Jihadi Online: The Pandemic and Lone-Wolf Terror Attacks

Written by: Nils Peterson

Since the declaration of their caliphate in 2014, ISIS has lost the majority of territory it once controlled. However, as far back as March of 2020, several jihadi groups capitalized on scaled-down African governmental military operations due to the pandemic by launching new waves of suicide attacks attacks. In a worrying development, the pandemic presents an opportunity for jihadi groups to rebuild via online media campaigns aimed at instigating lone-wolf terrorist attacks. Anecdotal evidence suggests an increase in internet usage across society due to behavioral changes caused by COVID. In turn, this increase presents more opportunities for users to view jihadi propaganda.

Earlier this year, ISIS’s online English language activity, and those of several other jihadi groups, increased across multiple social media channels. The decision to use English demonstrates that ISIS views its primary audience for these posts as Western-based sympathizers. Considering the limited amount of territory ISIS controls, these messages serve the purpose not of persuading potential recruits to immigrate to the Middle East or Africa, but rather to radicalize those who read them. Furthermore, in their propaganda, ISIS repeated their often-heard rhetoric of the pandemic being “God’s smallest soldier.” The group uses the pandemic to play into their view that the end of times is approaching. Once potential recruits buy into this worldview, then committing acts of terror becomes less onerous than these individuals previously thought. In the eyes of these recruits, if the end of times is near then their own deaths simply end their lives slightly sooner than will otherwise be the case. The end of times allows these recruits to devalue their own lives and simultaneously justify their suicide attacks.

As the world continues to battle COVID and social activities are kept to a minimum, ISIS’s propaganda efforts gain a new level of importance. Now the temptation for individuals to be on social media, which the United Nations declared as a driving factor in radicalization, and potentially run across jihadi propaganda is higher than when in-person activities served as an alternative way to spend one’s time. This makes the increase in ISIS’s media activity particularly worrying. If a vulnerable user views a few jihadi social media posts, and the site’s algorithm recommends more of the same posts for him to view, there could be a real risk of self-radicalization. With the limited means of human-to-human contact that the pandemic allows, interventions to help such individuals become more difficult than during the pre-COVID era. As seen in the recent social media posts of an Algerian man regarding the beheading of a French school teacher, jihadi propaganda does not always come from a centralized source and is therefore difficult to contain. All these factors contribute to the brewing of a perfect storm for future jihadi terrorist attacks.

ISIS and other jihadi groups skillfully used encrypted messaging and social media to reach their audience before COVID. Now, the long-term isolation wrought by the pandemic plays right into jihadi groups’ ability to reach potential recruits. Once an individual becomes trapped in a social media algorithm, which recommends future posts based on one’s viewing history, the process of self-radicalization gains speed. When an individual reaches exit velocity, the potential for lone-wolf terror attacks reveals itself. The pandemic opens the door to this process and the potential for jihadi groups like ISIS to rebuild their online brand via instigating lone-wolf attacks.