Bulama Bukarti is a sub-Saharan Africa analyst at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, based in London, and a PhD candidate at SOAS, University of London.
As the COVID-19 outbreak begins to spread in earnest in Africa, we can expect so-called jihadi groups on the continent to try to take advantage of the crisis to unleash violence and recruit members. We are already seeing indications that this has started happening. Governments, development workers, and aid agencies need to be made aware of this threat and take steps to deny these brutal militias more room to operate.
Over the past two weeks, Africa has seen a dramatic rise in the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases, with recorded cases climbing from 1,017 on March 20, to over 7,177 on April 3, with at least 293 deaths and reaching fifty African states. If the spread of COVID-19 across Africa reaches anywhere near the levels of China, Europe, or the United States, panic, chaos, and confusion will ensue. Already stretched resources currently earmarked for state security forces fighting violent extremists and the provision of healthcare and humanitarian supplies to communities in need may have to be diverted to deal with a widespread outbreak. Based on past experience, if this happens, we can expect jihadi groups to exploit the situation in both their narratives and operations.
Jihadi groups everywhere are opportunistic, adept at exploiting confusion and chaos to further their ideological goals. In Africa this is no different. For instance, al-Shabaab’s emergence in East Africa came amidst a power vacuum and turmoil from years of civil war in Somalia. Similarly, Ansarul Dine, a group wreaking havoc in the Sahel under the banner of Jama’a Nasr al-Islam wa al-Muslimeen (Group to Aid Islam and Muslims), hijacked confusion caused by the 2012 coup to establish its version of an Islamic state in northern Mali.
Ideologically, there are two ways in which violent Islamist groups may seek to exploit the situation. If the pandemic spreads in Muslim-majority areas, they will peddle conspiracy theories about its origins, blaming the West, Jews, and Zionists, all of whom they lump together as the “enemies of Islam.” If the spread of the pandemic is controlled and does not reach Muslim-majority areas, particularly those controlled by jihadi groups, they will frame it as divine punishment against those areas. Either way, groups claiming to fight for Islam in Africa will use the virus outbreak to recruit and radicalize fighters and justify their narratives of hate, division, and enmity. We have already seen examples of this from ISIS and al-Qaeda affiliates in other parts of the world in their coronavirus messaging.
Operationally, violent groups will try to capitalize on the situation to wreak more havoc. Many African states are already vulnerable to jihadi violence and struggling to muster the military capacity to counter extremist efforts. On March 24, Islamist extremists suspected to be part of the Islamic State in Central Africa took over a strategic port in Mozambique and hoisted their flag in what may herald the establishment of a new outpost for the so-called caliphate. On the same day, the faction of Boko Haram led by Abubakar Shekau killed ninety-two Chadian soldiers in an ambush around the Lake Chad area, and at least forty-seven Nigerian soldiers died in northeastern Nigeria in an ambush by Islamic State in West Africa (ISWA) fighters. Similarly, jihadists affiliated to al-Qaeda killed twenty-nine soldiers in Mali on March 19. As COVID-19 hits and governments re-task their military capacity to support the public health response, countries will be even more vulnerable to attacks.
To complicate matters further, this pandemic will delay the deployment of an additional 250 British troops scheduled to join the effort against violent extremists in the Sahel later this year. The British and U.S. militaries in Africa have already been reported as needing to retreat due to the health crisis. COVID-19 has pushed the effort to counter extremism down the list of priorities of Western countries, at least for the moment. This will certainly affect the war against extremist factions and allow them more space to operate.
Strategically, jihadi groups could increase their efforts to exploit humanitarian vacuums likely created by a widespread outbreak. Credible studies have found that jihadi groups in Africa seek to deliver governance services such as health and infrastructure to recruit members and build credibility with sympathizers even in normal times. In the current climate, these groups might increase service provision, stepping in where the state is failing in medical, water, and food provisions, to build popular support for their cause and proto-states.
African governments already face a tall task in responding to COVID-19, but they should remain hyper vigilant of the now greater threat posed by Islamic extremist groups.