While most of West African countries are lifting lockdown measures, we wonder how jihadists in the Sahel stood the test of COVID-19 thus far. Recently, a think tank and media narrative arguing that the pandemic outbreak is benefitting jihadist groups started to increasingly gain ground. The arguments put forward suggested that they would automatically be able to stage more attacks and recruit an increasing number of adepts given that national and international security forces would be compelled to pull back and downscale their ground operations. Also, according to UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, “Terrorist groups are taking advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic to intensify their attacks and to challenge state authority throughout the sub-region”, particularly in the Liptako-Gourma, a tri-border area between Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso, where Al-Qaeda and IS-affiliates operate.
Even if it can be claimed that the global pandemic has attracted much of policy-makers and public attention, arguing that the shift in focus from the security threats in the region is positively correlated with an increase of Al-Qaeda and ISGS attacks is somewhat a slippery slope. Analysts should be careful in differentiating the groups’ skillful propaganda narratives and rhetoric from their presumed effects.
Undoubtedly, as Sahelian jihadists have proven to be very skillful in constructing appealing messages and gathering the support of the population by exploiting states’ deficiencies, alternating coercion with protection, their propaganda machine could not refrain from riding the wave of a global pandemic. In the late March al-Naba newsletter, IS gave “Sharia guidance on dealing with epidemics” to its members, advocating not only for social distancing and hygiene measures, but also imposing its very own travel ban to Europe, inviting “the healthy not to enter the land of the epidemic and for the infected not to leave from it.” To the Islamic State, the virus is a “painful torment for all Crusader nations in the West” and it ordered its followers to “trust in God and seek refuge in him from the diseases”. Also, Al-Qaeda’s senior leadership claimed the spread of the virus to be “God’s punishment for the injustice and oppression committed against Muslims by Western governments” and invited Western citizens to convert because “Islam is a hygiene-oriented religion”, which puts great emphasis on prevention and protection from all forms of diseases. Likewise, Abubakar Shekau, the leader of the Islamic State West Africa Province’s (ISWAP) splinter group JAS, in an audio message made a mockery of containment measures and added, “don’t attempt to shift blame, it is evil that brought about this pandemic. We thank you God for this pandemic. In today’s world we pray five times, we fast, we amputate hands, we flog adulterers and we are enforcing the law”, and he called on people to repent if they don’t want to be cursed.
However, despite the jihadist central leaderships’ rhetorical call to arms to step up the attacks, the groups have not fundamentally changed their dynamics, tactics, and strategy on the ground. Thus, worth mentioning are three elements that could flesh out their ranks, if they manage to exploit the increasing popular discontent and frustration, as they have successfully done so far.
First, the International Monetary Fund in mid-April approved debt relief measures and a large disbursement of funds for emergency assistance (Mali 175 million euro; Niger, Burkina Faso and Chad around 100 million euro; Mauritania 115 million euro; Senegal 390 million euro) which will not only help to strengthen health systems and implement containment measures, but also try to mitigate the socio-economic impacts of the pandemic. The challenge will be to properly allocate these funds, so that they can effectively reach their beneficiaries, as elites’ corruption and misappropriation is a recurring phenomenon in these countries. For instance, very recently the Nigerien Ministry of Defense was involved in an embezzlement scandal estimated at more than 110 million euro between 2012 and 2018.
Secondly, despite a low number of confirmed cases, Sahelian governments modelled their containment approach on Western strategies, since mid-March enforcing border closures, curfews and partial lockdowns. Imposing such restrictions on the population which for the most part relies on the informal economy for survival created acute resentment. In addition, Niger, after having imposed a ban on all places of worship when the month of Ramadan was approaching, witnessed several demonstrations against containment measures which ended up with the arrest of more than 100 people, 10 of whom were jailed. State repression and brutality used by security forces as seen in Niger and Nigeria have always been good leverage for jihadists’ rhetoric, which thrives on sentiments of mistrust and friction between authorities and civilians.
Third, in the region in the last three months there hasn’t been a sharp increase in jihadist attacks compared to the last three years’ trend, nor can the deadliest most recent attacks be linked with the spread of the coronavirus. On the same day, in Boma, a Chadian peninsula on the Lake Chad Basin, JAS killed more than a 100 soldiers, and in Alagarno, Borno State in Nigeria, ISWAP carried out an ambush which led to the death of almost 100 soldiers, but they happened on 23 March when the case count was still extremely low. On the contrary, what is more worrisome is that recent ACLED data show an increase in violence against civilians committed by security forces in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger under the banner of countering terrorism. In the same spirit of state repression, a recent report indicates an increase of COVID-19-related violence against civilians by state forces in West Africa. So, state authorities increasingly adopting authoritarian stances skillfully seized the window of opportunity created by the pandemic to silence the opposition, suppress protests (e.g. in Niger, Nigeria, Togo, Benin, Liberia), solve contentious political issues and manipulate elections (especially in Mali, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Côte D’Ivoire, Togo, Benin), all elements that taken together can explosively feed into the narratives strengthening jihadist recruitment propaganda.
Moreover, on the one hand it is undeniable that the pandemic is having dire consequences on an already worrisome humanitarian situation, considering the nearly 2.5 million people between IDPs and refugees in Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad, and the stress their weak health systems are enduring. On the other, in these countries plus Senegal, there hasn’t been a severe outbreak compared to other regions in the world, presumably because three quarters of the population is younger than 35 years old, resulting in a total of 353 deaths out of 9,076 confirmed cases as of 5 June 2020. These numbers, though, have to be taken with a grain of salt because the true scale of infections has likely been concealed by insufficient test availability coupled with the population’s mistrust of and skepticism about health centers. For instance, in Niger and Burkina Faso people refuse to get tested as there is the widespread belief that if they go, they will be infected.
So, overall, the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on an already fragile security situation should not be underestimated as it further aggravates dire humanitarian conditions, but they cannot be understood without disentangling the different layers of contextual complexity due to the spiraling of inter- and intra-ethnic violence by self-defense militias; the revival of clashes between JNIM and ISGS in Mali and Burkina Faso while they try to consolidate their control over large pockets of territory; the abuses committed by state security forces against the civilian population; the proliferation of arms and drug trafficking; and the increased bolstering of the militarized strategy to combat terrorism in the sub-region. Thus, in this complex entanglement of security threats for civilians, probably COVID-19 is just one of the issues on their list. What is certain is that, like for all the other concerns, the pandemic will favor jihadists groups only if local governments and international actors manage to completely mishandle the situation. But only time will tell whether in the absence of appropriate responses the pandemic will have eventually benefitted jihadists. Nonetheless, durable and effective solutions to the challenges posed by the pandemic, but also to the broader security crisis, depend on good governance, nurturing peaceful inter- and intra-community relations and re-establishing political trust in local and national authorities.