The coronavirus arrived relatively late to Africa, where the first case was confirmed only in mid-February. Since then, COVID-19 has swept across the continent, with more than 37,000 cases confirmed thus far. Experts point out that the true number of cases is higher than the official tally in many African countries, though, given their limitations in testing.
Somalia, a playground for the al-Qaida-affiliated extremist group Al Shabaab, is no exception. It announced its first COVID-19 case on March 16 and currently has just over 800 cases, with 38 confirmed deaths from the disease. In response, the Somali government in Mogadishu has announced a raft of measures to try and curb the virus’s spread, including the suspension of all international flights arriving or leaving the country, a dusk-to-dawn curfew in Mogadishu and the closure of schools and universities.
Citizens are being urged to pray at home, not at mosques. However, the government’s effort is much limited as there are large swaths of the country’s territory where Mogadishu has no control over. Al-Shabaab militants control much of the countryside as well as several towns in southern and central Somalia, including some areas close to the capital, and the group’s leaders have made little effort to implement containment or social distancing measures.
On the contrary, al-Shabaab has ignored public health warnings from the government, which the group views as illegitimate, and has resisted shutting down the vast networks of crowded mosques and Islamic schools that it operates in areas under its control. Al-Shabaab’s have also continued with their military operations despite the global pandemic. It has not carried out any spectacular, mass-casualty bombings or shootings in the past month, but its constant, almost daily attacks against Somali security forces, government officials and civilians have continued unabated, especially since the onset of the holy month of Ramadan, putting an extra strain on the fragile Somali government’s effort.
In a statement by the group’s spokesman, sheikh Ali Dheere, Al-Shabaab has portrayed the pandemic as a divine punishment from Allah, meted out to the nonbelievers across the world for their “evil deeds” against Muslims and jihadists. Al-Shabaab’s rhetoric frames the virus primarily as a western problem as well as a Chinese one, and high-ranking al-Shabaab officials and leading ideologues mostly belittle the threat it poses in their public comments. This makes the group’s territory particularly vulnerable to a major outbreak of COVID-19.