On a Thursday in the middle of March 2020, the FBI’s New York office sent out an alert to local police stations. It said, “members of extremist groups are encouraging one another to spread the coronavirus, if contracted, through bodily fluids and personal interactions”. Directed to use spray bottles to try to infect police on the street, extremist leaders also singled out Jews for infection, encouraging followers to go “any place they may be congregating including markets, political offices, businesses and places of worship”.
By May 1, with over 60,000 Americans reported dead from the virus, protestors in the US State of Michigan – many heavily armed, entered the Capitol building demanding an end to restrictions claiming that the stay-at-home order violates their constitutional rights. Mirroring protests in other States, including stand-offs with health care workers pleading for people to abide with current restrictions, the relatively quick escalation from online keyboard warriors to offline protesters surprised many. Far from being an “only in America” curiosity, street attacks on Australians of Asian background have risen during COVID-19. Far right groups have displayed racist flags and banners in several Australian towns and cities and, in blaming particular cultural groups for the virus, Australian white supremacists have been celebrating the closure of our borders, and jumped online to call for an end to multiculturalism.
In the midst of global chaos, organised groups on the extreme fringes of the political and religious spectrums are actively trying to make things worse. While these groups may not share the same ideologies, they do share a common aim: to hasten the collapse of society as we know it, and to use extreme violence as a tool to fracture existing societal divisions, challenge governments, and spread fear. Commonly referred to as “Accelerationism” in Alt-Right manifestos, this agenda is not new, but it is undergoing coordinated renewal to leverage COVID-19 as a trigger for future flashpoints.
First came the pandemic, and then – the infodemic
Against a backdrop of global chaos created by the virus, QAnon began calling the pandemic a hoax in lockstep with President Trump. By the time American’s were dying by the thousands, QAnon had pivoted to peddling conspiracy theories such as COVID-19 being a Chinese bioweapon, that the virus was engineered by Bill and Melinda Gates, and that the virus was a plot to bring down Trump. Many self-appointed online wellness influencers who use to rage against vaccinations and 5G technology also pivoted their focus. COVID-19 trutherism is now in vogue, and members are actively playing down the horrific extent of the global death toll. Evangelicals within the movement quickly interpreted the pandemic as a sign of “spiritual warfare” that would only effect those who have not been chosen by God, and that the promised coming of the Kingdom of God on Earth was nigh.
The concept of the second coming, the rapture, and apocalypse are not unique to Christianity. Similar scriptural references can be found in Islam, with extremists in both camps interpreting current events as a sign of the fulfilment of religious prophecy. Therefore, COVID-19 is something of a gift to extremist groups looking to justify their violent tactics. If the end-of-times is nigh, why not hasten its arrival?
What is Accelerationism?
Accelerationism is defined – in political, aesthetic and philosophical terms – as the argument that the only way out of the current “predicament” humanity finds itself in, is by pushing through it. That is, in any given context, the acceleration of a particular ideology is to push society – on a national or global scale – to the point of revolution in order to enact the desired change. The “predicament” is drawn from ideological and historical narratives to suit each organisation’s particular ideologies and goals. Based in large part on classical Marxism, The Communist Manifesto’s description of the global effects of capitalism, the concept’s end-state is the beginning of an era of social revolution. Of course, this revolution can be interpreted as one’s freedom fighter, and another’s terrorist, depending on who is framing that revolution. Accelerationism has also been linked to Nietzsche’s “greatest crisis of humanity”, in which he describes the advent of nihilism as the beginning of the end. When extremists adopt accelerationism to further their ideologies, they move beyond capitalism (in fact many specifically rage against it and identify a litany of social problems caused by it) and into the realm of prophecy, where again their interpretation is rigorously misapplied alongside similarly misinterpreted religious scriptures to afford it some legitimacy and credibility.
The Alt-Right can be defined as a range of people on the extreme right who reject mainstream conservatism in favour of forms that embrace implicit or explicit racism or white supremacy. People who identify with the Alt-Right regard mainstream or traditional conservatives as weak and impotent, largely because they do not sufficiently support racism and antisemitism. Aligned with this definition, the Alt-Right utopia is best described in their “14 words” slogan: “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children”. The use of Nazi symbology and rhetoric is commonplace, as is the adoption of Old Norse warrior mythology which doubles as an ideation of racial purity. The Alt-Right point to material published by their cohort to support the idea that only through acts of extreme violence can accelerationist action be achieved. The Turner Diaries, Siege, The Great Replacement, and The Kalergi Plan all encourage the use of extreme violence to speed up the “inevitable collapse” from which a new world can be reborn.
Accelerationism in extreme Islam
Islamic extremists subscribe to the fulfilment of the Prophet Muhammad’s prophecy of the establishment of a Caliphate, and that this prophecy will come to pass “at the end of time”. This theme has been adopted by both Al Qaeda and the Islamic State. By bringing about the “end of time” via puritanical and violent means, these terrorist organisations believe that the Caliphate will be restored to them in victory. The secondary theme to note here is the interpretation of Jihad as sanctioned by Allah, which is perceived in military terms. This is in contrast to the mainstream Muslim belief that views Jihad as an “inner spiritual struggle” against sin. Islamic Jihadists point to “correct” interpretations of sacred texts, scripture, and historical battles to justify why only extreme violence can realise this prophecy. In its now defunct magazines Dabiq and Rumiyah, for example, ISIS thematically validates and justifies the use of extreme violence to achieve the organisation’s goals.
While government-led responses to all forms of extremism perhaps currently lack the foresight to anticipate just how efficiently extremist groups will exploit current and future events, those in the security industry have already begun to see evidence of their presence at a site level. From graffiti to protesters, to the protective security measures adopted in response to past attacks involving hostile vehicles, the targeting of crowded spaces and places of worship – the security industry has been quick to adapt to new and emerging threat vectors. And it must continue to adapt in securing people and property against the backdrop of life post-COVID-19, regardless of the challenges the new normal will bring.
Understanding the role psychological safety has to play in the way the security industry implements change in response to COVID-19 cannot be ignored. It will not be enough to physically secure people and places if the result is that they feel more vulnerable to virus transmission as a result. This rings true for both clients and security professionals. Security companies will have to navigate what service delivery looks like under new COVID-19 work, health and safety principles. This will be, without doubt, a challenge. Concurrently, organised and online inauthentic behaviour by extremist groups that stokes societal divisions, spreads misinformation, and promotes violent solutions – and the perception of an increasingly authoritarian style of government – will make voluntary compliance by members of the public to new security measures a game of sceptic’s Jumanji.
Additionally, if we are to learn anything from the security threat that COVID-19 represents, it is that the weaponisation of other infectious diseases by amateur bio-warfare actors just shifted from the realm of fiction to reality.