See part one here, where I lay out a few reasons to be skeptical of the now widespread media/think tank narrative saying COVID-19 benefits jihadists. I’m going to revisit this as necessary because I think the narrative is still very flawed. It’s still too soon to tell.
For example, last week saw a piece from the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) entitled “Extremist Groups Stepping up Operations during the Covid-19 Outbreak in Sub-Saharan Africa.”
The piece opens with a seemingly strong argument, seemingly backed by data:
Sub-Saharan African extremist groups are poised to make strategic gains during the Covid-19 outbreak, outmaneuvering distracted and overstretched domestic and foreign security forces. Violent attacks in the region’s hotspots rose by 37 percent between mid-March and mid-April, according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) database, and groups have begun to release pandemic-related propaganda. Meanwhile, African states—like governments worldwide—are shifting military resources to the pandemic response, potentially undercutting counterterrorism operations.
On closer examination, though, there are problems:
- The individual attacks and incidents discussed in the piece don’t fit the supposed pattern. In one paragraph, the authors cite three incidents: the March 19 attack on a Malian army base; the March 25 kidnapping of Malian opposition politician Soumaïla Cissé; and the March 22-23 attack by Boko Haram on Chad. At the time of all of these incidents, however, confirmed case counts in Mali, Nigeria, and Chad were very low. Mali didn’t even confirm its first two cases under March 25; Nigeria’s first confirmed case was reported on February 27, but Nigeria only reported its first COVID death on March 23; and Chad’s first official case was on March 19. One could make the argument that the global pandemic and/or the response to it was already emboldening jihadists and constraining security responses in the Sahel and the Lake Chad Basin by mid-March, but I think even that is a tough sell. When we look at the kidnapping of Cissé, moreover, it could arguably be blamed not on jihadists being emboldened by the pandemic but on Malian authorities’ decision to press ahead with legislative elections despite the pandemic – Cissé was kidnapped while campaigning in the ultra-dangerous southern Timbuktu Region. And the reality may be even murkier than that; one account (French) says that Cissé had actually brokered a deal with local jihadists to campaign in their area, but was then kidnapped by a rival jihadist group. Assessing the causal role of COVID-19 in any of these incidents is pretty difficult, to say the least, and there are a lot of grounds for blaming other factors.
- The trend lines were already bad. The ACLED numbers quoted by the authors sound bad, but they do not unpack them – and they do not contextualize them. 2017-2019 were already very bad and worsening years for Mali and Burkina Faso, and the Boko Haram/ISWAP insurgency in northeastern Nigeria/Lake Chad has been quite bad for some time as well. A 37% jump in violent attacks sounds bad (and again, the authors don’t unpack this – attacks by whom?), but consider that Burkina Faso had a 25% jump in displacements from January to February 2020, or that there was a roughly 57% increase between December 2019 and January 2020 in what the Council on Foreign Relations’ Nigeria Security Tracker calls “incidents” in the Boko Haram conflict – meaning, to put it less dramatically, that there were 19 incidents in December and 30 in January. So for one thing, the numbers concerning attacks, deaths, and displacements are just bad all around; and for another, there is significant variation in levels of attacks even without a pandemic around. Certainly COVID-19 must be having an impact on these conflict zones, but in complex ways and in combination with other factors.
- Jihadist governance can be brittle. I wrote this in the last post, but it’s worth revisiting here. The authors argue that jihadist propaganda and service delivery will win them support while governments stumble. But it is not at all clear that jihadists are skilled at managing humanitarian emergencies – in fact, they often create humanitarian emergencies around them, and many, many people simply flee jihadist control. The authors of the CSIS piece write, “Al-Shabaab, for example, took advantage of the famine in Somalia three years ago to publish photos of its fighters distributing food and medical supplies to needy families, blaming the crisis on regional and international governments.” But this is not evidence of success, it is only evidence of propaganda; meanwhile, various experts have argued that al-Shabab grossly mismanaged the 2011 famine in Somalia. Here is one quote from a study: “Al-Shabaab has poorly managed the famine crises. The Famine Early Warning Systems (FEWS) has declared that the crisis broke in several southern regions of Somalia. Al-Shabaab had expelled most of the intergovernmental and non-governmental relief organizations. They have also denied that there was a famine in the country. As a result, hundreds of thousands of people were forced to seek food and shelter in TFG- controlled Mogadishu and neighboring countries such as Ethiopia and Kenya. To the victims, al-Shabaab was complicit in their suffering” (emphasis added, because that’s a crucial point – jihadists’ propaganda can be clumsy, it’s not always masterful). If jihadists botch their pandemic response through inflexibility, lying, and harsh treatment of civilians, it could be a setback for them in various ways.
- African militaries are not necessarily pulling back yet. Here, the authors seem to conflate possibilities with actualities. They write, “A memo from Nigeria’s army headquarters called on soldiers to be on ‘maximum security alert and be ready for deployment’ and suspended leave passages for all personnel.” But suspending leaves doesn’t mean that counterterrorism is slackening (it might be, it might not be!). A glance at the Nigerian Army’s Facebook page shows them heralding supposed counterterrorism successes as recently as April 29. There are a lot of competing claims and counter-claims to sort out when it comes to the Nigerian military’s own propaganda, obviously, but one shouldn’t assume that militaries will pull back. In fact, recently there have been several excellent (and disturbing) Twitter threads (see below) from experts pointing to patterns of severe and persistent security force abuses in the Sahel. Will CSIS write a piece arguing that COVID-19 is emboldening security forces to commit abuses? It seems to me you could make that case just as easily as the case that the pandemic is emboldening jihadists.
- International forces are not yet pulling back majorly. The authors even note this themselves, despite the title of the relevant section of their piece – and furthermore, Irish troops coming back from peacekeeping in Mali, and the British suspending a training mission in Kenya, do not add up to a major shift. And as I said in the last piece, it’s way too soon to tell with some of these supposed trends. And one might even wonder whether international forces pulling back a bit – say, if AFRICOM did ease up on drone strikes – might not improve the overall situation a bit in Somalia and elsewhere.
- The policy recommendations are thin and predictable. “Enhance civilian outreach,” “uplift religious leaders,” and “exploit insurgent missteps.” None of these ideas are new, and there is a particularly unfortunate line saying “Somali imams and teachers, in collaboration with Somali government ministries, have been broadcasting best practices for staying safe during the pandemic—tying them to Koranic dictates.” The authors act surprised that imams would try to keep people safe (!), and act as though this basic function of religious leaders should be harnessed to some kind of counterterrorism agenda. But most Muslim clerics around the world have been trying to protect their co-religionists (and their societies more broadly) while remaining true to their visions of what authentic Islam is. In fact, it’s probably better to let religious leaders speak for themselves rather than trying to “uplift” them, because there are substantial dangers into trying to fashion clerics into the mouthpieces of some kind of “official Islam” – governments trying to co-opt clerics can even inadvertently undercut them. Finally, one irony in the “exploit insurgent missteps” is that the point the authors are making is both obvious and in some instances already happening. The authors write, “if extremists attempt to launch operations beyond their capabilities and overextend themselves, security forces should retaliate, hitting poorly defended bases and safe havens.” This is effectively what Chad has done, although there are real limits to what Chad’s offensive is likely to accomplish. In any event, it’s odd that if the authors consider the situation so scary, that they didn’t put more effort into the policy recommendations.
Relevant Twitter threads on security force abuses: