ONE OF the UK’s most senior counter-terrorism policing officers has warned that COVID-19 is creating an environment in which extremists will find it easier to identify, target and potentially radicalise vulnerable people.
Counter Terrorism Policing’s new senior national co-ordinator for Protect and Prepare, namely Deputy Assistant Commissioner Matt Twist, has stated that, while most of us have been focused on protecting ourselves and our families from COVID-19, terrorists have not stopped planning attacks or radicalising people online.
In fact, Twist has revealed that Counter Terrorism Policing and the UK’s Intelligence Services have foiled four potential terror attacks during the pandemic, taking the total number of attacks prevented by the UK’s counter-terrorism ‘machine’ to 29 since March 2017.
“COVID-19 is exacerbating the challenging circumstances and grievances within society that terrorists latch on to in order to promote their brand of hatred and extremism, such as economic inequality or pre-existing divisions within communities,” explained Twist. “It has stoked distrust in authority and inspired a new wave of conspiracy theories, such as those against 5G technology, which have more easily reached the mainstream.”
Twist continued: “Most importantly, the pandemic has made us all more isolated, making it more difficult for young and vulnerable people to access the support services such as mental health provision and social care which they rely on to protect themselves from extremist influence.”
Embellishing that point, Twist observed: “At the same time, COVID-19 has also driven huge numbers of people to spend a lot more time online. We’ve have seen an increase in the volume of online extremism and hatred, much of which sits below a criminal threshold, but which inevitably creates a permissive environment which makes it easier for extremists to pedal their brand of hatred. Put together, that’s a potent mix which is of real concern.”
Twist has also warned that, as the UK begins to ease itself out of lockdown, there will be greater opportunities for terrorists to operate. That means it’s vitally important for the public to play an active role in the authorities’ counter-terrorism efforts by helping Counter Terrorism Policing identify those who need protection against extremist grooming via the Prevent programme, or by completing the free online counter-terrorism training – ACT Awareness – to improve their understanding of the threat and how to protect themselves.
“The co-operation between the public and police is a powerful defence,” asserted Twist. “The information that the public provides prevents attacks and saves lives. My main message to the public is that any piece of information could be important. It’s better to be safe and report. People know their local community and are best placed to spot when something doesn’t seem right. Members of the public must trust their instincts and report anything they believe to be suspicious in confidence. Reporting will not ruin lives, but it might well save them.”