Neo-Nazis eye coronavirus pandemic as rallying cry, experts warn

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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - As the world grapples with coronavirus, far-right hate groups and neo-Nazis are using the pandemic to try to recruit followers and spread hateful rhetoric, experts have warned.

The coronavirus originated in China’s Wuhan city and has since spread all over the world, with the number of infected passing the one million people mark and causing almost 50,000 deaths.

The virus itself and the world’s response to it has elicited “excitement” in the extreme right, British anti-hate charity Hope Not Hate said. Different groups, they say, are seeking to capitalise on the moment to drive recruitment, spread racist propaganda and plan attacks.

“These groups understand that a pandemic and economic downturn provide them with opportunities to promote conspiracy theories, assign blame and offer their ideology as a solution,” Counter Extremism Project researcher Joshua Fisher-Birch told The National.

Mr Fisher-Birch said groups like the Nordic Resistance and Hundred Handers movements have sought to grow their membership as a result of the pandemic, and Generation Identity has used the crisis to advocate for their brand of European ethnonationalism.

Saida Hashemi, the sister of victim Said Nesar Hashemi, speaks at a commemoration in Germany just weeks after nine people were killed by a suspected far-right extremist. EPA

The uptick in time spent online by those in lockdown in countries from Italy to the UK presents an opportunity for these groups to reach people on mainstream media platforms.

“More and more of us are spending our time online, especially those people who have children are now home and being schooled remotely,” Oren Segal, Vice President of the Anti-Defamation League’s Centre on Extremism, told an online discussion hosted by the Program on Extremism at George Washington University on Monday.

It’s not just the sheer amount of free time many have that could play into the hands of those recruiting for hate groups, said Mr Fisher-Birch.

“Many people who are locked down are isolated from support networks, and are experiencing fear, anger, and economic precarity, which is useful for these groups to exploit."

Online, groups are deploying conspiracy theories and racist, anti-Semitic memes to drive their narratives forward. It’s a familiar, even medieval, tale Mr Segal said.

“We notice that some of these are very much just a repackaging of old conspiracy theories but for a modern age, antisemitic conspiracy theories in particular about how Jewish people are trying to use this virus to manipulate global events to their benefit at the expense of non-Jews,” he said.

“This is like one of the classic antisemitic conspiracy theories. It actually traces back even into the bubonic plague,” he added.

The messaging may be the same, but the far-right is adapting to spread their message via the latest communication tools and relying on popular social media sites like Twitter and to normalise their messaging.

“White supremacists literally tried to infiltrate zoom calls - zoom bombing - by showing up, making racial epithets and showing their swastikas,” he said.

Mr Segal described memes shared on various social media platforms containing anti-Semitic tropes blaming Jews for the spread of the virus and racism towards anyone they viewed to be of Asian descent.

He added that said he had seen members of the extreme and far-right discussing how to spread the disease to other ethnic groups, an issue the FBI has also warned about.

“We have sort of the weaponisation of this pandemic that we've seen some white supremacists and others try to engage with... ‘go find a minority and cough on them’,” Mr Segal said.

“If you have the coronavirus, literally weaponise this virus as a way to stop those who are our perceived enemies.”

These seemingly online-only issues and threats almost had catastrophic real-life consequences for a coronavirus patient in a US city.

On March 26, Timothy R Wilson was killed by police in Missouri, US during a shootout. The FBI said Wilson had been planning an attack on a hospital treating coronavirus patients and had considered other targets including a school, a mosque and a synagogue.

He had also expressed religious and racial hatred online, an FBI statement read.

Wilson was the subject of an ongoing federal investigation and he was associated with the National Socialist Movement and the Vorherrschaft Division, both of which are Neo-Nazi organisations,” Mr Segal said.

“Here's an individual actually imbibing [racist conspiracy theories]. He believed them and decided he needed to act on them; that's why what we're seeing online is so dangerous.”

Although online memes can seem innocuous and unlikely to cause real harm, said Mr Segal, the ADL is seeing a rise in attacks against Asians in the US. Since January, it says there have been over 44 reports of harassment and threats against the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community.

On March 14, Jose Gomez, 19, stabbed three members of an Asian American family in Texas accusing them of spreading Covid-19.

British police have warned that the fastest growing terror threat is from the far-right and authorities in Germany and elsewhere in the EU have made similar warnings.

While Hope Not Hate listed concern at the glee far-right and neo-Nazi groups are sharing about the crisis online, they stressed their tactics are designed to create fear and are unlikely to result in attacks.

“Alongside the very real terrorist threat posed by the extreme right, they also seek to create fear and attract attention that far exceeds their operational capacity,” the group said in a blog post.

“Such threats should be placed in the context of the stated desire on the far right of using the pandemic as a means to instil panic, rather than automatically taken at face value.”

Updated: April 3, 2020 01:58 PM

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