Affiliated organization : Tony Blair Institute for Global Change
Type of publication : Briefing
Date of publication : 9th April 2020
As the world rallies to meet the challenge posed by the Covid-19 pandemic, extremist actors from across the ideological spectrum have sought to use upheaval and uncertainty for their own ends. Extremist groups are beginning to recognise the scale of the Covid-19 pandemic, seeing opportunities to exploit fears, exacerbate tensions and mobilise supporters while governments are occupied with trying to address Covid-19.
How Extremist Groups Are Responding to Covid-19
Governments around the world are rallying to respond to the pandemic, taking robust measures to protect citizens and save lives. Meanwhile, extremist actors are exploiting the global crisis to pursue their own ideological agendas and objectives. From propaganda and disinformation campaigns to providing health and social services, extremists are directly and indirectly responding to the Covid-19 pandemic. Top lines about recent extremist activity around Covid-19 include:
- ISIS welcomes the impact of Covid-19 on its enemies but cautions against too many conspiracy theories.
- With Ramadan approaching, al-Qaeda calls on Muslims to use periods of isolation to self-reflect and support jihad.
- Jihadi groups in West Africa continue activity across borders, a potential risk for the transmission of the virus.
- A US man with neo-Nazi connections was killed in a shootout with the FBI after targeting a coronavirus hospital for attack.
The insight and analysis presented has been prepared on the basis of a rapid assessment of materials published by extremist groups and organisations through their media platforms, monitoring communication channels used by their members and supporters, and analysis of local and regional news sources from around the world. As the virus continues to spread, the number of cases and deaths grow, and the nature of government response evolves, we expect shifts in the nature of Covid-19-related propaganda, messaging and activities by extremist groups, with more coherent ideas and narratives developing over time.
Sunni Islamist Extremist Groups
ISIS and Affiliates
- In a recently published edition of its Arabic-language newsletter, ISIS focused on Covid-19-related developments in its section on updates from around the world. This included stories about the impact of the pandemic on US military preparedness, senior Egyptian military figures being struck by the virus, and the disruption to coalition training exercises with the Iraqi military. ISIS celebrating the fact that Western countries are being affected by coronavirus was a running theme. An editorial piece in the newsletter called on supporters not to describe the Covid-19 pandemic as a US-manufactured plot, but rather a manifestation of divine will. The newsletter also included the biography of a British-Sudanese doctor who joined ISIS in 2015 and was killed in 2017. The end of the biography calls for more doctors to join ISIS.
- ISIS Jammu and Kashmir Province published the second edition of its English-language magazine, Sawt al-Hind (Voice of India). The group described Covid-19 as a divine punishment and a torment for disbelievers, evoking the events of Mosul, Sirte, Baghuz and Marawi to draw comparison with the levels of suffering in Western countries. The magazine also described Western cities as easy targets for attacks because law-enforcement and security authorities are occupied with the pandemic.
Al-Qaeda and Affiliates
- Al-Qaeda released a lengthy official statement regarding the Covid-19 pandemic, titled “A Word of Advice on the Coronavirus Pandemic.” It addressed a number of aspects relating to the pandemic, including the impact on the US economy, which the group describes as being in an “ICU”. The group also described Western economies being in a state of ruin, with state apparatus, including military and security forces, being pinned down by an invisible enemy. The statement referenced the US government’s $6 trillion financial stimulus package, which it says is the equivalent of the cost of two wars against the “Muslim ummah.” The group also described the arrival of the pandemic in the Muslim world as part of God’s wrath and a consequence of the sins of Muslims themselves, admonishing them to use this as an opportunity to correct their behaviour.
- Somalia-based jihadi group al-Shabaab issued a communique following a gathering of more than 100 scholars, elders and tribal leaders discussing the future of jihad in East Africa. The communique stated that efforts for jihad in East Africa should be intensified and that Muslims should take caution over the spread of diseases like coronavirus and HIV, which the group attributed to Western militaries.
In a press statement released to mark the 44th anniversary of “Palestinian Land Day,” Hamas accused Israel of taking advantage of the Covid-19 pandemic outbreak to “continue its assaults on Palestinian territory and people.” The group also announced that activities and protests to commemorate the anniversary would not take place due to the outbreak, and instead encouraged Palestinians to raise the Palestinian flag over their homes.
While extremist actors are engaging with the Covid-19 outbreak directly and indirectly, their actions during this period have unfortunately not been limited to disinformation campaigns and propaganda activities. There continue to be large-scale terrorist attacks carried out by extremist groups in a number of countries
Shia Islamist Extremist Groups
Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (Iran)
- Doctors Without Borders / Médecins Sans Frontières has been expelled from Iran after the regime spread false claims that the humanitarian organisation was spying for Iran’s enemies. The decision came following pressure from the IRGC and a speech by Ayatollah Khamenei in which he described the pandemic as a biological war.
- The head of the Basij – the IRGC’s voluntary paramilitary units – has claimed that until now, they have made “more than 40 million masks … under the supervision of the Food and Drug Administration and the Ministry of Health,” and that the group has also “been involved in making disinfectants.” These claims come amid concerns about the lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) for health workers in Iran, and after the country recently received PPE shipments from both UNICEF and the UNHCR.
Despite efforts to position itself as being on the frontline of Lebanon’s fight against Covid-19, Hizbullah has been accused of being the “main cause of the transmission of coronavirus from Iran to Lebanon,” driving hostility towards the militia. Lebanon’s first recorded Covid-19 case was a person who had recently returned from Iran.
Hizbullah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah, responsible for overseeing the group’s political and paramilitary activities, announced that all Hizbullah-affiliated hospitals and 24,000 medical staff would be ready to serve the people of Lebanon in the fight against Covid-19 and would be at the disposal of the Lebanese government.
While extremist actors are engaging with the Covid-19 outbreak directly and indirectly, their actions during this period have unfortunately not been limited to disinformation campaigns and propaganda activities. There continue to be large-scale terrorist attacks carried out by extremist groups in a number of countries.
Puntland Governor Killed in Al-Shabaab Attack. A governor in Somalia’s Puntland was killed on 29 March in a suicide attack claimed by al-Shabaab. Abdisalan Hassan Hersi, governor of the Nugaal region, was killed after a militant ran at the vehicle he was travelling in before detonating his vest. Two days later, al-Shabaab executed six men accused of spying for the Somali intelligence agencies. Al-Shabaab also continued its offensive in Kenya’s north-eastern and coastal territories, including an attack on Kenyan forces near the H-Young Construction Camp in Milhoi, Lamu on 21 March. This is the second attempt by the militants to attack the camp in 2020.
Taliban Targets Afghan Forces Despite Peace Efforts. Violence continued in Afghanistan as the peace effort brokered by the United States struggles to gain momentum. On 29 March, at least 28 members of the Afghan security forces were killed after clashes with Taliban insurgents in Takhar, Zabul, Helmand and Baghlan. Although the Taliban has not announced a spring offensive for the first time since it was launched in 2016, militants have not agreed to a ceasefire with government forces and fighting has not ended.
YouTube Cracks Down on 5G Conspiracy Theories. YouTube will restrict the spread of videos pushing conspiracy theories linking 5G communication networks to the spread of Covid-19, after a number of recent attacks on phone masts. While conspiracy theories do not fall under the list of prohibited content covered in YouTube’s guidelines, the company announced on 6 April that it will suppress and demonetise such “borderline content”.
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