6 Jul 2020

Repurposing Covid-19: Pandemic as an opportunity for extremist groups

Dr. Ashraf Al Eisawy

Despite expectations that the Covid-19 outbreak may lessen the threat posed by terrorist groups, as the world faces a health crisis, recent developments indicate an opposite trend. These groups have instead used the crisis as an opportunity to promote their distorted ideologies further. They have also taken advantage of the precautionary and health confinement measures implemented in most countries to reorganize their ranks and carry out terrorist attacks.

Repurposing the pandemic

Since the Covid-19 outbreak in the Chinese city of Wuhan in December 2019, extremist and terrorist organizations were able to “religionize” the virus and imbue it with religious justifications that served their interests. For example, ISIS interpreted the virus as a “punishment from God” and tried to interpret some Qur’anic verses that suited their misconception and misinterpretation. The terror group even quoted the 12th verse of Surah Al-Buruj, in which God Almighty says: “Truly powerful is the Grip (and Power) of thy Lord,” as a sign that the spread of this virus is a punishment from God to those who violated the teachings and principles of Islam.1

ISIS translated this interpretation of Covid-19 into its media releases, notably its weekly magazine Al-Naba. An editorial on March 19, 2020, issue no. 226, described Covid-19 as “a punishment inflicted by Allah on His enemies”. In addition to this, ISIS’s Green Birds channel also showed a photo of the virus with the caption A soldier of Allah.2

Al-Qaeda also dealt with Covid-19 from a religious standpoint. It issued a document to its cadres and affiliates abroad, claiming that “this virus has afflicted non-believers”, in an attempt to gain so-called Muslim sympathy and recruit more supporters.3 Al-Qaeda-aligned news agency — Thabat Media— published an article entitled, Corona: Annihilation of the Unjust and a Testimony of the Believers. The piece describes Muslims who have died from the virus as martyrs and calls on Al-Qaeda affiliates to exploit the current situation by carrying out more attacks against their enemies.4

Moreover, Al-Qaeda was willing to rejoice in the damage caused by Covid-19 to the US economy. The organization even called on Western citizens to reconsider what it called “moral corruption, usurious economy, and the injustice their governments caused.” This was an attempt to take advantage of the religious discourse, winning hearts and minds, and promoting the ideology of the organization. The primary objective was to enhance its ranks in the post-Covid-19 stage.5

The attempts made by extremist and terrorist organizations to “repurpose” the Covid-19 pandemic point to several key developments:

  1. These groups go to any extent to take advantage of a crisis, whether political, economic, or even public health crises such as Covid-19. This feature distinguishes these organizations from other political and social groups. History has shown that extremist and terrorist groups have exploited crises faced by countries in the region to strengthen their influence. In Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya, they took advantage of the security vacuum to consolidate and launch terrorist operations in neighboring countries. They have treated a health and humanitarian crisis such as Covid-19 as an opportunity to strengthen their influence and outreach. For example, ISIS took advantage of the coalition and US forces’ announcement to suspend operations in Iraq and Syria. They regrouped in both the countries and resumed their terrorist activities.6
  2. They see Covid-19 as an opportunity7 to enhance their influence and presence in new areas and to promote their ideology. The UAE’s Sawab (Correction) Centre, an American-Emirati virtual initiative aimed at combating extremist and radical ideologies, has warned that extremist groups – including ISIS – are exploiting the Covid-19 pandemic to spread their regressive ideology through social media and preparing for terrorist operations. “If left unchecked, terrorism and disease will spread and destroy communities. Extremism, hatred of others, racism, and terrorism, are all dangerous and chronic diseases that must be eradicated like any other disease that threatens life, and peace8,” the Sawab Centre warned.These warnings have come amid growing concerns that the isolation and home quarantine measures resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic offer greater opportunities for ISIS and other extremist organizations to take advantage of the digital space and spread their ideologies. Considering people spend most of their time on social networking platforms, this could have already become the most important tools used by these organizations to reach out to young people.
  1. The extremist groups’ attempts to imbue Covid-19 with religious characteristics expose their opportunism and the superficial nature of their ideology. When ISIS portrays this pandemic as a “Godly punishment for enemies… and a painful agony for the West, especially countries that carried out military operations against ISIS”, and when Al-Qaeda claims the pandemic is here to punish Western countries for their “moral corruption and usurious economies” they prove that they live in their own world and ignore the fact that Covid-19 is a natural phenomenon that targets all human beings.

They also ignore that throughout history, the world has seen many pandemics, claiming millions of lives. Diseases such as malaria, tuberculosis, plague, measles, influenza, SARS, avian influenza, swine flu, and others have often spread worldwide. Spanish flu, described as “the mother of all pandemics” claimed the lives of 40-50 million people within two years between 1918 and 1920, according to statistics from the World Health Organization and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.10

The claim made by these extremist organizations that Covid-19 is “a punishment for the West” is false because the pandemic has affected all countries of the world, including Muslim ones. The Covid-19 pandemic is different from previous pandemics in terms of its universality, geographical spread, and the increased number of infections and deaths. Pandemics of the past, until the mid-20th century were local and easy to deal with. The Covid-19 virus has, however, spread all over the world and caused a very large number of infections and deaths.11

The Covid-19 impact on extremism and terrorism?

Although extremist groups are religiously repurposing Covid-19 and attempting to politicize it to strengthen their influence, there is a dispute about the nature of the effect that this has on the growth of extremist ideology and the spread of terrorism. Some argue that Covid-19 restricts terrorism, especially in countries where the pandemic is prevalent since terrorist agents such as those of ISIS might be afraid to contract the virus. They are keeping a low profile and refraining from terrorist activities until the pandemic ends.12 Covid-19 has created an environment conducive to the growth of extremism and the rise of the threat of terrorism in the region and the world. Here are some of its most important indicators:

  1. The promotion of extremist ideologies: The fallout of Covid-19 in many countries, such as closed schools, suspension of recreational and cultural activities, remote work, and distance learning, have opened up opportunities for extremist organizations to spread their ideologies by taking advantage of the youth staying at home, spending more time surfing the Internet and visiting social networking sites.13 The state of panic associated with the spread of the pandemic has prompted many extremist groups to take the initiative and find new groups and convince them of their ideas, especially in Western societies most affected by the pandemic.14
  1. Continued recruitment by extremist organizations: Some outfits view Covid-19 as an opportunity to promote their goals and recruit politically.15 The pandemic’s negative consequences, such as the economic slowdown, declining living standards, and growing unemployment rates, have created an enabling environment. These organizations take advantage of their financial needs and try to recruit them by providing economic benefits and incentives to help them face the crisis.16 For example, during the lockdown in the Philippines, ISIS continued to carry out its activities, exploiting the quarantine measures vigorously. It recruited members and disseminated extremist ideas, particularly in rural areas that were severely hit.
  2. Uninterrupted terrorist activities: With the world preoccupied with Covid-19, many extremist groups have sought to prove they are still capable of carrying out attacks. For instance, ISIS called on its agents to take advantage of the pandemic to carry out terrorist operations around the world.18 This is primarily because the group, which lost its main areas of influence in Iraq and Syria, and whose leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and many field commanders were assassinated, is trying to exploit this pandemic to regroup. Their efforts have increased after the US-led International Coalition Against ISIS announced, on March 20, its decision to withdraw and reposition some of its soldiers in Iraq for fear of a Covid-19 outbreak among the forces19.This is why ISIS stepped up its terrorist activities in the disputed areas of Iraq and Syria. On March 9, 2020, the group targeted the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) stationed near Haliwa military airport, west of Tuz Khurmatu district, killing two PMF operatives and injuring three others. On April 9, 2020, ISIS claimed responsibility for 29 separate attacks in Iraq between April 1 and 8. The group also claimed responsibility for 11 attacks in Syria during the same period. On April 9, 2020, ISIS launched a large-scale attack on the town of Al-Sukhnah in Syria’s eastern Homs province, killing 32 Syrian soldiers and 26 ISIS fighters.20 The group also freed its fighters held in Syrian and Iraqi prisons and ignited many riots around these prisons, 21 several ISIS detainees even escaped from the Ghweran prison in the northeastern Syrian city of Hasakah.22 In May 2020, Russian Foreign Ministry’s spokesperson, Maria Zakharova, said ISIS decided to use the dire conditions forced on the world by Covid-19 to escalate its attacks. It carried out more than 20 attacks against the Kurds and in Deir Ezzor and Raqqa and succeeded in smuggling agents from a prison belonging to the Al-Hol camp. Meanwhile, it is estimated that around 14,000-18,000 ISIS members are active in Syria and Iraq,23 which is extremely dangerous as this confirms the group’s continued ability to recruit more agents and the potentially escalate future terrorist activities. ISIS’s terrorist activities were not confined to Syria and Iraq but extended to many African countries. The African Union’s (AU) Peace and Security Council (PSC) warned of the repercussions of the Covid-19 pandemic in Africa as terrorists and armed groups refused to halt their attacks. The council also warned of the escalation of these operations, with many countries on the continent enlisting their armies to fight the Covid-19 outbreak. The security vacuum that was created as a result allowed terrorist organizations to resume their activities.24 According to Egypt’s Dar Al-Ifta Index, “the African continent witnessed many terrorist operations during the past few months. Terrorism hit nine African countries – Somalia, Niger, Chad, Burkina Faso, Libya, Tunisia, Cameroon, Mali and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The spread of terrorist organizations still threatens Africa. There is a strong competition between pro-ISIS organizations in West Africa, shifting ultimately to the center of the continent through ISIS in the Greater Sahara and pro-Al-Qaeda Nusrat Al-Islam.25 Meanwhile, the Somali Al-Shabab and the Nigerian Boko Haram movements continue their terrorist attacks.26
  1. The growing fear of the use of biological weapons: In a video conference call during a Security Council session to discuss the Covid-19 pandemic in early April 2020, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, warned that such groups could obtain viruses and attack countries around the world. He said that terrorist groups must not be allowed to take advantage of the situation and from the governments’ focus on the health situation. Guterres said he was convinced of the growing risk of terrorists launching toxic biological attacks to spread viruses such as Covid-19.27 This warning indicates that extremist and terrorist groups can carry out biological attacks, which is undoubtedly a threat to regional and international security, peace, and stability.

The Covid-19 pandemic has also raised concerns that extremist and terrorist organizations may have access to biological weapons, as Russian Intelligence Agency warned in 2019. It stated that international terrorist groups are attempting to acquire biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons. This is evident in their continued attempts to gain access to information on the production of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons, and their keen interest in the potential use of pathogenic biological agents and toxic chemicals. This risk was even substantiated, According to the annual report of the European Police Office (Europol) in June 2019, this risk was even substantiated by a German court trying two extremists who were planning a biological attack in Germany in a first-of-its-kind case in the country.29

Recently, fears have grown in Europe, and many countries that extremist and terrorist groups could launch biological attacks, as the Covid-19 pandemic showed how difficult it is to control these types of viruses and its severe implications on the international economy. In May 2020, the Council of Europe Committee on Counter-Terrorism (CDCT) warned that deliberate use of pathogens or other active biological agents “may be extremely influential,” as the damage to people and the economy could be greater than terrorist attacks.30

Terror amid Covid-19: Global challenges and enhanced cooperation

Covid-19 and international terrorism have several features in common, which can be illustrated as follows:

  1. Both terrorism and Covid-19 are global trans-national challenges. Terrorism cannot be linked to any religion, country, or identity. So is Covid-19, which is a contagious pandemic that has spread rapidly since its emergence in the Chinese city of Wuhan. It has moved countries around the world, including developed, developing, and poor ones, and has negative ramifications for all people without exception.
  2. Both terrorism and Covid-19 pose a threat to international peace and security. cost The United States-led war on terror, which began on September 11, 2001, has cost an estimated $5.9 trillion until 2019. This amount includes more than $2 trillion spent on foreign operations, $924 billion on internal security, and $353 billion on health care and treatment of the wounded and disabled members of the US forces in conflict zones.31 Covid-19 also poses a real threat to international peace and security. Its rapid spread and the magnitude of its impact poses an existential challenge to the international system judging by how difficult it is to control it so far.In addition, the Covid-19 pandemic’s economic and social consequences, in terms of declining growth, increasing unemployment, poverty and stagnation, also pose a threat to security and stability in most countries, especially if they are accompanied by violent demonstrations protesting the failure of governments to deal with this pandemic and contain its various consequences.Another indicator of the negative impact of the Covid-19 pandemic is the IMF’s June 2020 estimate, which predicted that the global economy would lose $12 trillion and contract by 4.9 percent this year, 32 with significant risks for most economies.
  3. Both terrorism and Covid-19 are used to stoke up hatred and racism. If extremist and terrorist groups incite hate against the West and seek to revive clashes between different religions, the same applies to the West’s ultra-right-wing forces. These adopt a racist and supremacist view in dealing with Covid-19, calling it the “Chinese virus”, at a time when fears are growing of the so-called “white terrorism” in some countries, mainly targeting Chinese and Asian people for being the “origin of the virus” and why it spread.33
  1. Countering terrorism and the Covid-19 pandemic demand further international cooperation, since no country or group of countries, irrespective of their capabilities, can address them, given their serious implications. Therefore, any effective strategy to address these two challenges requires the greater coordination of international efforts and the prevention of their negative use by extremist groups, terrorist organizations or ultra-far-right forces to stoke up hatred and racism.

Conclusion

If the Covid-19 pandemic and the preventive measures, such as lockdown policies, remote work, and distance learning, have allowed extremist and terrorist organizations to spread their ideas, regroup their ranks, and resume their terrorist activities, the international community must be aware of these developments. As a result, he world must not neglect the war against extremism and terrorism just because it is concerned with addressing the Covid-19 pandemic. Both are threats to international peace and security; it is important and necessary that efforts confront them to go hand in hand. Any leniency in this matter will cost a great deal in the long term at all levels.


Footnotes

1- Mohamed Mokhtar Qandil, Terrorism and Coronavirus: Hyperbole, Idealism, and Ignorance, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. April 28, 2020, https://bit.ly/2AiPobI

2- Valerio Mazzoni, Coronavirus: How Islamist Militants Are Reacting to the Outbreak, European Eye on Radicalization, March 30, 2020, https://bit.ly/3eZMV50

[1] - How Extremists are Adapting to the Coronavirus Crisis, European Eye on Radicalization, 1 May 2020, https://bit.ly/31wsf0E

4- Valerio Mazzoni, Coronavirus: How Islamist Militants Are Reacting to the Outbreak, Ibid.

5- Abdullah Bin Khaled Saud Al-Kabir, Coronavirus and Terrorist, Extremist, and Criminal Groups… International Cooperation is a Must to Overcome the Consequences of this Pandemic, Independentarabia.com, July 02, 2010, https://bit.ly/3givay0

6- Jasim Mohammed, ISIS… New Ambitions Amid Covid-19 Outbreak, Roayahnews.com, April 08, 2020, https://bit.ly/3dVxg5o

7- Oula Bayad, Extremist Groups, Rising Ambitions Amid Covid-19? European Center for Counterterrorism and Intelligence Studies, May 01, 2020, https://bit.ly/31w5EBA

8- Ahmed Abed, “Sawab” Centre Warns of Extremist Groups Taking Advantage of Covid-19, emaratalyoum.com, June 19, 2020, https://bit.ly/3gmKlXd

9- Yasser Abdulaziz, Coronavirus exacerbates threat of bio-terrorist attacks, Nation Shield (Abu Dhabi), June 09, 2020, https://bit.ly/3iitmqy

10- Coronavirus: Are There Lessons to be Learned from Spanish flu? BBC, April 29, 2020, https://bbc.in/2Zzm3m1

11- Abdelilah Belkziz, The Globalization of the Coronavirus, Sky News Arabia, May 13, 2020, https://bit.ly/38q5oFv

12- Ahmed Hashim, Fatal Covid-19 Blockades Terrorism… ISIS and Al-Qaeda Included, Al-Ain.com (Abu Dhabi), March 18, 2020, https://bit.ly/38jaZgE

[1] - Eric Rosand, Khalid Koser, and Lilla Schumicky-Logan, Preventing violent extremism during and after the COVID-19 pandemic, The Brookings Institution, April 28, 2020, https://brook.gs/2BmU80x

[1] -   Nikita Malik ,Self-Isolation Might Stop Coronavirus, but It Will Speed the Spread of Extremism, foreign policy  March 26, 2020, https://bit.ly/2NFthPE

15- Mohamed Mokhtar Qandil, Ibid.

16- Taqi Al Najjar, Terrorism and the Coronavirus Loophole, marsad.ecsstudies.com, March 30, 2020, https://bit.ly/2D9X7dk

17- Yasser Abdulaziz, Ibid.

18- Jasim Mohammed, Ibid.

19- Mohamed Mokhtar Qandil, Ibid

20- Ibid.

[1] -    MICHAEL KNIGHTS,How the Islamic State Feeds on Coronavirus, politico magazine, 04/08/2020, https://politi.co/3gdUpSb

22- Taqi Al Najjar, Ibid.

23- Yasser Abdulaziz, Ibid.

24- Marwa Nazir, How do Terrorist Groups Exploit the Coronavirus Pandemic? Future for Advanced Research and Studies, April 26, 2020, https://bit.ly/2YT9Edm

25- Yasser Abdulaziz, Ibid.

26- Walid Abdulrahman, The Rhetoric of Terrorist Organizations in the Time of Covid-19, Asharq Al-Awsat, (London), Issue no. 15106, April 07, 2020, https://bit.ly/3ghqNDn

27- Antonio Guterres Warns of Viruses as a Weapon of Terror, Al Khaleej (Sharjah), April 10, 2020, https://bit.ly/2VLHfnJ

28- Oula Bayad, Ibid.

29- Ahmed Taher, Bio-security and Terrorist Organizations... Towards a Strategy of Confrontation, majalla.com, May 01, 2020, https://bit.ly/2BBF3bz

30- European Concern About ‘Biological Attacks’ Inspired by Coronavirus, Al-Ain (Abu Dhabi), May 25, 2020, https://bit.ly/2C2TDbX

31- $6 trillion… The Astronomical Cost of the American War on Terror, Sky News Arabia, January 15, 2019, https://bit.ly/2BpvIni

32- IMF: World Economy will Lose $12 trillion to Coronavirus, Youm7.com, June 24, 2020, https://bit.ly/2NXQ2hT

33- Marwa Nazir, Ibid.

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