Innsikt: An Eerie Echo Chamber: How the Covid-19 Pandemic Enables Radicalization

The pandemic has had a major impact on our society in several areas: social, economic, and health-wise. These consequences are well known. However, the pandemic’s impact and its effects on the threat environment in terms of security are still uncertain, and harder to predict. In its annual threat assessment, the Norwegian Police Security Service considers “the threat from extreme Islamists to have intensified due to the shutdown of communities and travel restrictions.”[1] As the world today finds itself in the wave of “personal jihad,” we should to a greater extent pay attention to how the pandemic may intersect with and exacerbate already existing drivers for violent extremism. 

Jihadism and extreme Islamism 
Jihadism is a frequently used term, but it can be defined as violent struggle for liberating the Islamic World and establish an Islamic order. The concept of jihadism is complex, and its evolution and development can be explained in different ways. Throughout history we have witnessed it in several forms, and according to Glen Robinson has its different waves been defined by differing ideas about its meaning, and the idea of jihad was in every case shaped by the crisis from which it arose.[2] Today, the world finds itself in a wave which Robinson defines as “personal jihad.” It is characterized by a more decentralized jihad and includes acts such as small-scale attacks undertaken by individuals, and small cells under the banner of global jihad.[3] The defeat of the Islamic State (ISIS) and its territorial loss marked the end of an era, and weakened its ability to perform large, coordinated attacks.[4]

Push & pull – the process of radicalization 
The process of radicalization and affiliating can be divided into “push” and “pull” factors. Push factors are factors in the individuals lives that push them out of the society, whereas pull factors are the factors that pull them towards radicalized ideologies such as ISIS.[5] The reasons why people are affiliated with ISIS, or are drawn towards violent extremism at all, are complex. Amarsingman and Dawson explain it as a merging of several recognizable factors and as “a perfect storm of diverse factors, operating in somewhat different ways and to different degrees in each case.”[6] Studies on Western ISIS-affiliates concludes differently; in some studies, the socioeconomic factors constitute the main reason for radicalization. In others, researchers find little evidence of the role of low social and economic prospects in motivating the “choice to go,” and rather more evidence of the role of religiosity.[7]

One should not underestimate religious- and ideological beliefs as a reason why many became affiliated with ISIS. Nor should one underestimate the fact that one’s socioeconomic background and corresponding factors in an individual’s life greatly contributed to “pushing” them out of society – and thereby making them more vulnerable for radicalization. Weakened pull factors do not weaken the push factors, and the underlying reasons for why people can become radicalized are still present. On the contrary, we see that the pandemic has contributed to increase differences between people in the Norwegian society. With the lockdown of the society and limitations on social interaction, it should be no surprise that this can influence the threat environment considerably. How does the pandemic affect radicalisation and violent extremist recruitment? 

William Avis emphasises that it is necessary to explore how the pandemic may intersect with and exacerbate existing “drivers”, or “push factors.”[8] He argues that increased polarisation and a clear anti-immigrant discourse are factors that contribute to the feeling of exclusion and marginalisation. Such experiences can act as a trigger for radicalisation, or push individuals who already have radical views to escalate their behaviour towards violence. This is important to pay attention to since extreme Islamist groups by themselves cannot lead people towards violent action without a particular set of enabling “push factors,” such as socio-economic, cultural, and political conditions.[9]

France is an example of a Western state which has been brutally affected by extreme Islamist terrorism. The reasons for this are complex and diverse. It is, however, also an example of a society where the political party leader, Marine Le Pen, sees “prayers and veils as symbols of a Muslim occupation,” and made it to the second round in the 2017 Presidential election with  33,9 percent of the votes.[10] There is not a causal connection between polarization and “violent extremism” though, in the sense that violent extremism may occur in a non-polarized context, just as violence does not necessarily result in growing polarization. Still, a polarized social environment serves as an enabler for “violent extremism,” and they are certainly linked.[11]

Therefore, we should to a greater extent pay attention to what contributes to the push factors. Vera Mironova argues that “not only are the policies that pushed people to start joining (ISIS) in 2013 continuing, but in many cases, they have increased in both scale and scope.»[12] She points to how Western countries refuse to repatriate its citizens suspected of involvement with ISIS and how they are stripping the accused of their citizenship, sending a message that citizens with immigrant backgrounds are second-class citizens. In the UK for instance, did Shamima Begum`s intention to return home in 2019, spark public debate. She was 15-years old when she left the country to join ISIS. In 2019, the British government both revoke her citizenship, and later stated that she would never be allowed to return.[13] This also sheds light on the discourse surrounding the children of the repatriated ISIS-affiliated Norwegian women; were they really that ill? Have DNA tests been completed to make sure that they really are Norwegian citizens? Is there actually a need for protection? 

The long-term consequences of the pandemic and how these will affect the threat environment concerning radicalization are uncertain. Drivers of radicalisation has already been identified; it remains to be seen how they play out over the short, medium, and long term.[14] There should be a demand for an understanding of how the pandemic may intersect with and exacerbate already existing drivers. People do not just happen to “suddenly” engage in violent extremism, they do so because they are trying to address grievances; therefore, we should to a greater extent try to identify and understand those, instead of judging all alike.[15]

This article is written by Oline Lund Knudsen, Communication Manager of YATA Oslo. The views expressed in this article is entirely the views of the author, and does not necessarily represent the views of YATA Norway.


Avis, William. (2020). «The COVID-19 pandemic and response on violent extremist recrruitment and radicalisation.» Institute of Development Studies.

Cook, Joana. Vale, Gina. (2018). «From Daesh to Diasphora: «Tracing the Women and Minors of the Islamic State.» International Centre for the Study of Radicalization

Dawson, Lorne L. and Amarasingam, Amarnath  (2018). «I left to be closer to Allah»: Learning about Foreign Fighters from Family and Friends IDS

Ekern, Simen. (2018). «Folket, det er meg.» Spartacus.

Mironova, Vera. (2021). «The Challenge of Foreign Fighters: Repatriating and Prosecuting ISIS Detainees.» The Middle East Institute.

Norwegian Police Security Service (PST). (2021). «National Threat Assessment.» PST.

Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). (2014) «Preventing 
           Terrorism and Countering Violent Extremism and Radicalization that Lead to 
           Terrorism: A Community-Policing Approach» OSCE.

Robinson, Glen. E. (2017). The Four Waves of Global Jihad, 1979-2017. 
Middle East Policy

Tønnessen, Truls Hallberg. (2019). «The Islamic State after the Caliphate.» Perspectives on terrorism.

Wilson, Richard McNeil. Gerrand, Vivian. Scrinzi, Francesca. Triandafyllidou, Anna. (2019). «Polarisation, Violent Extremism and Resilience in Europe today: An analytical framework.» BRaVE.

Wyatt, Tom. (2019). “Shamima Begum: ISIS bride will not be allowed to return to UK from
              Syria, says home secretary.” The Independent. 

[1] (Norwegian Police Security Service (PST), 2021)

[2] (Robinson, 2017)

[3] Ibid

[4] Ibid

[5] (Cook, Joana and Vale, Gina. 2018)

[6] (Dawson, Lorne L. and Amarasingam, Amarnath. 2018)

[7] Ibid

[8] (Avis, 2020)

[9] (Wilson, Richard McNeil. Gerrand, Vivian. Scrinzi, Francesca. Triandafyllidou, Anna. 2019)

[10] (Ekern, 2018)

[11] (Wilson, Richard McNeil. Gerrand, Vivian. Scrinzi, Francesca. Triandafyllidou, Anna. 2019)

[12] (Mironova, 2021)

[13] (Wyatt, 2019)

[14] (Mironova, 2021)

[15] (OSCE, 2014)

Concept of war. People with weapons, armed protest, terrorists. The puppeteer controls the doll with gun, the provoker leads crowd of people with weapons.