It’s Way Too Soon to Tell Whether COVID-19 Will Benefit Jihadists (And Here’s a Few Reasons It Might Not)

Amid the pandemic, there has been a spate of commentary arguing that the Islamic State, al-Qaida, and other jihadist groups stand to benefit from the disruptions COVID-19 is causing (see here, here, here, and here for examples). Here’s how the argument runs: strong states will pull back on counterterrorism campaigns, and weak states will see further erosions in stability and governance. Some states are also increasing repression amid lockdowns, with security forces exhibiting the precise kinds of behaviors that research suggests drive much jihadist recruitment.

There is merit to these arguments about the benefits jihadists may reap – but it is way too soon to tell. Attacks in recent weeks, for example Boko Haram’s killing of ninety-two Chadian soldiers in late March, cannot be convincingly attributed to the pandemic. And there are reasons to think that COVID-19 could hurt jihadists too.

First, youthfulness will not necessarily protect jihadists’ ranks. In settings without mass testing and without strong public health systems, the virus has sometimes taken a significant toll on people under fifty. Jihadists, young and old, may also have comorbidities due to battlefield injuries and years of poor diet and limited access to healthcare. And not all jihadists are young – al-Qaida’s formal leader Ayman al-Zahawiri, for example, is sixty-eight. When and if the virus spreads to jihadist groups, fighters with severe symptoms will face the difficult choice of suffering alone or leaving their hideouts to seek care. Top leaders could struggle to find treatment without being recognized, and ordinary fighters may find – even if they do not arouse suspicion when arriving at hospitals and clinics, which they very well might – that the health systems in their areas are overwhelmed. For example, even though the reported cases in Yemen and Libya are low, experts have sounded the alarm about how the pandemic could shatter what remains of those countries’ health infrastructures.

Second, severe outbreaks could expose the hollow and brittle character of jihadists’ “shadow governance.” In some areas, jihadists have elaborated relatively sophisticated systems of political and economic sway – for example, drawing rents from gold mining and other activities in eastern Burkina Faso – yet these systems have very limited public health components. Jihadists’ relationships with organizations such as Doctors Without Borders are also often shaky at best, and some humanitarian agencies are being forced to pull back amid the outbreak. If COVID-19 begins to ravage communities under jihadists’ sway, sufferers may not find much help from those outfits – and the incipient social contracts between communities and jihadists may take a hit. As with famines, jihadists’ responses may make the pandemic even worse – and may cost those organizations support among civilians. Meanwhile, states who move swiftly to offer services and manage lockdowns in non-repressive ways may even find that they can repair some of the trust deficits that have festered in recent years (a long shot, I know, but possible). And as the economic toll mounts from the virus and the attendant lockdowns, people may vote with their feet – and not necessarily by flocking to jihadist-dominated zones. Or, in one of the grimmest scenarios imaginable, states may harness the virus as a quiet but lethal bioweapon, blockading jihadist-dominated zones to weaken both jihadist organizations and the wider populations of perceived “enemy civilians.”

Third, jihadists’ narratives may resonate even less with ordinary Muslims than before. There has been no shortage of jihadist propaganda responding to the virus and its effects, but a few competing and overlapping dynamics are at work in the wider religious arena. One is that jihadists by no means have a monopoly on depicting the virus as divine punishment, promoting conspiracy theories about the virus’ alleged Western origins, or calling on Muslims to be more pious. Another dynamic is that many Muslim scholars around the world are redoubling their efforts to reach constituents online or through other media, meaning that media environments are saturated with religious messages as never before. The scholars championing strong public health precautions are often making extremely sophisticated textual arguments, and their higher degree of learning is often on full display in contrast with those who are resistant to public health precautions; jihadists, in other words, may be outcompeted in a real-time competition to display scholarly mastery, in a context where jihadists cannot necessarily fall back on their core messages as easily as before. Yet another dynamic is that with reminders of mortality now so vivid and ever-present, the appeal of calls for ascetic orientations toward the afterlife may grow even among some of jihadists’ potential audiences. The ways that the pandemic may reshape Muslim religiosity has yet to be seen, as events unprecedented in any living Muslim’s lifetime, from Ramadan under lockdown to a year (likely) without hajj, are playing out.

Fourth, states may consider repression, for better or mostly for worse, an “essential” activity. This means that, as in Chad, even the poorest states may still mount forceful responses to jihadist challenges. That kind of state repression certainly drives jihadist recruitment, as noted above, but it is not inherently proof that COVID-19 will benefit jihadists. Meanwhile, as noted above, some states appear keen to repress other perceived challenges – opposition parties and critics, independent journalists and NGOs, and both violent and nonviolent protesters. Such repression could benefit jihadists, if jihadists position themselves as the champions of popular frustration; but state repression of dissidents could also give states more latitude to respond to jihadist attacks, for example if elections are delayed and local media fall silent. Meanwhile, security forces are highly vulnerable to the spread of the virus within their own personnel – but the virus is not, in various ways, an equalizer, and states may be able to provide better care to their sick soldiers and police than jihadists can provide to their sick fighters.

In sum, many of the dynamics that analysts assume will benefit jihadists could actually cut both ways. In the longer term, meanwhile, we may all emerge from COVID-19 into a more securitized world of enhanced tracking of mobile phones, widespread temperature checks, and recurring lockdowns. Those processes will likely gain more purchase in wealthy nations than in poor and fragile ones, but even poor countries may be reshaped by such a future. It is true that jihadists have survived and sometimes thrived even amid intensive surveillance and manhunts, but the post-COVID – or COVID-endemic – world may bring surveillance to a new level that pushes jihadists even further toward the peripheries.

Finally, on a meta level, it is worth noting where the warnings about jihadists are coming from – mostly from the various think tanks for whom conflict analysis is a core coverage area. Although there were terrorism analysts before 9/11, since those attacks there has been a massively profitable industry dedicated to sustaining the idea that terrorism is the central threat to the United States, Europe, and the world. Representatives of that industry can be relied upon to regularly wax alarmist about jihadism no matter what is happening in the world. Some of the analysts warning now about pandemic-emboldened jihadists, it can be assumed, are doing so on the basis of their honest assessments of the situation in different countries – but other analysts may be looking more to their own bottom line, now potentially threatened as public fear turns from terrorism to disease.

Comments on the CNESS Study on Youth Radicalization in Niger

In June of this year, Niger’s Centre National d’Études Stratégiques et du Sécurité (National Center for Strategic Studies and Security, CNESS) released a study on youth radicalization. (See also this article from Sahelien).

On reading the study, one immediately confronts two things: (1) it is based on some really impressive and expansive research and (2) it is quite explicitly stamped as a product bearing the approval of the Nigerien government, European governments, and the National Democratic Institute. One can admire the report’s occasional frankness about corruption and other governance issues, but one can also question how independent the analysis was.

Regarding the quality of the research, as Sahelien lays out, the report is based on 2,376 interviews with youth and 25 focus groups involving a total of 250 leaders and key informants. The report covers five regions of Niger (Diffa, Niamey, Tahoua, Tillabery, and Zinder) and a variety of different settings: cities, villages, universities, prisons. One critical finding from the report is that urban youth actually appear less susceptible to radicalization than rural youth – a finding that parallels a growing literature on rural jihadism in the Sahel.

But regarding the question of analytical independence, right from the forward one can see the intersection of official voices and perspectives in framing the report: CNESS is a government center, headed by a brigadier general, Ibra Boulama Issa, who thanks Nigerien President Mahamadou Issoufou in the forward. Issa also acknowledges funding from the governments of Norway and Denmark, routed through the National Democratic Institute, a Washington-based NGO that receives considerable U.S. government funding.

None of this is problematic per se, except that one should note how smoothly the report fits into existing narratives about youth radicalization in the Sahel or the Muslim world writ large. The categories used, the categories that shape the analysis, are drawn heavily from the kinds of liberal-technocratic frameworks that lie at the heart of most “countering violent extremism” (CVE) programs. To me, the basic problem with such frameworks is that they depoliticize jihadism and treat it as a kind of epidemic that just needs to be diagnosed and cured with apolitical remedies. CVE also approaches religion in terms of, as G. Willow Wilson recently and eloquently put it, “social engineering strategies.” But these strategies often target wide swaths of people who have not engaged in violence. It’s also a bit disturbing to think about how the Sahel – some of the poorest countries in the world – has become a kind of laboratory for CVE, with processes managed from Washington through the medium of local states and their technocrats.

To hear Sahelian voices speaking the language of CVE no longer surprises me; at one meeting on youth and radicalization in Nouakchott in fall 2017, for example, I was struck by how closely the conversation resembled meetings I had attended in Washington. Virtually the only differences were the nationalities of the participants and the fact that the meeting was conducted in French instead of English.

This report, too, reads like a standard-issue Washington think tank report on CVE. On p. 6, for example, a table shows four “vulnerability factors” affecting non-university youth: ignorance/misunderstanding of the laws of the republic, ignorance/misunderstanding of the Qur’an, unemployment, and illiteracy. The text then adds two more “push factors,” to use a loose translation: feelings of injustice and feelings that public resources are badly governed/managed.

Then we find hard numbers attached to these categories. 93%-96% of youth in rural areas who have studied the Qur’an, we learn, misunderstand it, while 95% misunderstand or are ignorant of the laws of the republic. But what do these numbers mean?

It’s hard to tell, in part because the report uses categories in a vague and problematic way.  The definitions given on pp. 12-13, especially for “radicalization” and “violent extremism,” rest on the idea that radicalization involves breaking with majority societal viewpoints on key questions, and that violent extremism entails using violence “to defend political, ideological, religious, ethnocentric, or racist ideas that are very far from what the majority of people judge to be correct.” This vagueness is misleading, in that the report is essentially about jihadism rather than about, say, racism.

The vagueness also represents a step back from the USAID-funded Overseas Development Institute study of radicalization in Agadez from 2017, where the authors rightly called attention (p. 6) to a few crucial points, namely:

  • authorities and civil society actors had no consensus on what radicalization or violent extremism meant, and some (if I’m reading the report right) were just as concerned about arms trafficking, drug trafficking, and money laundering as they were about jihadism, and
  • many interviewees favored the imposition of sharia (as they defined it, of course) and viewed democracy as easily corruptible, and these interviewees’ views were in line with available survey results about the overall preferences of Nigeriens regarding sharia.

To go back to the CNESS study then, and to engage in a bit of reductio ad absurdem, would a violent extremist in the context of Niger, according to their definition of radicalization as ideas that go against majority views, be someone ready to use violence in the service of secularism?

My real concern is not with the definitions, but rather with the way that these definitions and the overall language of the report – and many other similar products – seem to frame large numbers of people’s views as inherently dangerous and problematic regardless of whether people have engaged in, or are likely to engage in, violence. There is an analytical problem here in that jihadist violence, from everything I have read and observed, seems to grow out of specific and combustible situations rather than out of generic and widespread vulnerabilities and push factors.

And if there is an analytical problem, then there is also a policy problem, in that the consumers of the report risk casting too wide a net when attempting to deradicalize people. More specifically, they risk demonizing and harassing people who have not and likely will not commit violence. These concerns are not just mine – they also seem to have been shared by some of the communities the research team approached, especially in rural areas, where the researchers note that they encountered significant reluctance among those they hoped to interview (pp. 19-20).

What, then, are the real policy implications of such reports – and of worldviews that see wide swaths of Sahelian populations (or, let’s be honest, Muslim populations generally) as needing reform? The report’s recommendations (starting on p. 96) have mix of policies that I think are good ideas (most of which boil down to public sector employment programs for youth, especially rural youth) and policies that I think are questionable. On the latter side are some of the recommendations on p. 98, which envision enlisting religious leaders (“marabouts”) to teach youth about how to interpret the Qur’an and conceive of citizenship, tolerance, etc. This is perhaps innocuous, but I am concerned about the conceptual logics underpinning this proposal – the idea that youth come to jihadism through certain Qur’anic verses, rather than through, again, specific circumstances. In short, promoting public sector employment is good, but social engineering (especially at this crude level of generalization) is problematic. Moreover, I find this type of thinking (“let’s get the marabouts to teach the youth how to understand the Qur’an!”) reflects larger, and equally problematic assumptions about how conflict-torn societies work – namely, the assumption that there are untapped religious leaders, “customary authorities,” and “tribal leaders” waiting in the wings to solve all of the problems, if only someone would listen to them.





Amplifying and Extending Martha Crenshaw’s Recommendation for Peace Talks with al-Qaida and the Islamic State

In September, Stanford’s Martha Crenshaw – a longtime expert on terrorism – published an essay in Foreign Policy arguing that the time has come for peace talks with al-Qaida and the Islamic State. The idea of talks is not new, but it is important.

Here is a key excerpt:

Given jihadis’ adaptability and diffusion, options to combat them with force are limited. One alternative is to try to solve the root causes of the problem by removing the conditions that make jihad attractive. But even if the multiple political, economic, and social causes of violence could be identified, addressing them is a costly endeavor requiring a good deal of patience and persistence. The current U.S. administration seems to have little of either.


The bottom line is that a military defeat of the Islamic State in Syria and even in Iraq would not mean the end of terrorism and extremism. The Islamic State has vowed to continue its struggle and has called for attacks in the West. And al Qaeda and its network of allies stand to benefit from the downfall of their preeminent rival in the Middle East. Most of the underlying problems that led to the ascendance of jihadi organizations, meanwhile, persist. There is no simple answer to dealing with such a complex, expansive, and volatile threat. But it is worth considering all options, including negotiations with selected parties.

From what I can tell, the piece did not get much attention, but the comments it did get ran strongly in a negative/critical direction (these include comments on the article itself, although these comments are barely worth reading, and comments on Twitter). As someone in broad agreement with Crenshaw, I’d like to respond to some of the criticisms and then flesh out what talks might entail – because my own critique of Crenshaw’s piece is that it does not give enough detail about what talks would look like.

One kind of criticism was faux-shocked dismissiveness. That kind of criticism, I think, is barely worth engaging; seventeen years into the War on Terror, the burden should be on proponents of the status quo to defend it. Unorthodox ideas deserve, at the least, a fair hearing and a reasoned rebuttal.

Another kind of criticism was the argument that talks “would bestow legitimacy on groups that the vast majority of locals abhor” and that it is “far better to address the deep grievances that drive people to join them in the first place.” But Crenshaw has already pointed out – and the evidence is firmly on her side – that “address[ing] deep grievances” is difficult in analytical terms, costly in financial and military terms, and requires patience in terms of timelines, policy continuity, and political will. Crenshaw is talking about policy options predicated on the obvious likelihood that “deep grievances” will not go away any time soon.

The idea of “legitimacy” is also backwards, on multiple levels. If one wants to be a gritty realist, then legitimacy does not matter – what matters is the advancement of core interests. At present, I would argue, the War on Terror is an unsustainable drain on resources and an unsuccessful venture with dim prospects for a turnaround. Severe conflicts around the world have not been remedied through the War on Terror framework, and that framework has in some cases caused and/or exacerbated conflict.

If one wants to talk about legitimacy, though, or about moral standing, then I would actually argue that the United States and other Western powers could increase their legitimacy by displaying a willingness to talk to jihadists. First of all, we would show that we are unafraid of hearing anyone’s perspective, including perspectives that are sharply critical of American/Western foreign policy. We would show that we are confident enough in our own moral stature that we will meet with anyone, any time, and see whether we have any common ground with them.

Second, an offer to talk would go a long ways toward undercutting jihadists’ self-presentation as a revolutionary, anti-systemic force in the contemporary world. Under current policy, by insisting that jihadists are and must be outside of all mainstream politics, the U.S. ends up inadvertently reinforcing jihadists’ image as revolutionary actors, and even inadvertently reinforcing their romantic appeal to some of their recruits. If, instead, we offered to negotiate with them, we could in effect say, “You are no different than other violent actors who have come before you. We see nothing special about you. Whenever you want to talk, we will talk, and until you are ready to make peace we will fight you, whether we are talking or not.”

Another line of criticism toward Crenshaw’s argument came from International Crisis Group’s Sam Heller. In a Twitter thread, Heller fixated on Crenshaw’s skepticism toward military solutions – but Heller ultimately didn’t take a clear position on whether to negotiate or not, and so he just ended up muddying the waters. He concluded, “Military force alone can’t deliver holistic, lasting solutions. But it seems incorrect to dismiss it totally.” Heller misrepresents Crenshaw’s position here; she does not “dismiss [military force] totally,” but rather says essentially what Heller says about it. Again, Heller’s phrasing is that “military force alone can’t deliver holistic, lasting solutions”; Crenshaw’s phrasing is that “more often than not, moreover, outside intervention ends an immediate crisis but leaves unresolved or even exacerbates the underlying problems that brought it about.” Heller is right, in his thread, to question the high number Crenshaw gives for the Islamic State’s remaining fighters in Iraq, but none of the issues he raises make much of a dent in her core argument.

My own take on Crenshaw’s piece is broad agreement, but also a desire for a more precise articulation of what negotiations might look like. So it’s worth disaggregating the idea of negotiations and offering a few possibilities:

  1. Direct negotiations between the United States and jihadists with the aim of forestalling further attacks on the United States.
  2. U.S. (or European, etc.) rhetorical and logistical support for negotiations between another government and that country’s jihadists.
  3. U.S. (or French, British, etc.) non-interference in efforts by another government to negotiate with that country’s jihadists.
  4. U.S. pressure on another government to turn that government’s secret deals with jihadists into public negotiations/agreements.

Once you disaggregate the proposal, it becomes easier to discuss, evaluate, and implement. So, in terms of #1, I think that it would be a good idea to appoint a U.S. Special Envoy for Non-State Actors (and to proclaim a willingness to talk with anyone, any time). But I actually think the most room for progress right now is with #2 and #3. There are voices out there who favor negotiations between their own governments and jihadists, but whose proposals have been essentially shot down by Western governments (this was the case when France publicly dismissed Malian civil society calls for the Malian government to negotiate with Malian jihadists).

I think too that more explicit Western support for negotiations could help with #4. If we support third-party negotiations or at least don’t stand in the way, that would signal to governments who already deal with jihadists that it’s time to bring those deals out into the open. Openness, in turn, would allow publics to weigh in and would make geopolitics and local politics more transparent.

After all, it’s one thing for analysts to debate “whether we should negotiate with jihadists” – but it’s another thing to really grapple with the policy ramifications of something like the Associated Press article on Yemen from this August. That article asserted the existence of deals between the Saudi and Emirati governments on the one side, and al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula on the other. The same article asserted that “key participants in the pacts said the U.S. was aware of the arrangements and held off on any drone strikes.” So let’s not kid ourselves into thinking that the United States and its entirely wholesome partners are locked in a battle of good and evil with jihadists. In the real world, politics is a mess and neither we nor are partners are as wholesome as one would like. In that world, do you prefer secret deals or public deals? I would take the latter.

Mauritania, Islamism, Jihadism, and the Internet

Magharebia published an article several days ago about Mauritanian youth and jihadist websites:

Since the As-Sahab Foundation, al-Jahafel, al-Andalus Media and other websites linked to al-Qaeda organisations are now readily accessible throughout the capital city, parents have begun monitoring their children’s activities and online friendships.

“I noticed a change in my son,” Alnina Mint Al-Nahi, tells Magharebia about 16-year-old Al-Saalek. “Especially in his daily addiction to watching religious channels, to the point of becoming furious when we wanted to watch news or entertainment programmes. He even accused us as being misguided,” the 52-year-old says.

“Facing my son’s hard-line behaviour, I decided to remove the television from the house once and for all, and that led him to replace it with an addiction to internet cafes,” she continues. “This is causing me to fear his falling into the hands of extremist groups.”

In the Arafat neighbourhood of Nouakchott, many young people endure idleness and poverty. And this makes them particularly susceptible to online recruiters.

The whole article is worth reading.

The argument that poverty leads to extremism is widely debated, but let’s leave it aside in favor of another issue: the relationship between non-violent Islamism and violent jihadism.Mauritania has both, which makes it a relevant case study.

It is interesting that the article singles out Arafat as a center for jihadist recruitment. Arafat is the neighborhood that elected Jamil Mansour as its mayor in 2001; Mansour is today Mauritania’s leading Islamist politician. Mansour and his fellow mainstream Islamist leaders denounce jihadi violence, and it is tempting to conclude that in a neighborhood where political Islam is clearly a force, Islamism is a (the most?) compelling and constructive alternative to jihadism for youth. In other words, the youth reached by Mansour’s Tewassoul party may be less likely to join jihadi movements than the politically unaffiliated.

This is speculation, and I would need data to back the theory up. But the point is that Islamism is not necessarily the first step to extremism. For many it can be a completely different path.