Jihadists and other militant extremists are seeing a world health crisis as a window of opportunity.
Leading terror organizations such as Islamic State have been calling on followers to increase attacks in recent days as world governments and militaries shift their focus to combating the COVID-19 pandemic.
While it may be premature to draw a direct correlation to a recent wave of attacks from Africa to Afghanistan in recent days, counterterrorism experts point to a spike in extremist propaganda describing the coronavirus outbreak as being sent by God to assist the jihadist cause.
Islamic State leaders quickly claimed credit for a deadly attack on Sikh worshippers in Kabul this week, and radical Islamist movements in Africa have stepped up their activity in countries such as Nigeria and Chad.
“Jihadis see the current crisis as a manifestation of the wrath of God, both upon the non-believers for their rejection of God’s law and crimes against Muslims, and upon those Muslims who have forsaken the duty of jihad,” said Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens, director of research at The George Washington University’s Program on Extremism. “They argue that fighting jihad is the surest way to guarantee protection from the virus.”
Bill Roggio, who analyzes jihadist terrorism at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said there was a consistent argument in messages from various outfits online — from the Taliban in Afghanistan to Islamic State and underground al Qaeda affiliates around the globe.
A “common theme,” he said, is that “coronavirus is a punishment from Allah to our decadent Western style of life.”
Islamic State has led the charge, calling this week on its network of affiliates in India to seize the moment and carry out attacks. The attacker in Afghanistan this week was said to be an Indian national angry about the treatment of Muslims in the divided Kashmir region.
The group’s propaganda is seizing upon the notion that “the Western world’s attention is now firmly on the health crisis, meaning a possible reduction in counter-terrorism capabilities,” said Mr. Meleagrou-Hitchens.
“Within ISIS output there is a clear recognition of new opportunities emerging, in theory at least,” he said. An attack on a Western country now, they argue, “would compound the misery and could lead to social disorder and further economic collapse.”
He added, however that groups like the Taliban and Islamic State face the same danger of infection from the virus, which would limit their effectiveness.
Islamic State’s official al-Naba newsletter, usually a font of anti-Western propaganda, recently published material online telling followers to wash their hands, cover their mouth when yawning or sneezing, and avoid coronavirus-stricken hot spots.
Eyes on Africa
Mr. Roggio said Africa is the most likely place where the pandemic and jihadism collide.
“That’s the one place where you’ve got very active Islamist insurgent groups, weak governments with limited counterterrorism capabilities and limited medical resources, as well as populations that may be susceptible to serious outbreaks of the pandemic,” Mr. Roggio said.
“Mali, Niger, Nigeria and Chad are all already having major problems dealing with Islamic State and other Islamist insurgencies,” he said. “Serious coronavirus outbreaks in these countries may force governments to pull back from the fight against terrorist groups to deal with a spiraling public health crisis, creating a potential security vacuum that could lead Islamic State and al Qaeda to step up their attacks.”
The Nigerian terrorist group Boko Haram — a jihadist outfit with on-again, off-again links to al Qaeda and ISIS — claimed responsibility Wednesday for an attack on an island in Lake Chad that killed nearly 100 Chadian military soldiers, the heaviest death toll from fighting in months.
A similar Boko Haram strike in Nigeria killed 47 Nigerian soldiers earlier in the week, again after a period of relative lower activity.
Islamic State, meanwhile, claimed responsibility for an attack some 2,500 miles to the south, in Mozambique, targeting natural gas projects Tuesday being developed there by the U.S. and French energy giants ExxonMobil and Total.
As that was happening, the Pentagon’s U.S. Africa Command, which has increasingly partnered with African nations to battle extremist groups, canceled some planned joint military training exercises because of coronavirus infection fears.
U.S. military officials said the cancellations did not equate to a reduction in America’s commitments. “We may reduce in scope the size or cancel an exercise, but we will continue to lean forward to make sure troops in Africa have what they need,” AFRICOM Commander Gen. Stephen J. Townsend said in a statement.
Other major attacks have occurred elsewhere in the world, particularly in Afghanistan, where “ISIS-K,” the main Islamic State affiliate group in the country, claimed responsibility this week for the attack on a Sikh house of worship in Kabul that killed 25 people.
Mideast hot spot
Analysts caution it is too soon to see a clear pattern of accelerated terror attacks linked to the virus crisis.
“It’s hard to draw a straight line correlation right now between attacks over the past few weeks and the coronavirus,” said Mr. Roggio. “The reality is that areas where attacks are happening are areas that were already dealing with regular violence from extremist groups.”
The question is how such areas, which include the greater Middle East, will be impacted.
NATO announced weeks ago that it was temporarily suspending training for Iraqi security forces because of coronavirus. Britain and France have since reduced troop deployments to the nation, with Paris announcing Thursday all its troops in Iraq’s anti-ISIS coalition were being redeployed for the time being.
The U.S. and its allies are also hunkering down to try to contain what are already spreading outbreaks among military personnel.
“Inevitably the coronavirus pandemic will shift attention and resources away from the fight against the Islamic State,” Colin P. Clarke, a senior research fellow at the Soufan Center, told the German news outlet Deutsche Welle (DW).
But he also noted that ISIS fighters themselves “will be vulnerable.” A DW article quoting Mr. Clarke noted, however, that some 20,000 suspected ISIS militants are held in jails across Iraq. The article said freeing any number of them would serve to reinforce their operational capabilities and threaten to undo years of coordinated efforts to contain the militant group.
Not just jihadists
Analysts say it’s not just Islamists and other extremist groups who are exploiting the pandemic.
“Neo-Nazi militants have been similarly discussing ways to spread panic and purposely infect members of the law enforcement and Jewish communities,” according to The George Washington University’s Program on Extremism, which is organizing an online discussion Monday on extremism and the global health crisis
Mr. Meleagrou-Hitchens said he believes the “extreme right” is poised to exploit public fears of a breakdown in government order caused by coronavirus.
“Many appear to see it as a good opportunity for the implementation of ‘accelerationism,’ a term used to describe the use of violence to hasten the collapse of state and society as the precursor to the creation of a new, racially-pure fascist state,” he said.
“As a movement which is steeped in conspiracy theories, they have put forward a number of explanations for the emergence of the virus,” he added. “Many view it through the prism of the ‘white genocide’ conspiracy.”
He pointed to the case of a man in Missouri killed this week by FBI agents attempting to arrest him on suspicion of planning an attack on a hospital caring for COVID-19 victims. “[The man] believed the virus to be a weapon manufactured with the intent to wipe out what the extreme right describe as the white race,” Mr. Meleagrou-Hitchens said.
“Others have suggested using the virus as a bioweapon against ethnic minorities, suggesting that supporters who are infected go to ‘non-white’ neighborhoods and intentionally infect people,” he said. “They have also identified further opportunities for online recruitment due to the large amount of people who will be spending even more time on the internet in the coming months. Young men on gaming platforms are seen as particularly attractive possible recruits, and can be contacted via in-game chat functions.”