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May 13, 2020
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Extremist groups exploiting Covid-19 to expand footprint

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Extremist groups across sub-Saharan Africa are leveraging on the Covid-19 crisis as an opportunity to intensify attacks and also drum up civilian support. As U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) commander Stephen Townsend warned in an April 7th  press release, “al-Qaeda, al-Shabaab and ISIS have announced that they see this crisis as an opportunity to further their terrorist agenda.” Suspected jihadists killed 25 soldiers at a Malian army base on March 19, and Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM) insurgents conducted a high-profile kidnapping of Malian opposition leader Soumaila Cisse on March 25.

That same week, Boko Haram launched its deadliest operation against Chadian forces to date, killing 92 soldiers. On the same day, Mozambican militants in Cabo Delgado broke new ground with simultaneous attacks against district capitals Moçimboa da Praia and Quissanga. In addition to an increase in attacks, extremist movements are incorporating Covid-19 into their propaganda, using the pandemic as justification for their cause.

African affiliates have tailored the Islamic State and al-Qaeda’s general message—that the pandemic is God’s wrath against the West—to their local audiences. JNIM hailed the pandemic as a “punishment” on France for supporting counterterrorism operations in Mali, while al-Shabaab warned supporters that Covid-19 was spread by “crusader forces.” Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau has likened Covid19 measures put in place by the Nigerian government, e.g., social distancing and lockdowns, to a war on Muslims.

As caseloads mount and death tolls rise, extremists are likely to issue statements or publish videos criticizing governments’ inability to help the sick. And as travel and commerce become more restricted, these groups will have ample fodder to accuse the state of intentionally depriving its people of basic commodities and life-saving health care. Extremist groups may also use the Covid-19 crisis as an opportunity to deliver services such as food distribution and health care provision.

These groups are uniquely positioned to step up service delivery because they operate in areas where state presence is weak and contested, a status unlikely to change while governments struggle to contain the outbreak. Groups with the capacity to provide some form of health care could spin their efforts as succeeding where governments are failing. Al-Shabaab, for example, took advantage of the famine in Somalia three years ago to publish photos of its fighters distributing food and medical supplies to needy families, blaming the crisis on regional and international governments. The Taliban, Hezbollah, and other groups outside Africa have already begun to offer public health services during the Covid-19 pandemic to shore up political legitimacy.

Article Categories:
Terrorism
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