Author : Julie Coleman J.D., LL.M
Affiliated organization : International Center for Counter-terrorism
Type of publication : article
Date of publication : April 16, 2020
There is no denying that since its emergence in early 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic has prominently sat at the centre of public attention across the globe and will continue to dominate the news cycle – for good reason for the foreseeable future. But as this crisis has captured the attention of governments and citizens, it has also become an important topic for terrorist groups, including al-Qaeda and the Islamic State who have both issued formal public statements on the pandemic through their respective media channels.
Both groups have provided guidelines for their followers to prevent the spread of the illness, with al-Qaeda even highlighting in its message that “Islam is a hygiene-oriented religion,” but in addition to recognising the threat posed by COVID-19, their messages also make it clear that both of these groups are savvy enough to utilise the global upheaval that may result from the spread of the pandemic to persuade more recruits to join their ranks, as well as to exploit the situation to plan and perform targeted attacks.
As the resources of the Sahelian governments are increasingly burdened by the fight to counter COVID-19, their ability to provide basic services to local populations is likely to be even more strained. The opportunities that this scenario could provide to extremist groups should not be underestimated. This may be particularly true in the Sahel, where support for groups such as JNIM and ISGS is often separated from the groups’ ideological outlooks, tied rather to factors such as the groups’ ability to provide financial or security incentives to membership
Publishing in English and blaming the pandemic on the oppression of Muslims and on the decadence of the West, al-Qaeda has called on people, including those from the “Western World”, to use their time in self-isolation to convert to Islam. But the Islamic State has gone so far as to urge its followers to actively continue to wage global jihad and to take advantage of overburdened security capabilities to launch attacks. Despite the UN Secretary-General’s recent call for a global ceasefire in light of the pandemic, it is clear that terrorist groups, who thrive off of instability and chaos, will continue to do so in the current climate.
At the time of writing, the coronavirus has reached virtually every country on the planet, including those in the western Sahel, namely Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso, even though the numbers of confirmed cases currently remain relatively low, especially when compared to other regions. Yet, with the lack of health infrastructure in the Sahel, combined with limited resources and otherwise poor health outcomes, including issues such as widespread malnutrition, the disease threatens to further destabilise these countries, which are already facing a serious humanitarian crisis triggered by ongoing armed conflict. With the further destabilisation likely to result from the coronavirus pandemic come additional opportunities for groups operating in the Sahel, particularly Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM), the al-Qaeda umbrella-affiliate, and Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), the recognised Islamic State affiliate, to exploit vulnerabilities amongst local communities and gain support and strength to pursue their aims in the region.
Already, the number and lethality of attacks carried out in Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso have exponentially increased over the past year Burkina Faso alone saw a 2150% increase in fatalities in terrorist attacks from 2018 to 2019. Their national governments are already under strain in seeking to combat the growing threat posed by not only terrorist groups, but by other armed groups, including self-defense militias and criminal enterprises.
They are currently supported by around 14,000 UN peacekeeping troops as part of the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), as well as by more than 5100 French troops as part of Operation Barkhane, and a newly created task force, Takuba, which will see 500 special forces from 13 European countries counter the terrorist threat especially in the Liptako region. Despite this support from the international community, JNIM, ISGS, and other extremist groups appear to be gaining ground by exploiting longstanding issues in the region: poor governance, perceived neglect of vast areas of territory, and existing inter-ethnic tensions (often generated by scarcity of resources).
With the further destabilisation likely to result from the coronavirus pandemic come additional opportunities for groups operating in the Sahel, particularly Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM), the al-Qaeda umbrella-affiliate, and Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), the recognised Islamic State affiliate, to exploit vulnerabilities amongst local communities and gain support and strength to pursue their aims in the region
One real risk of the coronavirus pandemic is that countries currently providing support and expertise to Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso to tackle the growing violence may shift their attention and resources elsewhere, most likely to their own domestic needs. As of early April, four French soldiers deployed to the Sahel as part of Operation Barkhane tested positive for COVID-19; three of them have now been repatriated to France to receive treatment. Overall, there are reportedly around 4,000 confirmed cases within the French Ministry of Armed Forces, leading the Ministry to indicate that it is considering altering the rotation of French troops stationed in the Sahel as a result of the health crisis.
These groups have already demonstrated their abilities to ingratiate themselves into local communities, often by providing services otherwise unavailable, including healthcare and security. As the resources of the Sahelian governments are increasingly burdened by the fight to counter COVID-19, their ability to provide basic services to local populations is likely to be even more strained. The opportunities that this scenario could provide to extremist groups should not be underestimated. This may be particularly true in the Sahel, where support for groups such as JNIM and ISGS is often separated from the groups’ ideological outlooks, tied rather to factors such as the groups’ ability to provide financial or security incentives to membership.
One additional, often overlooked, factor should be to monitor the impact of COVID-19 on prisons throughout the Sahelian countries, which often suffer from overcrowding, with the spread of diseases such as tuberculosis, and which house an increasingly expanding number of (alleged and convicted) terrorist offenders. The prison systems of Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso may need particular support in preventing the spread of COVID-19 amongst their inmate populations, including amongst the terrorist offenders they house.
As the burden of the coronavirus pandemic spreads further and penetrates the countries of the Sahel more deeply, the potential for terrorist groups to continue to exploit weak points to gain support and strength will likely increase. It is vital that neither the domestic governments of the region, nor the international community turn their focus away from countering the threat that such groups pose. Continued cooperation and a broadened approach that addresses the underlying drivers of radicalisation towards violent extremism are necessary to stop the further spread of terrorist activity in the Sahel. Without it, the spread of COVID-19 will serve to reinforce the frustrations and grievances that have allowed these groups to gain a foothold in the first place, and will render the challenge of stopping terrorist groups in the Sahel more difficult than ever.
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