The Deadly Combination of Coronavirus and Terrorism

Groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda attempting to take advantage of pandemic to harm Western interests

A BURNED vehicle is seen during clashes between Iraqi security forces and ISIS in Mosul in 2014.  (photo credit: REUTERS)
A BURNED vehicle is seen during clashes between Iraqi security forces and ISIS in Mosul in 2014.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
It has hit soft targets around the world, attacking and killing at nightmarish rates.

At any other time that would be an apt description for a leading terrorist organization. Today, of course, we are speaking of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus that has wreaked havoc across the globe.

Despite the pandemic, terrorists are trying to take use the resulting chaos to their benefit. In fact, with so many people home and on the Internet all day, jihadist groups see this as an opportunity for recruitment and radicalization.

“While we cannot comment on specifics, terrorist groups like ISIS, al-Qaida and others will take advantage of whatever tools and opportunities they perceive in order to harm the United States and its allies,” a senior State Department official told The Media Line on condition of anonymity.

According to Thomas Joscelyn, executive director of the Center for Law and Counter-terrorism at the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), al-Qaida's senior leadership released a five-plus page statement calling on civilians in Western nations to convert to Islam during the coronavirus pandemic.

“Al-Qaida portrays the virus as Allah's retribution, arguing that the West is immoral and [in decline]" he told The Media Line.  "Therefore, according to the group, Western citizens should convert to Islam which is supposedly superior with respect to hygiene and morality.”
Yoram Schweitzer of the Tel Aviv-based Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) believes that Salafist-jihadist organizations are outright mocking the West for its supposed weakness and ignorance.

“Al-Qaida and Islamic State have emphasized the futile reliance by the West on its economic might,” Schweitzer, a former senior military intelligence officer in Israel, told The Media Line. The FDD's Joscelyn noted that “Shabaab, al-Qaida's branch in East Africa, blames African forces for supposedly spreading the virus throughout the region and claims it is providing educational instruction to Somalis concerning how to deal with it.

“This is an example of how Shabaab is attempting to portray itself as a responsible governing body," he continued. "The Taliban is doing the same thing in Afghanistan, releasing photos and statements on COVID-19 that are intended to [enhance] its legitimacy as an Islamic emirate.
Meanwhile, ISIS has called for more attacks in the West during the pandemic, telling followers this is a good chance to "regroup and plan new operations.”

With governments, military and intelligence agencies allocating massive amounts of resources to the defeat of coronavirus, there is some concern that they could drop the ball regarding terrorist threats.
 
“Even as the United States confronts the COVID-19 pandemic, [the Trump Administration] is taking steps to guard against the danger posed by ISIS, al-Qaeida, and other terrorist groups,” the State Department official explained. “We are encouraging our partners and allies in the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS and other multilateral counter-terrorism groups to maintain their vital
international cooperation to the greatest extent possible in the current environment.”  
 
But some have highlighted the difficulties of operating in the prevailing conditions.
“There is already pressure within the West to complete the pivot away from fighting the jihadis and COVID-19 certainly doesn't alleviate that," said the FDD's Joscelyn. "If anything, it contributes to it. ISIS even pointed to the fact that Western governments don't want to send troops into faraway lands affected by the virus.”
Nevertheless, the pathogen does not discriminate and thus terrorists are also susceptible to the contagion.
“Jihadist are being instructed to be prudent, cautious and take seriously the impact of coronavirus, looking to the model of the Prophet Muhammad,” said the INSS's Schweitzer.
"Muhammad was an early progenitor of restricting travel and quarantining in cases of infectious disease, teaching not to enter a land under plague.
“Salafists aren't immune to problems of pandemics," Schweitzer emphasized, "and one shouldn't expect a [big rise] in terrorist activities except the ones that are happening anyway in Africa and the Middle East. The public is the main target of these types of attacks, and if they are not out in the streets, at malls and on airplanes, then there are few targets to strike.”

Indeed, last month there were only four recorded acts of global terrorism – none of them against Western nations – and only two were confirmed to have been carried out by jihadist organizations.
 
This is compared to 12 worldwide terrorist attacks in February, including four against Western targets. Four of the assaults were perpetrated by known jihadist groups.

Overall, then, the coronavirus may be doing to populations what terrorists have long failed to achieve: that is, to keep people in a constant state of fear so that their way of life becomes disrupted.