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.