Covid-19 re-energises terrorism

Mohamed Abdel-Wahed , Friday 19 Jun 2020

One sad outcome of the coronavirus pandemic has been a spike in Islamist terrorist activities, taking advantage of the preoccupation of governments with domestic health issues

Covid-19 re-energises terrorism
Boko Haram and similar groups intensify their attacks due to the pandemic

Not surprisingly, terrorist organisations seized on the Covid-19 crisis to ratchet up their hate speech. The pandemic was “heaven sent” to take revenge against violators of God’s law and inflict on them the worst punishment for their many sins, said Islamic State (IS) Spokesman Abu Hamza Al-Qirshi. The virus was a “soldier” sent down to strike the tyrants of the world, goes the refrain of militant Islamist organisations keen to turn domestic public opinion against their governments and to sow anarchy and sedition. Unfortunately, the rhetoric has a market among these organisations’ sympathisers, enabling it to spread across social networking sites.

These organisations also hastened to take advantage of governments’ preoccupation with implementing the necessary measures to curb the spread of the pandemic and the need to divert large portions of their budgets into their health sectors. This helps explain the recent spike in terrorist attacks in various parts of the world and a resurgence of the organisations’ activities in areas where they had suffered debilitating setbacks. The general panic and alarm stirred by the epidemic have simultaneously served these organisations’ recruitment drive. They know that fear, which leads people to more tightly embrace faith in times of adversary, can also render minds easier to control.

Although the government in Baghdad pronounced Iraq free of IS in 2017, and although this terrorist organisation sustained major defeats in Syria where its leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi was killed, counterterrorist authorities in both countries have failed to follow through with the operations necessary to fully eliminate terrorist lairs. As a result, IS operatives that managed to escape security forces have gone underground, creating sleeping cells and finding places of refuge in remote and less policeable areas. They were drawn in particular to areas characterised by conflict, high levels of social polarisation, regional and international tugs-of-war, instability and poor states of security, high poverty rates and low standards of living, poor social services and other such conditions. There they could resume their activities as they won over local populaces by offering social services, and they could recruit youth from the armies of unemployed which have swelled as a result of the economic repercussions of the coronavirus crisis.

In Iraq where, in addition to having to address the Covid-19 crisis, the government also had to manage a cabinet reshuffle, IS staged a spate of attacks that extended from the Saladin governorate to the Kirkuk and Diyala governorates. The area, which has been dubbed the “triangle of death”, extends from the border with Iran to the east to the border with Syria to the west. It is a varied terrain, parts of which are mountainous and rugged, and therefore favoured by terrorists as hideouts. The attacks demonstrated, as they were undoubtedly meant to, that the organisation has preserved considerable combat capacity, manoeuvrability and the tactical knowhow to wage lethal lightning strikes.

The organisation’s attacks have also increased in areas under the control of the Syrian regime, most notably those between Al-Sukhna and Deir Al-Zor, indicating that the organisation still has a heavy presence in the region east of Homs up to the Iraq border. Also significant is the diversity of modus operandi. Assassinations, roadside bombs, suicide attacks, defacement of public buildings, attacks against oil and gas installations, armed raids and other such operations testify to the organisation’s ability to move unchecked across large stretches of land. The area east of the Euphrates, the area noted for the presence of the US-led coalition forces and the Kurdish-Arab Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), has also experienced an increase in terrorist attacks. There, IS was handed the advantage of the chaos generated by the partial withdrawal of US forces, the spread of Turkish forces, the prison breaks and renewed fighting between local opposition forces and the Syrian army. At least in that area, however, SDF pre-emptive strikes against terrorist lairs, widespread combing operations and US Special Forces operations targeting terrorist commanders have curtailed IS’s activities. In addition, Syrian Kurdish political leaders have been soliciting political support to hold trials locally of the thousands of Arab and foreign IS recruits who are still being held in Syrian Kurdish supervised detention centres because foreign governments continue to refuse to assume responsibility for their nationals who left to enlist with the terrorist organisation.

Africa has also seen a rise in terrorist activity recently, especially the Sahel region. Al-Qaeda affiliates such as Nusrat Al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM) and IS affiliates such as the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) have carried out a series of lethal attacks against local and international forces. The violence has displaced hundreds of thousands of people.

In the course of their response to these attacks, French forces with assistance from US AFRICOM, succeeded in hunting down and killing Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) leader Abdel-Malek Droukdel, aka Abu Musaab Abdel-Wadoud, in northeast Mali. They also killed or apprehended about 500 extremists in the Sahel region, including first tier terrorist commanders. The success of this operation was symbolically important because of Droukdel’s prominent status and long history as a terrorist leader and because AQIM is one of the deadliest terrorist organisations in the region. But if Droukdel’s death delivered a stunning blow to AQIM, the organisation still has the ability to rally. It has a “council of dignitaries” that includes 14 commanders who are responsible for choosing a new leader. Iyad Ag Ghaly, aka Abul-Fadl, a Tuareg militant from Mali and leader of JNIM, is believed to be the most likely candidate to succeed Droukdel.

The Chadian army has been able to inflict major losses on the Boko Haram organisation. It killed some 1,000 of the group’s fighters and destroyed many of its bases in the Lake Chad area in retaliation for the terrorist attack that killed 98 Chadian soldiers on 23 March. Boko Haram has been responsible for numerous terrorist attacks in the vicinity of Lake Chad district at the juncture of Chad, Niger, Nigeria and Cameroon (the border area also notorious as a transit point for various forms of organised crime).

There are numerous counterterrorist forces in the Sahel, most notably the 5,100 strong force detailed to the French led Barkhane Operation. In addition, several European countries have agreed to contribute to the Takuba Task Force, a 500-member special forces group which is to be deployed later this summer. There are also the armies of the G5-Sahel nations and a US drone base in Niger, not to mention AFRICOM which has some 7,000 soldiers deployed across the continent and provides assistance to local and international counterterrorist forces. In addition, a 15,000 strong UN force is stationed in Mali while Britain provides periodic logistic support.

Despite these many forces, they have been unable to defeat terrorism in Africa for a number of reasons:

- The ability of terrorist groups to exploit certain circumstances created by the Covid-19 measures, most notably the closure of the borders between Mauritania and Mali, the suspension of joint patrols to apprehend terrorists, the French decision to reduce its Barkhane force after many members were infected by Covid-19 and the reduction in the activities of UN forces.

- Counterterrorist operations have been restricted to military operations. There has been no complimentary drive to promote social and economic development in order to offset the widespread sense among tribes in the area of oppression and marginalisation, which feeds terrorism. (This is why the last summit of the international coalition to defend the Sahel resolved to fund 600 development projects at the cost of 9 billion Euros. Also, the World Bank has earmarked six to seven billion dollars to help Mali overcome such challenges.)

- Poor security coverage in view off complex tribal demographics. As a result, terrorist groups are largely free to range across porous borders in an area larger than the whole of Europe.

- Insufficient funding for counterterrorist activities.

- The motives and aims of the governments and forces involved in the fight against terrorism in the Sahel may sometimes be at odds with each other, or may sometimes be ambiguous.

- The military conflicts in Libya produced a state of anarchy that made that country a refuge and transit point for terrorists as well as organised crime, and helped create a terrorist belt across North and West Africa. Turkey’s transfer of thousands of jihadist mercenaries from Syria to Libya threatens to turn Libya into the next terrorist mecca.

The latter phenomenon in particular raises some crucial questions. Are the powers whose forces are present in Africa genuinely interested in eliminating terrorism? Or do they really want to keep terrorism alive in order to legitimise their presence in African countries?


The writer is an expert on national security affairs.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 18 June, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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