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Fears that terrorists will exploit pandemic worry security experts



The coronavirus pandemic risks fuelling extremism and terrorist activity as internet users from across the political spectrum are drawn into online radicalisation and the proliferation of conspiracy theories, security experts have warned.

While sustained lockdowns and travel restrictions this year have limited the potential to carry out terror attacks, intelligence agencies have raised concerns of a resurgence in violence as curbs are lifted.

“Al-Qaeda, Boko Haram . . . are operating and taking advantage of governments being distracted by Covid measures,” Ed Butler, a former commander of UK forces in Afghanistan, told reporters last month. Gilles de Kerchove, EU counter-terrorism co-ordinator, has warned that without significant reconstruction efforts following the pandemic, the public health emergency could evolve into a security crisis.

Isolation, depression and financial insecurity resulting from lockdown and job losses make individuals more susceptible to adopting new ideas and potentially being radicalised, experts believe.

One of the biggest threats is a rise in remote working and home schooling that have made both teenagers and adults easier prey for extremists groups active on social media forums such as Telegram, Gab, Discord and the video game sharing site Steam.

Colin Clarke, a terrorism researcher at the Soufan Centre, a US think-tank, said the crisis had given terrorist recruiters a “buffet” of potential arguments to advance their cause. “Every extremist group or fringe has been able to use Covid-19 to explain why their ideology makes the most sense . . . groups across the ideological spectrum from jihadis to far-right extremists to even the far-left,” he said.

A memorial for victims who were killed during a terror attack in Vienna, Austria, last month
A memorial for victims who were killed during a terror attack in Vienna, Austria, last month © Thomas Kronsteiner/Getty

While Isis militants characterise the virus as divine revenge for Muslim suffering, neo-Nazis blame the spread of the disease on immigrants and Jews and use the pandemic as evidence of the threat from globalisation and multiculturalism. An Institute for Strategic Dialogue study found that far-right groups had published “hundreds of thousands” of social media posts relating to the pandemic from January to April.

Most experts agree that far rightwing extremists have gained the most ground, having experienced what Mr Clarke called a “youth infusion” by recruiting home-schooling teenagers often left alone for hours a day with computers and phones.

Video gaming is one mechanism used to introduce young people to anti-establishment ideologies: one new online game in Germany awarded players points for shooting George Soros, the philanthropist who has long been an extreme-right hate figure, and chancellor Angela Merkel.

Mr de Kerchove, the EU counter-terrorism co-ordinator, said he was increasingly worried about growing evidence of a link between those who succumb to conspiracy theories and those who go on to embrace extremist politics.

Far-right groups such as New British Union and the neo-Nazi Daily Stormer website have been particularly active in promoting virus-related conspiracy theories, such as Covid-19 being a hoax by governments or that the vaccine will implant microchips.

A narrative is also emerging that is suspicious of new technology. People who believed the virus was being spread by 5G signals embarked on a spate of arson attacks this year on telecoms masts from the Netherlands and Ireland to Cyprus, proving that ideas circulated online are spilling into real world aggression. “Violent rightwing and leftwing extremists often latch on to these narratives and reinforce them,” Mr de Kerchove said. “This explosive mix could inspire further lone-actor violence”.

Whether the rise in extreme beliefs will inspire acts of terror remains unclear but several UK counter-terrorism officials contacted by the Financial Times said they had been referring more people than usual to anti-radicalisation programmes.

Meanwhile, just as lockdowns have reduced the large gatherings that terrorists typically target, spies have found it harder to conduct covert surveillance on empty streets.

Recent deadly jihadi attacks in Vienna and Nice happened on the eve of new lockdowns, spurring fears that extremists will look to strike at crowds again when restrictions are eased.

There is also a risk the virus may have inspired terrorists to adopt deadlier methods. Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, a former commander of the UK’s chemical and biological weapons regiment, said that while terrorists had always been interested in creating biological weapons, they had previously thought they needed to access a virulent pathogen like anthrax or botulinum to kill a lot of people very quickly. Isis militants are now thought to have shown an interest in weaponising less dangerous viruses similar to Covid-19.

“A non-virulent pathogen has brought the world to its feet — medically and financially,” said Mr de Bretton-Gordon. “This is exactly what a terrorist would like to replicate.”

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German accounting watchdog chief to step down in wake of Wirecard




The head of Germany’s accounting watchdog is to step down following mounting political pressure over corporate governance shortcomings exposed by the Wirecard fraud.

Edgar Ernst, the president of the Financial Reporting Enforcement Panel (FREP), said on Wednesday he would depart by the end of this year. He is the third head of a regulatory body to lose his job in the wake of one of Germany’s biggest postwar accounting scandals.

The collapse of Wirecard, which last summer filed for insolvency after uncovering a €1.9bn cash hole, triggered an earthquake in Germany’s financial and political establishment.

Felix Hufeld, president of BaFin, the financial regulatory authority, and his deputy Elisabeth Roegele were pushed out by the German government in January for failing to act on early red flags suggesting misconduct at Wirecard. Ralf Bose, the head of Germany’s auditors supervisor Apas, was fired after disclosing he traded Wirecard shares while this authority was investigating the company’s auditor, EY. The German government is also working to revamp the country’s accounting supervision and financial oversight.

Meanwhile, criminal prosecutors in Frankfurt are evaluating a potential criminal investigation into BaFin’s inner workings and on Wednesday asked the market authority to hand over comprehensive documents, the prosecutors office told the FT, confirming an earlier report by Handelsblatt. The potential scope of any investigation as well as the individuals who might be targeted is still unclear. BaFin declined to comment.

Ernst came under pressure as the parliamentary inquiry commission uncovered that he joined the supervisory board of German wholesaler Metro AG in an apparent violation of internal governance rules, which from 2016 banned FREP staff from taking on new supervisory board roles.

Last week, the former chief financial officer of Deutsche Post filed a legal opinion to parliament defending his move. He argued that his employment contract was older than the 2016 ban on board seats and hence trumped the tightened governance regulations.

The German government had subsequently threatened to ditch the private-sector body which currently has quasi-official powers.

In a statement published on Wednesday evening, FREP said that Ernst wants to open the door for a “fresh start” that would be untainted by the discussions around his supervisory board mandates. “FREP is losing a well-versed expert in capital markets,” the body said.

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Putin and Lukashenko’s ski fun shows cold shoulder to EU




As news of new EU sanctions against Russia began to leak out of a meeting of bloc foreign ministers on Monday afternoon, Vladimir Putin and his Belarusian counterpart Alexander Lukashenko were discussing a different challenge to the Russian president.

“You can try to compete with Vladimir Vladimirovich,” Lukashenko, in ski gear, said to his son, Nikolai. “But you probably won’t catch up,” he added, with a smile to Putin as the Russian leader pushed off down the slope.

Putin and Lukashenko are the men behind Europe’s two repressive crackdowns over the past six months, who have both jailed or exiled their most prominent opponents and seen their security forces violently assault and detain thousands of peaceful protesters.

But in a summit in the snow-covered mountains of Sochi, on Russia’s southern coast, they revelled in their twosome of leaders shunned and sanctioned by Brussels, in a calibrated message to the EU that the cold-shoulder was mutual.

For foreign policy experts there were few details to digest, despite the complex negotiations going on behind the scenes as the two post-Soviet states seek to recalibrate their future relationship.

Putin is keen to deepen integration on Moscow’s terms. Lukashenko is desperate for Russian investment and trade co-operation but is loath to relinquish sovereignty. Yet in place of diplomatic negotiations and policy pronouncements, photographs and video footage of the two leaders enjoying each other’s company were in full display.

At the outset, Putin, in jeans and an open-collar shirt and blazer, greeted his guest with a handshake and a hug. “Even our appearance, clothes and so on, suggest that these are serious negotiations in ordinary clothes,” Lukashenko quipped. “It suggests that we are close people.”

Pleasantries exchanged, it was time for the salopettes and ski boots, and a shared chairlift to the summit. Putin, pushing off confidently, set off down the gentle slope, Lukashenko in his wake.

After a short ride on snowmobiles back to their chalets, discussions continued over more than six hours — and what appeared to be three different sized wine glasses.

“The optics for the international audience is that they have been able to maintain their positions and nothing can be done against them,” said Maryia Rohava, a research fellow at Oslo university specialising in post-Soviet relations.

“Now we’re talking not just about sanctions against Belarus but also against Russia,” she added. “And it seems like they look at that like, ‘Well, we don’t care . . . We’re just enjoying our winter break like autocrats do.’”

To be sure, the fun on the slopes was not wholly without power games. Putin was clear to underscore he was the senior partner, from wrongfooting his guest at the top of the ski lift to releasing photographs of their meeting showing Lukashenko scribbling notes as his host spoke.

But the mood music was in sharp contrast to Lukashenko’s last visit to Russia in September. Then, with protests raging and the Belarusian leader’s position looking shaky, Putin reprimanded his guest for mishandling the unrest and risking the toppling of an ageing post-Soviet regime that could weaken his own.

Then, in a businesslike and cold atmosphere, Lukashenko pleaded with Putin that “a friend is in trouble” and was granted a $1.5bn loan from Moscow — but not before his host remarked that Belarusian people should be given a chance to “sort this situation out”.

The absence of such language on Monday also sent a subtle signal to other illiberal regimes, particularly those on the outer rim of Europe who, like Belarus in the past, find themselves lured towards Brussels by economic opportunities but repelled by the reforms and democratic standards demanded in exchange.

The message to the likes of Georgia, Moldova, Armenia and Turkey is that Putin, whose relations with the EU are at rock bottom, is always ready to talk.

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Mitsubishi Motors set to reverse move to withdraw from Europe




Mitsubishi Motors is set to reverse its decision to withdraw from Europe and build cars in France after months of pressure from Renault and Nissan, in a sign of fresh rifts within the alliance.

Mitsubishi will formally consider the move at a board meeting on Thursday, according to three people with direct knowledge of the matter, following months of fractious discussions with its alliance partners.

A framework agreement between the three carmakers was reached on Monday during an alliance meeting, two of the people said. They added that the deal may still fall apart.

The decision to have Renault produce Mitsubishi cars at its French factories in a manufacturing deal, if finalised, would force the Japanese company to justify the U-turn — and face down accusations it yielded to a Renault campaign to protect French jobs.

The coalition between the three car groups is held together by Renault’s 43 per cent stake in Nissan, which owns 34 per cent of Mitsubishi, the smallest of the companies.

The French government’s 15 per cent stake in Renault has fed longstanding fears at the two Japanese carmakers that alliance strategy would be heavily influenced by French industrial politics.

In July Mitsubishi announced plans to in effect pull out of its lossmaking operations in Europe by cancelling model launches and running down its current line-up. This would lead to the end of all car sales in European markets as early as this year.

Following the announcement, some dealerships have already sold operations in preparation for Mitsubishi’s exit, while others are preparing to become repair garages for the brand instead.

An agreement to build Mitsubishi cars in France would be held up internally as a sign the Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi Alliance was working under new management teams installed after the arrest and ousting of former boss Carlos Ghosn in 2018.

But people within both Mitsubishi and Nissan have expressed concern about such a deal that would mean Renault building Mitsubishi cars — increasing work for its French plants and providing a political boost in the country, where it is cutting jobs. 

Executives were particularly worried about a potential repetition of Renault’s 2001 decision to move the Nissan Micra from the Japanese group’s Sunderland plant to its own underperforming Flins factory outside Paris. This was seen as a political move by the French group to shore up union support.

Mitsubishi said there was no change in its policy to halt development of new models in Europe.

Nissan and Renault said they would not comment “on speculation”. Renault added the alliance always “aims to enhance competitiveness and enable more effective resource-sharing for the benefit of all three companies” and that there “are always ongoing discussions between the three companies”.

Last month, Renault chief executive Luca de Meo suggested in an interview with the Financial Times that a deal could be done, saying: “We have space in our plants; we have platforms.”

De Meo also suggested that Renault could end up building more cars for Nissan in its French plants, something that was resisted by Nissan, according to people familiar with the discussions. That led to pressure being applied to Mitsubishi by both sides of the alliance, the people said.

Before last year announcing its withdrawal, Mitsubishi sold just 120,000 cars in Europe in 2019, giving it less than 1 per cent market share.

The tentative agreement reached on Monday is the first big deal between de Meo, who joined Renault as CEO last summer, and the heads of Nissan and Mitsubishi, and a test of the relationship between the three sides.

Nissan and Renault are focusing on turning round their own businesses as well as repairing the alliance, which came near collapse in the wake of the turmoil that followed Ghosn’s ouster.

De Meo announced a scheme to save €3bn by cutting factory capacity as part of a company overhaul last month, while Nissan aims to save ¥300bn ($2.85bn) through its own turnround plan.

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