In Depth

Coronavirus: how has Isis dealt with the outbreak of Covid-19?

Terror group finds new opportunities amid the global pandemic

In early March, as coronavirus swept across Europe, Isis issued a surprising message to its members.

Adopting a safety-first approach, the terror group’s al-Naba magazine stopped encouraging attacks on western nations, instead advising its members not to travel to Europe, which it described as “the land of the epidemic”.

The group also told its followers to “put trust in God and seek refuge in Him from illnesses”, but to also “cover the mouth when yawning and sneezing” and to wash their hands frequently, Politico reports. Terror groups traditionally thrive in areas undergoing disruption and chaos. So how has Isis handled the past eight months?

‘Take no terror-risks’

Isis has “followed the outbreak from the beginning of this year, regularly including updates in the news briefs section of the [al-Naba] newsletter”, US-magazine Homeland Security Today (HST) says. 

In January, al-Naba reported on a “new virus spread[ing] death and terror in China”, explaining that “communist China is panicking”.

And as the outbreak became more serious, Isis shifted to “criticising the Chinese government for hiding the scope of the coronavirus outbreak”, which HST speculates may have been linked to a fear the virus “could also pose a threat to their members or supporters”.

Al-Naba linked the outbreak to the persecution of Muslims in China, claiming in February that “many Muslims rushed to confirm that this epidemic is a punishment from God Almighty” for China’s abuse of the Uighurs.

The information campaign culminated in the magazine running a “full-page infographic on the back cover” in March, instructing followers that suspect they had the virus to “stay away from areas under Isis control” to fulfil the holy “obligation of taking up the causes of protection from illnesses and avoiding them”, Politico says.

‘Threats and opportunities’

Extremists first saw the pandemic as an opportunity to “launch new attacks, motivate followers and reinforce their credentials as alternative rulers of swathes of unstable countries”, The Guardian says. 

However, as the full threat of Covid-19 became more apparent, “the reaction to the pandemic has evolved within extremist organisations”, the paper continues.

For Isis, the deadly virus has “translated into regional opportunity”, allowing the group to “expand upon the rebuilding effort it began last fall and use the coronavirus to spread its own, more violent flavor of destruction and terror”, writes Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, on NBC News.

While the Taliban began releasing images of its public health teams, Isis “moved the fighting from Syria to Iraq [and] is strengthening, both financially and militarily”, Stein Grongstad, head of Norway’s forces in Iraq, told the broadcaster.

Grongstad described the situation in the Iraq as a “paradox”, one in which Covid-19 was weakening nations just as Isis was regaining strength.

The pandemic has also prompted fears that “Islamic militants [may] win support as corrupt, inefficient and poorly resourced governments across Africa and the Middle East fail to provide adequate care for already distrustful populations”, The Guardian reports.

“Few countries hit badly by extremism have effective health systems”, meaning there is a public services gulf that groups such as Isis could look to fill, the paper adds. The group has heightened its efforts to liberate detainees (pictured) and convert refugees who have been left in an increasingly desperate situation by the pandemic.

Rising violence

Iraqi military officials told The Associated Press, that 2020 has seen Isis “shifting from local intimidation to more complex attacks”. The officials attributed the change in tactics to various factors, including “the number of Iraqi military personnel on duty dropping 50% because of virus prevention measures”.

“Before the emergence of the virus and before the American withdrawal, the operations were negligible, numbering only one operation per week,” said a senior intelligence official. “Security forces are seeing an average of 20 operations a month,” AP adds.

As western nations have turned their attention towards dealing with the pandemic at home, their eye has been turned from events abroad. The pandemic caused the US-led coalition in Iraq to halt training ahead of a pullout from a number of bases. These areas have seen “a surge in attacks by Isis”, the Guardian notes. 

“It is almost certainly correct that Covid-19 will handicap domestic security efforts and international counter-Isis cooperation, allowing the jihadists to better prepare spectacular terror attacks,” said the International Crisis Group. “The pandemic seems likely to make these agile insurgents more dangerous still, as it further slows and weakens local governments and militaries.” 

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