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EU official warns terrorist, extremist groups aiming to regain influence amid pandemic

EU official warns terrorist, extremist groups aiming to regain influence amid pandemic
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Extremist groups and terrorist organizations are exploiting frustrations around the novel coronavirus pandemic to grow their influence, Europe’s top counterterrorism official is warning.

Governments must make security a top priority along with ensuring public health and economic recovery, Gilles de Kerchove, the counterterrorism coordinator for the European Union, said in an interview with Reuters

“The massive amount of money that will be spent to address the economic, social and healthcare consequences of the virus risks being at the expense of security,” he said. “We must prevent the one crisis ending up producing another.”

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Far-right extremists are spreading their propaganda online while ISIS is working to regroup in territory it previously lost in the Middle East and Africa.

“The virus has an impact on fragile states and gives Daesh [ISIS] new room to breathe,” de Kerchove said. “There are serious causes for concern.”

He said far-right extremist groups in Europe are circulating text messages encouraging people to go out and infect “enemies” and increasing propaganda online directing hate toward Jews, Muslims and migrants who are wrongly being blamed for the pandemic and its spread.

Fringe blogs are pushing conspiracy theories and blaming China, Iran or Israel for spreading the disease in an effort to sow anger and increase paranoia, de Kerchove told Reuters.

Far-left extremists are pushing a conspiracy theory that 5G mobile networks are spreading the disease, with fires set to cellphone towers in Britain and the Netherlands connected to such propaganda.

“People are confined and are a lot more online. It’s an ideal opportunity to reach those who spend all day on their computers,” he said.

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“What is likely to happen is just a growing rise of right-wing violent extremism. ... They are using COVID a lot to promote their cause. That is certainly an issue that needs to be at the top of the agenda of governments.”

De Kerchove called for heightened vigilance in the face of these threats and is preparing to circulate a paper to EU member states outlining the dangers governments need to be aware of as countries begin easing lock-down measures.

“For decades we’ve been talking about the development of a biological weapon by a terrorism group. That’s the sort of thing we cannot lose sight of,” he said.