Abubakar Shekau, a Boko Haram faction leader, kidnapper-in-chief of the Chibok school girls, notorious for his grisly videos and brutal implementation of punishments of seventh century, Middle Eastern origin, this week issued an audio recording on the coronavirus after a long period of radio silence.
In it, he characterizes international measures to address the coronavirus pandemic as part of the war on Islam by evil forces. He denounces especially social distancing, the suspension of pilgrimages to Mecca, and the likely modification of certain Ramadan observances. “Just look at it, they stopped you from Umrah and Hajj, even the fasting they are telling you that corona season needs a lot of drinking water.” He asserts that “Muslims,” by whom he means exclusively the followers of his extreme brand of Salafi Islam, are protected from the virus.
“We pray five times a day, we pray Jummu’a, we sleep with our families, we hug, we shake hands, we are fine, fine fine,” he said on the recording. “We have anti-virus while you are infected with the coronavirus, we have anti-coronavirus; it is the Allah we worship. We pray, we slash fornicators, we cut hands.” (“Cut hands,” according to the translator of the recording, means amputating the hands of thieves.)
He comes close to saying that COVID-19 is Allah's punishment on the ungodly.
As he has many times before, he is contemptuous of secular leaders: “In the times of infidels like Trump, Idris Derby [sic] with the goat eye, Buhari, Muhammad Issoufu, the dog of the hands of France. Children of pigs and monkeys. If you don’t repent you will be finished.” Idris Deby is the president of Chad, Muhammed Issoufu is the president of Niger, and Muhammadu Buhari is the president of Nigeria. All three are allied against Boko Haram. Deby and Issoufu lead former French colonies, and have close ties with France; all three are Muslim but hold secular office, which Boko Haram regards as evil.
The public health measures force a major change in how Muslims normally practice their religion. At mosque, those praying are shoulder-to-shoulder, contrary to social distancing; during the Ramadan fast, many northern Nigerian Muslims drink no water sunrise to sundown; and the Hajj, subject to the travel ban, is regarded as a sacred obligation. While mainstream Islamic figures have endorsed the government’s public health measures, their credibility among many of the marginalized in the north is low. Shekau’s attacks may resonate specifically with these marginalized people.
The audio does not, apparently call for accelerated attacks on government targets. So far, at least, Shekau's last audio has not attracted the same level of attention that he enjoyed in the past, even as Boko Haram continues to be highly active. Part of the explanation may be the greater awareness that Boko Haram is a bundle of factions rather than a unified movement under Shekau, which was the perception of some years ago. He is also one of many in a long list of terror groups around the world issuing their “response” to the coronavirus pandemic.