As the novel coronavirus was spreading like a bushfire throughout China, Iran and Europe, the pandemic couldn’t go unnoticed by the media apparatus of jihadi groups like the Islamic State (IS). A first reaction by the group was to define it as divine punishment for crimes against Muslims. China was hit first, in IS’ view as punishment for its ongoing crimes against its Uyghur population. When Iran followed, the reaction was that it was the nation’s devious interpretation of Islam that led to this onslaught. Shi’a Islam has always been regarded as a deviant sect, one that even stands outside the realms of Islam as such (at least perceived so by the Islamic State). And then when Europe and the US were hit, the explanation was that God punished the “crusader states” for their crimes against Islam throughout the Middle East.
In mid-March 2020 IS published a first report on the spread of the virus in its weekly news broadcast an-Naba’. Without actually referring to the pandemic as such or even naming the virus, the group’s media outlet shared some advice on how to deal with it. Under the title "Shari'i directives to deal with epidemics” the Islamic State provided its followers with some general guidelines on how to cope with the pandemic:
- Trust in the fact that illness only comes by the decree of God
- Put trust in God
- Don’t interact with sick people
- Don’t travel to the lands inflected with the disease
- Cover your mouth when yawning or sneezing
- Cover your food and water carefully so it doesn’t get infected
- Wash your hands regularly
All of this advice is based on Ahadith, the alleged doings and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad; a full translation of this first report has been translated by Aymenn al-Tamimi and is available here.
Over time the discourse changed slightly. Whereas they first never spoke explicitly about a virus or a pandemic, that changed in a later editorial published in an-Naba’. In the first paragraph the Islamic State stresses that the disease mainly strikes the infidels and crusaders, they pray to God to save the believers from this ordeal. Secondly, the authors refer to the fact that Western police and security forces and even army personnel are currently preoccupied in dealing with the pandemic and the extra security measures involved. They perceive this as an opportunity to engage in attacks and “spread (…) chaos and agitation”.
This is a clear referral to an older strategy followed by jihadist groups worldwide; “The Management of Savagery” (or Chaos) as described by an al-Qaeda ideologue (Abu Bakr Naji) in the early 2000s. According to this theory, failed or failing states are to be targeted, the chaos and mayhem that comes with the pandemic should be exploited. And this situation would be exactly what the Islamic State aims for; police, security forces and even armies are involved in combating the virus and leaving soft spots open for targeting by IS operatives.
We see this in the amount of attacks claimed by the Islamic State since the virus started spreading from China. On April 17, 2020, a month after a lockdown was enforced in the Philippines, IS operatives attacked a military convoy in Sulu and killed 11 soldiers. There were also attacks in the Maldives and in Mozambique, places that until then had been spared the terror of the Islamic State. In Mozambique they engaged in a brutal attack on a village in Cabo Delgado, one of the poorest provinces of the country; 52 civilians were killed. The images and footage that were posted on social media were reminiscent of the massacres in Ruanda in the 1990s; people were hacked to death with machetes and subsequently cut to pieces. The overall rate of attacks throughout Syria and Iraq has also increased dramatically since April as we see in the numbers reported by Aaron Zelin.
IS made a huge leap in claimed attacks in April compared to prior months in Iraq and Syria:
Map is for April. pic.twitter.com/ZQGxlhRrH7
— Aaron Y. Zelin (@azelin) May 1, 2020
But in other parts of the world the attacks also increased. In Africa, for example, the amount and impact of attacks in the Lake Chad region drastically increased. On a weekly, almost daily, basis IS claims attacks on the Nigerian army, some of them with a dramatic outcome for the country’s military forces. One attack for example, claimed on May 4, 2020, was conducted on a Nigerian army base near the border with Niger. In their claim IS media operatives said they killed a number of soldiers, captured some of their vehicles and ultimately burned the camp to the ground. Claims like these are often hard to verify but the amount is most definitely on the rise.
When Ramadan started on April 24, 2020 everyone who has been tracking jihadist insurgencies knew that the number of attacks would only rise. Traditionally for jihadi groups the holy month of Ramadan is not only a month of fasting and contemplation but above all a month of battle. In the past few years we saw an exponential rise of attacks during Ramadan. An effect that surely plays its role in this year’s insurgency as well. It remains to be seen whether the pandemic actually helps the Islamic State to regain its former strength or if this is just a temporary uptick unrelated to the virus. However, it seems safe to say that the Islamic State is back with a vengeance.
The views, opinions, and thoughts expressed in this article belong solely to the author, and do not necessarily reflect the position of ISPI or the Italian Ministry for Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation