Friday

27th Nov 2020

Coronavirus

Extremists inciting pandemic violence, Belgian spies warn

  • Far-right groups in Belgium smeared Muslims and migrants with coronavirus lies (Photo: William Murphy)

Extreme-right and left groups are trying to exploit the coronavirus pandemic to stir violence in Belgium, its security services have warned.

Russian propaganda is amplifying the far-right ideas.

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And Belgian and EU officials, or anyone else doing video-conferences, are at extra risk of hostile penetration, Belgium's homeland security service, the Veiligheid van de Staat (VSSE), said.

The VSSE raised the alarm in Flemish, French, and English in an online pamphlet entitled "The hidden danger behind Covid-19", published last week.

In one example, a far-right group, the Knights of Flanders, was pressing a conspiracy theory on social media that coronavirus came from the common flu vaccine in a bid to "undermine the authority of the Belgian government and the medical world," the VSSE said.

In other examples, two far-right Belgian political parties, Nation and a Nation-splinter group called the Parti National Européen (PNE), were inciting violence between minorities.

Nation, for instance, circulated fake news "that a fatwa 'called on infected Muslims to cough in the face of disbelievers'," the VSSE said.

PNE was one of a "legion" of far-right groups "hammering on that there is a link between the Covid-19 coronavirus epidemic and immigration," the VSSE noted.

The PNE targeted a migrant centre in the Belgian town of Mouscron, calling for it to be shut because it was "a source of contamination," the VSSE said.

There were also disturbing ideas on the extreme left.

Indymedia, for example, which the VSSE called an "anarchist website", called for "exploitation of the Covid-19 epidemic to commit violent acts against the police, prison officers, and telecommunications infrastructure".

But the far right had a helping hand from the Kremlin, the VSSE noted.

Russian state media were also pushing claims that migrants were "disseminating coronavirus", the VSSE said.

Those and other Russian lies were part of the "Kremlin's strategy to stimulate dissension and mistrust of national and European authorities with the aim of undermining social cohesion [in EU countries]," the VSSE noted.

Meanwhile, a new group called Squadra Europa was publishing both pro-Russian propaganda and far-right fantasies, it added.

Immigration, the Islamisation of Europe, and globalisation were to blame for coronavirus, according to the group, which the VSSE called a "very recent pan-European far-right movement active on Twitter and other social media".

The VSSE published its pamphlet seven weeks into Belgium's pandemic lockdown, in which most Belgian officials, EU staff based in Belgium, and private-sector executives have been forced to conduct business via videoconference.

Predatory foreign services "can skilfully exploit" many online platforms to look and listen in, the VSSE warned.

But the Belgian spies, who do counter-intelligence for EU and Nato institutions on Belgian territory as well as dealing with counter-terrorism, gave tips on how to protect yourself.

Use encrypted apps and take all other laptops, tablets, and phones out of the room while making your call in case they have been compromised and are being used as listening devices, the VSSE said.

Do not invite people to sensitive meetings using social media and take care where you save the audiovisual file of your event, it also advised.

The VSSE pamphlet came out in a nasty diplomatic climate.

Aside from helping to stir far-right violence in Europe, the EU recently accused Russia of promoting "fake cures" online that were putting people's lives in peril.

EU diplomats also accused China of spreading coronavirus propaganda, causing such a backlash by Beijing that the EU cut the China accusations from the final draft of its report.

And both China and Russia have been caught hacking European governments and EU institutions in the past.

Behind you

Amid the high-tech state espionage, the VSSE also gave some home-spun security tips.

"Make sure you can control what's visible behind you on camera (and therefore also by the other participants). Optionally use a virtual background," it added, on the subject of videoconferences.

A top EU official was once red-faced when he published a photo of himself with the private mobile numbers of other top officials on the wall behind him.

But even immaculate online hygiene might not be enough to keep out bugs if your data flows through hostile territory, the VSSE also said.

"Finally, it should be taken into account [whether] your videoconference passes through an [IT] infrastructure which is not necessarily located in Belgium," it pointed out.

The Belgian advice came amid Chinese plans to install 5G data infrastructure in Europe, as well as a Chinese buying spree of important European firms.

Many EU companies are losing money due to the pandemic slowdown.

But governments should not be tempted to sell "strategic enterprises", especially in the "high-technology sector" to foreign powers, the VSSE said.

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