Terrorist organizations used the pandemic to “spread hate propaganda and exacerbate mistrust in public institutions,” according to the European Union police’s annual terrorism situation and trend report.
Europol, in the report released Tuesday, wrote that COVID-19 and the resulting economic and social crises “contributed to polarisation in society, causing attitudes to harden and increasing acceptance of intimidation, including calls to commit violent acts.”
Europol added that “Expressions of social dissatisfaction increased, both online and offline, with social media playing a facilitating and mobilising role, as well as the proliferation of disinformation and conspiracy theories.”
The group, in a press release announcing the report's findings, noted that while terrorists have, in recent years, exploited polarization in society to "pollute the social climate with violent ideologies," the pandemic "has further accelerated this development."
“There has been a notable increase in intolerance of political opponents, while the number of individuals conducting verbal or physical violence is also increasing,” the police group added.
Europol recorded 57 “completed, failed and foiled” terrorist attacks in 2020 in Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Italy and Spain, according to the report.
The United Kingdom saw 62 “terrorist incidents,” while Switzerland reported two terrorist attacks that were likely motivated by jihadists.
Twenty-one individuals died due to terrorist attacks in the European Union last year, according to the report.
Additionally, Europol reported that 449 individuals were arrested on suspicion of terrorism-related offenses in 17 EU Member States, which was a one-third decrease from previous years.
“The latest report from Europol on the EU terrorism situation illustrates that in the year of the COVID pandemic, the risk of online radicalisation has increased,” Ylva Johansson, the European Commissioner for Home Affairs, said in the statement.
Europol said the number of terrorist attacks in European Union member states in 2020 was “comparable” to that of 2019, which saw a total of 119 incidents, 64 of which happened in the U.K.
The report noted that the use of explosives for terror attacks decreased last year, likely because “the lockdowns related to the COVID-19 pandemic and the closure of public spaces for mass gatherings,” according to Europol’s press release.
The police group also touched how mental health contributed to the rise in terrorism over the past year, writing that the additional stress caused by the pandemic may have played a role in “encouraging vulnerable individuals to turn to violence.”
Additionally, the group said extremists and terrorists “found new opportunities” through the increased time spent online amid the pandemic, writing “with a large amount of disinformation actively disseminated online, extremists and terrorists have exploited social dissatisfaction to reach out and propagate their ideologies.”