Violent extremism has been a major global concern and a priority issue in many countries over the past two decades. Efforts to prevent and counter it have become a core component of policies and practices at the national, regional and international levels.
There has been a shift of efforts from community policing to lockdown enforcement and suspension of many activities which contributed to longer-term violent extremism prevention efforts.
Analysis of the UN Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate (CTED) found that the COVID-19 pandemic has diverted attention of policymakers and resulted in the reallocation of resources away from counter-terrorism or countering violent extremism responses – not only during the pandemic but longer-term. They explained that there has been a shift of efforts from community policing to lockdown enforcement and suspension of many activities which contributed to longer-term violent extremism prevention efforts.
The COVID-19 related restrictions in prisons have resulted in the suspension of programmes in this area, especially where these relied on external organisations or actors or where programmes involved one-to-one in-person settings. Some were able to continue in an adapted format, for example by bringing training initiatives and support to prison authorities on preventing violent extremism to an online platform.
Prison staff, probationers, and experts in the field of countering violent extremism have reported that the pandemic, and particularly the restrictions in prison settings, may fuel drivers of violent extremism.
People in pre-trial detention under terrorism-related charges (or those convicted) have been excluded from almost, if not all, prisoner release schemes. This has been the case also for people convicted of terrorism offences with underlying medical conditions, for example, in Turkey.
With no internationally agreed definition of terrorism, national lawmakers continue to regulate it with vague and wide encompassing laws, leading to abuse of such laws and human rights violations.
Most recently Switzerland received widespread criticism from the UN about the new definition of terrorism proposed in a draft counter-terrorism law that could potentially be applicable to activities ‘not of terrorist nature’ and could set a ‘dangerous precedent’.
Counter-terrorism laws and tools have been used by authorities in fighting COVID-19. In April 2020, the US Department of Justice announced prosecutors should consider coronavirus as a ‘biological agent’ and charge certain acts related to COVID-19 as federal crimes of terrorism. Two people were charged with terrorism offences when they claimed they were intentionally trying to spread the virus while being arrested.
Maximum sentences continue to be handed down for cases of terrorism offences. In August 2020, the man that committed attacks in two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, killing 51 people received the first life imprisonment sentence without parole in the country. In Germany, a right-wing extremist was sentenced in January 2021 to life in prison, with an unspecified period for parole—the most severe applicable sentence—for the murder of a local official. The average prison sentence for terrorist offences in the European Union in 2019 varied from an average of 20 years in Greece, compared with two years in Lithuania, Sweden and Poland.
In many countries, there were new reports over the past year that people imprisoned for violent extremist or terrorist offences often face harsher treatment with stricter regimes and discriminatory practices – exacerbated in some cases by COVID-19 measures. In France, a report found that such detainees are more often subject to body searches and less likely to receive sentencing adjustments. Amnesty International has reported that, in Egyptian prisons, members of the Muslim Brotherhood (classified as a terrorist organisation in the country since 2013) were specifically targeted by prison authorities and more at risk of harsher punitive treatment, including the intentional lack of healthcare that has allegedly led to the death of several people.
See a complete list of references in the full report, Global Prison Trends 2021.