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‘An extremist buffet’ — COVID-19, bioterrorism and increasing anti-authority sentiment

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from THE WATERLOO REGION RECORD.

If you listened to the messages of Chinese propaganda or Western conspiracy theorists circulating over the internet, the origin of COVID-19 may have started in a laboratory.

The science, as it stands, doesn’t support the theory. The virus that caused the outbreak is known as SARS‐CoV‐2, a newly discovered virus closely related to bat coronaviruses, pangolin coronaviruses, and SARS-CoV. Its origin is hypothesized to have come from the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, though researchers from the World Health Organization have been undertaking an epidemiological detective investigation to better understand the whole picture of its emergence in human populations.

What we do know is that genetically modified viruses do exist and occur when a virus has been altered or generated using biotechnology methods. Subsequently, the threat of biological warfare is something that has been discussed in counterterrorism circles for decades.

But seeing is believing.

It’s one thing to consider how the world would react to a global pandemic — naturally occurring or otherwise — but it’s another thing to watch it shut down countries for months, cripple global economies, bring about mass unemployment, and lead to stay-at-home orders the world over.

“(Bioterrorism) is actually the first thing I thought about,” said Colin Clarke, senior research fellow at the Soufan Center, a U.S. nonprofit threat and security research organization. Clarke is a world-renowned researcher in counterterrorism and spent over a decade at RAND Corp. where he was a senior political scientist focusing on terrorism, insurgency and criminal networks. Before leaving in 2018, his last research project involved evaluating the threat level of bioterrorism.

“I think this sets up the stage for a group to push up its timeline and try something that maybe before they wouldn’t have attempted to do,” he said. “It’s a huge benefit to these groups to be able to play that big of a role in geopolitics.”

And it’s been attempted before, though never on a world scale.

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In the case of the Japanese cult movement Aum Shinrikyo, which came into public attention in 1995 when it co-ordinated the release of sarin gas on three subway lines of the Tokyo Metro, its leader, Shoko Asahara, was able to recruit scientists with the capabilities of developing low-level chemical and biological weapons.

The group, after rigorous investigation by the authorities, had also successfully produced other nerve agents such as VX, and attempted to produce and use botulinum toxin, a potential agent used for bioterrorism.

This was a religious doomsday group that — while also incorporating elements of yoga, Tibetan Buddhism and Hinduism — believed in an incoming apocalypse and sought the creation of a World War Three through a war between the U.S. and Japan. The group has never actually confessed to the attacks, claiming the attackers acted on their own accord.

“It’s not as easy as we think to secure the right kind of knowledge (for biological warfare),” said Lorne Dawson, a University of Waterloo professor and co-founder of the Canadian Network for Research on Terrorism, Security and Society. “The religious group might have the advantage because the scientists didn’t get involved to kill people, they became involved thinking they were in a crisis.”

In general, scientists and highly educated people are harder to recruit to terrorist or extremist groups, he said, but it doesn’t mean they won’t try.

“(The Islamic State) could come back in five years and look at this whole COVID situation and say, ‘Look, here really is an example of instead of us doing what we did again … wouldn’t it be better to try and develop a biological weapon along these lines?’”

Researchers have been tracking the re-emergence of the Islamic State in Iraq over the last year since losing its caliphate. There have been hundreds of attacks since January, all following a similar guerrilla-style warfare that was seen in its early emergence before 2010.

“Never think it can’t be done because it can be,” said Dawson.

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When considering jihadist terrorist groups like al-Qaida or the Islamic State, Clarke said the research shows there was at least expressions of interest in weapons of mass destruction — whether that be chemical, radiological or biological.

And while much of the focus has been on the possibility of these groups getting their hands on radioactive material with the intent to create nuclear weapons, Clarke said both chemical and biological options would be easier, on paper, to create.

He said it’s also important to understand the relationship between terrorism and fear. Sometimes, he said, the act itself is more important than its physical damage.

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In the readings of Osama bin Laden, one of the primary founders of al-Qaida, he often referred to the U.S. as a “paper tiger” that would pull back if you caused the necessary economic pain.

With the pandemic driving various world economies into recessions, its economic impact has been swift and far-reaching.

“Why I think it matters for COVID is if you look at how inept the response was, I think it really surprised a lot of people,” Clarke said. “It certainly surprised me.”

The conditions created through the pandemic response — isolation, unemployment, lack of trust in authority — has also allowed for far-right extremist groups to prey on the disenfranchised, ramp up recruitment techniques, and infiltrate Black Lives Matter protests in the U.S. and around the world.

“I call it an extremist buffet,” said Clarke. “Because it’s allowed groups across the ideological spectrum to all take advantage of it at once. Everybody is able to use this event in order to frame it in their own world view.”

This is happening in the developing world, but it can also be of serious consequence in developing countries across Africa, said Dawson, where COVID-19 is running rampant and leaving the vast majority of local populations destitute. It is not without reason that a jihadist group could seize the opportunity, he said, leading to further instability.

“And the rest of the world is distracted,” said Dawson. “People are exploiting the circumstance to advance their agenda. That does include recruiting people to join the far-right in the West, and to join these jihadist groups in the developing world.”

A new study from the London-based Institute for Strategic Dialogue found that more than 6,600 right-wing extremist social media pages and accounts were linked to Canadians.

The study found acts of far-right terrorism in Canada have increased by 320 per cent over the last five years.

Moonshot CVE, a U.K.-based organization specializing in counter-extremism work, released a separate report last week finding that Canadian searches for extremist content spiked during lockdown.

The organization has found similar spikes in the U.S., where tensions are rising he
ading into the presidential election in November.

“You’re constantly trying to deal with the endless problems around managing the next immediate crisis,” said Dawson. “And in your rush to do that, you drop the ball on the long-term things that you know are just sitting there brewing.”


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