'A Perfect Storm': Extremists Look For Ways To Exploit Coronavirus Pandemic
For months, authorities say, 36-year-old white supremacist Timothy Wilson amassed bomb-making supplies and talked about attacking a synagogue, a mosque or a majority-black elementary school.
Then the coronavirus hit the United States, giving Wilson a new target — and a deadline. The FBI says Wilson planned to bomb a Missouri hospital with COVID-19 patients inside, and he wanted to do it before Kansas City's stay-at-home order took effect at midnight on March 24.
"Wilson considered various targets and ultimately settled on an area hospital in an attempt to harm many people, targeting a facility that is providing critical medical care in today's environment," the FBI said in a statement.
The attack never happened. Wilson died in a shootout March 24 when federal agents moved to arrest him after a six-month investigation. It was an extraordinary domestic terrorism case, yet it got lost in the nonstop flood of news about the coronavirus pandemic. Extremism researchers warn against overlooking such episodes; they worry the Missouri example is a harbinger as far-right militants look for ways to exploit the crisis.
Already, monitoring groups have recorded a swell of hatred — including cases of physical violence — toward Asian Americans. Dehumanizing memes blame Jews for the virus. Conspiracy theories abound about causes and cures, while encrypted chats talk about spreading infection to people of color. And there is the rise of "Zoombombing" — racists crashing private videoconferences to send hateful images and comments.
"We know from our work in the trenches against white nationalism, antisemitism, and racism that where there is fear, there is someone organizing hate," Eric Ward, executive director of the Western States Center, said in a statement. The Oregon-based monitoring group recorded about 100 bias-motivated incidents in the two weeks after the alleged Missouri plot was foiled.
Here are some areas extremism trackers are watching as the pandemic unfolds:
A March FBI assessment predicted "hate crime incidents against Asian Americans likely will surge across the United States, due to the spread of coronavirus disease," according to an intelligence report obtained by ABC News.
The report, prepared by the FBI's Houston office and issued to law enforcement agencies nationwide, warned that "a portion of the U.S. public will associate COVID-19 with China and Asian American populations." That idea has been reinforced by political leaders including President Trump, who has referred to the "Chinese virus" and variations that reference China or Wuhan rather than the clinical terms used by health officials.
Asian Americans say they have experienced hostility, with a dramatic increase in reports of racist incidents. A handful of them were violent attacks that are under investigation as hate crimes. For example, federal authorities say hatred motivated a 19-year-old Texas man who was arrested in a stabbing attack that targeted an Asian-American family at a Sam's Club. The suspect told authorities that he thought the family was spreading the coronavirus.
Some Asian Americans have expressed fears that violence could increase once stay-at-home orders are lifted. A coalition of advocacy groups has appealed to Congress to denounce racism and xenophobia linked to the pandemic.
"This is a global emergency that should be met with both urgency and also cultural awareness that Covid-19 is not isolated to a single ethnic population," Jeffrey Caballero, executive director of the Association of Asian Pacific Community Health Organizations, said in a statement. "Xenophobic attacks and discrimination towards Asian American communities are unacceptable."
Recruiting out-of-school kids
Millions of young Americans are home from school, bored, and scrolling through social media sites for hours every day. To white supremacist recruiters, they're prey.
Cynthia Miller-Idriss, an American University professor who writes extensively about far-right extremism, said the increase in unsupervised screen time at a time of crisis creates "a perfect storm for recruitment and radicalization." PERIL, the extremism research lab Miller-Idriss runs on campus, is scrambling for "rapid response" grants to develop an awareness campaign and toolkit for parents and caregivers about the risks of online radicalization in the coronavirus era.
"For extremists, this is an ideal time to exploit youth grievances about their lack of agency, their families' economic distress, and their intense sense of disorientation, confusion, fear and anxiety," Miller-Idriss said. Without the usual social support from trusted adults such as coaches and teachers, she said, "youth become easy targets for the far right."
Militias and self-described "constitutionalist" factions, categorized by federal authorities as anti-government extremists, are making noise about stay-at-home orders. Some armed groups reject the measures outright, calling them unconstitutional or overreaching. Another subset is openly defiant, as if daring authorities to use force and turn the issue into a high-stakes standoff.
Over Easter weekend, Ammon Bundy, who led an armed occupation of a federal wildlife refuge in Oregon in 2016, held a service that drew some 200 people to a warehouse in Idaho. Photos showed worshippers, including children, unmasked and sitting in close quarters.
If the perceived constitutional infringements worsen, Bundy has told his supporters, then "physically stand in defense in whatever way we need to." That kind of provocation could turn ugly quickly, warn monitors of the anti-government movement.
Calls for violence
Extremism monitors are keeping tabs on so-called accelerationists, a subset of the racist right that believes in using violence to sow chaos in order to collapse society and replace it with a white nationalist model.
The Southern Poverty Law Center, an extremism watchdog group, has said, "Accelerationists consider themselves the revolutionary vanguard of the white supremacist movement." In chat forums, they've discussed using the virus to infect people of color, staging attacks on medical centers and other forms of violence they hope will trigger a domino effect leading to the breakdown of society.
"These far-right extremists are arguing that the pandemic, which has thrown into question the federal government's ability to steer the nation through a crisis, supports their argument that modern society is headed toward collapse," wrote Cassie Miller of the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Miller wrote that, for now, the fallout is already so chaotic that the accelerationists are content to watch, reckoning, "the situation seems to be escalating on its own, requiring no additional involvement on their part."
Miller cited a white supremacist podcaster who told his followers: "It seems to be going plenty fast, thanks."
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