Image via Shutterstock Coronavirus terrorism
Image via Shutterstock

Law enforcement have expressed concerns that violent extremists in the U.S. and abroad will try to use the coronavirus pandemic to terrorize Americans.

A racist extremist suspected of planning an attack on a Missouri hospital was killed during a shootout with the FBI on Tuesday. 

Timothy R. Wilson, 36, was shot and killed in Belton, Missouri, the FBI announced Wednesday. Belton, who had repeatedly expressed racist and anti-government sentiments, was plotting to blow up a hospital caring for patients infected with COVID-19. Wilson had been planning a bombing for months and had considered several targets in that time, the FBI said.

“With the current health crisis, Wilson decided to accelerate his plan to use a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device in an attempt to cause severe harm and mass casualties,” the FBI said in a statement. “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.”

Wilson had sought materials to build a bomb, but was arrested by the FBI when he arrived to pick up what he thought was an explosive device. Wilson had ties to multiple neo-Nazi organizations, including those involved in the deadly 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, The Informant reported on Wednesday.

Wilson’s death came the very same day a congressional committee wrote a letter to the Department of Homeland Security to ask what steps they’re taking to prevent violent extremists at home and abroad from using the coronavirus pandemic to terrorize Americans. 

“We seek an understanding of how DHS is preparing for and mitigating potential homeland security threats from bad actors, such as violent extremists in the United States and abroad, who may seek to exploit vulnerabilities stemming from this metastasizing crisis,” wrote committee Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), and Rep. Max Rose (D-N.Y.), chairman of the Subcommittee on Intelligence & Counterterrorism.

Rose and Thompson’s letter came after the Department of Homeland Security issued a memo to law enforcement officials around the country on Monday warning that violent extremists might seek to take advantage of the COVID-19 outbreak and carry out attacks against the United States. 

“Violent extremists probably are seeking to exploit public fears associated with the spread of COVID-19 to incite violence, intimidate targets and promote their ideologies, and we assess these efforts will intensify in the coming months,” the DHS memo, first obtained by ABC News, reads. 

Within 24 hours, they had intensified, but Wilson is far from the only threat. ABC News separately reported Sunday that the FBI also obtained intelligence indicating that several racist extremist groups, including neo-Nazis and other white supremacists, are encouraging members who become infected with COVID-19 to spread the disease to cops and Jews

According to the FBI alert, “members of extremist groups are encouraging one another to spread the virus” by using spray bottles to spread bodily fluids to cops and by going to places where Jews may gather, including “markets, political offices, businesses and places of worship.”

Following those memos, the Associated Press reported that Deputy Attorney General Jeff Rosen on Tuesday released his own memo, telling U.S. attorneys they can charge suspects who threaten to infect others with the coronavirus under federal terrorism laws because the virus could be considered a “biological agent.”

That same day, another Missouri man, 26-year-old Cody Pfister, was charged with making a terrorist threat in the second degree after he made a video of himself licking items at a Walmart in an attempt to mock the coronavirus.

This week’s events come just one week after the Southern Poverty Law Center released its annual report on extremist groups, which found a surge in white nationalism in the U.S. has led to a growing threat of violence that embraces bloodshed and advocates for a race war. Many of these groups embrace “accelerationism,” a fringe philosophy that promotes mass violence to fuel society’s collapse, the law center said.

“In their view, political activity is pointless, and escalating violence, on a broad scale, is the only way to bring down the pluralistic, democratic society they want to destroy,” the report’s authors write.

It is these followers of accelerationism that “have violent intent” and “who are looking at this as an opportunity,” Joshua Fisher-Birch, a researcher with the Counter Extremism Project, told the Atlanta Journal Constitution

But Fisher-Birch and Mark Pitcavage, a senior research fellow with Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, also told the AJC that some groups might simply be making attempts at humor or simply engaging in “chatter.” While accelerationist groups are “excited” by the coronavirus, the AJC reports that other white supremacist groups are more focused on seeding anti-Semitic conspiracy theories that the virus was created by Israel.

Wilson appears to have checked both boxes: violent intent and anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. 

The Informant reports that as recently as Monday, he expressed his unhinged theories on the public telegram chat for the neo-Nazi group, the National Socialist Movement.

“If you don’t think this whole thing was engineered by Jews as a power grab here is more proof of their plans,” Wilson wrote. “Jews have been playing the long game we are the only ones standing in their way.”

In their letter, Thompson and Rose acknowledge that extremists have long targeted vulnerable groups, but make clear that the coronavirus presents an additional threat to marginalized individuals. 

“Extremists have, of course, long made calls to violence against vulnerable groups,” they wrote. “However, as the uncertainty, fears, and anxiety engendered by this pandemic strain our social fabric in many ways, we must renew our efforts to guard against vulnerabilities that bad actors may exploit.”