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Violent extremists may exploit coronavirus pandemic, target hospitals, threat report warns

Coronavirus around the world: April 8, 2020
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Violent extremists may try to take advantage of the coronavirus pandemic by attacking hospitals and supermarkets, according to a U.S. threat assessment circulated in Canada by the RCMP.

“Pandemics and other natural crises create unprecedented challenges that terrorists could exploit to conduct attacks against and already stressed society, and strained government and public safety system,” it said.

“While most citizens isolate in their homes, public safety personnel, hospitals and establishments, such as supermarkets and pharmacies, serve the largest number of co-located individuals, making them potentially attractive targets.”

The April 1 warning was written by the U.S. National Counterterrorism Centre (NCTC) but was included in a security advisory prepared by the U.S. rail industry.

READ MORE: FBI kill man allegedly plotting bomb attack on hospital treating coronavirus patients

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According to two sources who did not want to be publicly identified, they industry advisory was distributed in this country by the RCMP’s First Responder Terrorism Awareness Program.

A copy was obtained by Global News.

The report also included an April 1 Department of Homeland Security (DHS) assessment of attempts by extremists to encourage supporters to spread COVID-19 to law enforcement members and minority communities, as well as at places of worship and on public transit.

“The RCMP is aware of this report and receives a number of COVID-19 related intelligence reports daily from a variety of sources,” said Catherine Fortin, an RCMP spokesperson.

“The COVID-19 crisis is bringing uncertainty and financial insecurity to a large portion of the population. However, the frustrations created by this situation in no case justify hatred, threats, and inciting violence.”

Coronavirus outbreak: FBI shoot and kill man who allegedly sought to plant bomb inside hospital
Coronavirus outbreak: FBI shoot and kill man who allegedly sought to plant bomb inside hospital

Prof. Stephanie Carvin said nobody should be surprised that extremists would want to exploit the pandemic to advance their goals.

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“At the end of the day, violent extremists are opportunistic,” she said.

Two attacks in the U.S. have already been linked to extremists, the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs national security expert said.

On April 1, U.S. authorities said they had arrested a 44-year-old conspiracy theorist for running a locomotive off the end of its tracks near a navy hospital ship treating COVID-19 patients in the port of Los Angeles.

A March 24 incident in which a Missouri follower of white supremacist ideology was shot dead following an attempted attack at a Kansas City medical centre.

READ MORE: Coronavirus conspiracy theories test government, evidence, experts say

The report said the Kansas City plot “lends support” to the view that extremists may strike during the crisis. The attacker, Timothy Wilson, 36, had allegedly accelerated the timing of his bomb plot because the medical centre “offered more casualties” due to COVID-19.

As efforts to contain the new coronavirus have largely emptied places where people typically gather in large numbers, security officials have speculated that terrorists may respond by shifting targets.

At the same time, there are concerns that violent extremist movements may view the pandemic as an opportunity to strike at societies as they are already struggling to cope with the health crisis.

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On Telegram, extremists have advocated infecting rabbis and business owners “of Indian descent,” the report said, while those infected were urged to visit mosques, synagogues and diverse neighbourhoods.

“A related concern is propaganda calling on ‘believers,’ adherents, and supporters to exploit the prevailing duress on law enforcement and security professionals to attempt to execute attacks,” the report said.

Coronavirus outbreak: 18,447 total cases of COVID-19 in Canada, 401 total deaths
Coronavirus outbreak: 18,447 total cases of COVID-19 in Canada, 401 total deaths

But the report also said medical facilities may not be a “favorable environment” for violent extremists, and they lack experience with such targets. They may also fear contracting the virus themselves.

“Whether violent extremists are willing to risk personal health without measurable success is unknown,” the Railway Alert Network report said, quoting the DHS analysis.

“The lack of quantifiable success and possible violent extremist actors’ concerns for their own health may feed into the decision calculus to seek out exposure to infect others.”

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It also noted that since those with COVID-19 do not always develop symptoms, violent extremists would not necessarily know they were infected, making it impossible for them to attempt to intentionally infect others.

Terrorism expert Prof. Amarnath Amarasingam, author of an article on the topic, said he had not seen any evidence that either Islamist or right-wing extremists were serious about such attacks.

“Accelerationists and ecofascist chats initially talked about spreading fake rumours about individuals weaponizing COVID-19,” the Queen’s University professor said.

“This included memes joking about spitting and sneezing and licking public places and other posts suggesting spitting in a spray bottle and spraying it at people they didn’t like.”

But these extremists did not seem to be serious, and it was “mostly trolling,” although they might inspire a lone individual to take action, Amarasingam said.

The Association of American Railroads Railway Alert Network, which wrote the report, referred a reporter to the DHS, which did not respond to questions by deadline.

Stewart.Bell@globalnews.ca