrative, or call to carry out attacks amid destabilization.

Rita Katz

I hope I – and the ICG – am wrong and that the recent shift in jihadi messaging – initial suggestions were to stay home – towards action are nothing more than run of the mill propaganda. Like they usually put out.

Stay tuned. And stay healthy!

The Threat From Within: Recognizing Al Qaeda-Inspired Radicalization and Terrorism in the West (2015)

This textbook examines what drives Al Qaeda-inspired radicalization to violence, how to detect it, and how to confront it. The chapters discuss behaviors and ideologies that are observable and tangible in radicalized individuals or those on the path to violent radicalization. These behaviors are drawn from a variety of cases, such as planning acts of terrorism, traveling to join terrorist groups, or participating in violent jihadi conflict outside the country.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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