In March 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. With this declaration, most governments around the world decided to impose a nationwide lockdown in order to reduce the spread the virus. The pandemic had also forced the closure of educational systems worldwide and over “one billion students” had no longer attended their classes in schools, universities and colleges and became locked into their homes engaging. Moreover, governments directed greater focus to the public health crisis at the expense of counter terrorism and extremism measures, thus presenting the extremists opportunities to consolidate and expand their activities.
Increased number of young people who have been engaging in unsupervised internet usage during the lockdown allowed for the enhancement and expansion of radicalization and recruitment activities among the extremist groups. The great populations of the world which were under siege because of Coronavirus were seen as “captive audiences” to whom extremist content was smoothly and effortlessly streamlined.
The extremist content streamlined during the pandemic varied greatly depending on the group propagating it. Muslim extremists, on the one hand, have been so much indulged in circulating the notion that the pandemic is “divine retribution” against enemies of Islam and Muslims, especially against China where transgression against Uighur Muslims was allegedly at its peak. Anti-western sentiments were also endorsed by ISIS which celebrated the massive Western death toll from the pandemic and defined it as “God’s smallest soldier.” The pandemic spurred the governments to impose limitations on citizens’ freedom of movement, and this has negatively impacted the terrorist and intimidating activities of the extremist groups like stabbings and bombings. This limitation on movement was nevertheless exploited by terrorist groups to further increase their efforts to recruit new members through social media and other online forums.
Far-right groups, on the other hand, have boosted their narratives during the pandemic and exploited that state of lockdown and curfew imposed by most governments in fueling sentiments of racism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, etc. In a way to cause community turmoil and tension and sow hatred and division, they have been trying to put blame on Muslims for the spread of the virus in different parts of the world claiming that Muslims are breaching the lockdown and attending mosques for prayers. Although these attempts were proven futile most of the time, some of them worked successfully in stirring anti-Muslim hatred and violence. It is also worth noting that both Muslim and far-right extremists have urged their adherents and supporters to spread the virus among their “alleged” enemies and many incidents of extremists trying to spread the virus have been reported and recorded.
There is another type of extremism that has emerged during the pandemic, and it can be called the “conspiracy theorist extremism”. This extremism is defined by Karen M. Douglas and others as the “attempts to explain the ultimate causes of significant social and political events and circumstances with claims of secret plots by two or more powerful actors.” Although this kind of extremism cannot exclusively be attributed to certain ideology or group, many groups have found it useful in pursuing their goals and achieving what they ultimately aspire for. Far-right extremists, on the one hand, tactfully used it to circulate that “Muslims are spreading the virus as an attack on Western values” and thus inciting hatred and violence against Muslims. Muslim extremists, on the other hand, have also employed the conspiracy theorist extremism when maintain that the virus represents “torment and wrath of God” to brainwash supporters and recruit young people.
With that brief overview, it is noted that extremists, among Muslims or far right groups, rushed to seize the opportunities offered by the Covid-19 pandemic in pushing their agendas forward and achieving their goals. Although their methods to exploit these difficult times might have differed, their ultimate goal was notably very much the same: inciting hatred, dividing communities and justifying hatred. In preventing this, governments should develop strategies for countering fake news and check the spread of false information and conspiracy theories regarding COVID-19.
 See Karen M. Douglas, Joseph E. Uscinski, Robbie M. Sutton, Aleksandra Chichocka, Turkay Nefes, Chee Siang Ang and Ferzani Deravi. 2019. ‘Understanding Conspiracy Theories’, Advances in Political Psychology, Vol. 40:S1, p.4