The spread of Covid-19 across the world, including the Middle East, has raised the question as to the impact of this pandemic on the fight against terrorism and on the Islamic State (IS) group in particular. Since governments everywhere are preoccupied with combating coronavirus and its economic and social repercussions, intelligence agencies and security forces have been asked to perform important functions and to gird themselves for potential unrest and rising crime rates due to recession, layoffs and economic straits. This has inevitably led to a relative decline in the security and intelligence focus on IS which could create an opening for that organisation to reenergise itself, especially in Syria and Iraq. So, how will coronavirus affect IS’s structure and activities?
When Covid-19 first struck in January 2020, the IS newspaper Naba rejoiced, proclaiming the virus a divine war against heretics and the enemies of IS. The virus was “God’s wrath against the jahili societies in the world,” it wrote, using the term for pre-Islamic societies. IS social media accounts called on people to “repent” and “flee” into the embrace of the organisation in order to avoid the contagion.
As the disease spreads and its victims mount in view of the lack of a medical remedy yet, many people might be susceptible to such fanatical religious notions. Indeed, we already see a proliferation of videoclips and tweets portraying the virus as a form of divine. Such attitudes could herald a boon for IS’s recruitment drives.
As Covid-19 struck Iraq and other countries in the region, IS offered a directive to its members. Beneath the headline “Islamic directives for handling epidemics,” edition 225 of Naba wrote: “One must believe that diseases do not spread by themselves but by the command of God Almighty. One must take precautions to prevent and ward off diseases. One should cover the mouth when yawning and sneezing. One should wash one’s hands before putting them in the food bowl. One should put one’s faith in God and seek his protection against disease. One should not introduce the healthy into an infected area or let those infected out. One should cover the pot and secure the waterskin tightly.”
This seven-point directive, issued only two weeks after the proclamation that the contagion was aimed at sinful and pagan societies, suggests that some of IS’s members themselves may have been afflicted. This, in turn, means that they are not isolated from their geographic and demographic environments wherever they are operating. In fact, there may be considerable contact between these members and local communities in parts of Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya or elsewhere where IS and its affiliates are most active. Hence the need for the directive.
Coronavirus’s impact on IS and its affiliates has varied according to their geographical location and organisational structure. The branches in the Sahel and Sahara in Africa differ from their counterparts elsewhere in terms of contact with local inhabitants. The cells in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Afghanistan, East Asia and the Caucasus interact more closely with their local environments than the groups in the Sahel and Sahara and West and Central Africa where they largely operate in desert areas away from heavily populated areas. This is undoubtedly what spared IS affiliates in Africa from the Ebola virus epidemic in 2017. Clearly then, when studying the impact of Covid-19 on IS, it makes sense to divide the terrorist organisation into two categories: the branches in West and Central Africa, and those in Southwest, Central and Southern Asia.
In the latter category, the virus’s potential impact on IS members may turn out to be even higher than it is among the local populations in which they mingle, because they tend to avoid hospitals for fear of detection and arrest. This may also explain the speed with which IS command released the abovementioned seven-point directive. More significant is the shift in “diagnosis” of the virus as a manifestation of the wrath of God against heretic societies to a more general divinely ordained affliction. Perhaps this came in recognition of the probability that the spread of coronavirus could severely damage the organisation’s structure and capacities as it takes out highly trained fighters.
IS members remote from population centres in West and Central Africa, a factor which spared them from the Ebola outbreak, are much less at risk of infection, not least because Covid-19 has not yet spread significantly to those environs, according to WHO figures. This situation could stimulate a surge in the influence of IS affiliates in the Sahel and Sahara and Central Africa which could work to reorder the organisational structure of IS as a whole, giving greater weight to the African branches over the Middle Eastern/Asian ones.
Perhaps an indication of this is to be seen in the spike in IS operations in the Sahel Sahara and Central Africa, the most recent of which was the terrorist attack that killed and wounded 25 soldiers of the Niger Army on 19 March and another attack targeting the Nigerian army in the Borno region in Nigeria the same day. The previous day, IS claimed responsibility for an attack against French forces and Malian security personnel near Hagana, Mali. Since the beginning of March, IS-affiliated groups in Africa have carried out 31 terrorist attacks in West Africa, Somalia and Central Africa, resulting in an estimated 184 casualties.
IS has made it clear that it plans to take advantage of the coronavirus pandemic to carry out — and exhort followers to carry out — attacks against European countries. Beneath the headline, “The Crusaders’ worst nightmare” in the last edition of Naba (edition 226), the terrorist organisation noted the reduction in Western security agencies’ attention to the fight against IS due to the current preoccupation with the fight against coronavirus. It said that this was an opportunity for its operatives to carry out operations along the lines of the deadly attacks against Paris, London and Brussels. This explicit incitement to terrorist violence, which identifies potential target areas, should raise the level of alert in Europe in particular, but elsewhere as well.
Although the spread of coronavirus is likely have a debilitating effect on IS’s capacities, especially in its focal areas in the Middle East, the pandemic could also serve the organisation’s recruitment efforts in view of many people’s tendency towards religious fanaticism in times of crisis. Certainly, too, the organisation is determined to exploit this opportunity to stimulate terrorist activity and rebuild its profile. In many ways, it may be possible to use a “pre-corona IS” versus a “post-corona IS” matrix to analyse the current evolution of this terrorist organisation.
The writer is an expert on terrorism at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 26 March, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly