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. 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. António Guterres has also appealed to religious leaders of all faiths to join forces for peace and focus on our common battle against Coronavirus.
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).
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 will shift their attention and resources elsewhere, most likely to their own domestic needs. Already the French Ministry of Armed Forces has indicated that it is considering altering the rotation of French troops stationed in the Sahel, as a result of the domestic impact of the coronavirus.
Although the militarised strategy to counter terrorism in the Sahel has not yet proven to be successful on its own, warranting a more comprehensive approach that includes addressing the social, economic, and political drivers of radicalisation, cooperation amongst the international community and their continued engagement is vital to halting the spread of terrorism in the Sahel. Without continued external support, the Sahelian countries will be left in an even more vulnerable position vis-à-vis extremist groups.
Moreover, 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. And as countries in the Sahel, as in other regions across the globe, consider the release of low-risk inmates in order to alleviate the overcrowding that is likely to accelerate the spread of coronavirus amongst inmates, it will become even more important that they are supported in managing the terrorist offender population.
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.
The article has been prepared by Julie Coleman in cooperation with Méryl Demuynck, Elise Veermersch and Elena Dal Santo. Julie Coleman is a Senior Programme Manager / Research Fellow at ICCT. Currently, her work focuses on radicalization and the prevention violent extremism, particularly through youth empowerment and addressing radicalization in prisons.
Our Work in Mali
Since 2016, ICCT and UNICRI have been developing and implementing activities in Mali to prevent and counter violent extremism in prisons and local communities. Our focus has been on improving the management of Violent Extremist Offenders (VEOs) in prison and on increasing the resilience of Malian youth and their communities against violent extremism through tailored training, mentoring and empowerment activities to foster resilience.
These activities have been conducted in collaboration with local, national and international actors including MINUSMA, the Malian Prison Administration, the Ministry of Religious Affairs, and civil society organisations and in partnership with various members of the international community, such as the Royal Danish Embassy in Bamako and the US Bureau of Counterterrorism.