ISIS and COVID-19

While the world struggles with the coronavirus pandemic, some seem to be benefitting from it. Daesh, a terrorist group which has habitually thrived amidst chaos, is one such beneficiary. There have been signs of the group’s resurgence in Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Europe: in April, for example, Daesh executed numerous attacks in Iraq, the Philippines and France. It seems increasingly that Daesh is using COVID-19 to rebound from the loss of its territorial base and leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, in 2019. This article explores Daesh’s perceptions and interpretations of the virus, and examines how the group has taken advantage of a global pandemic for its own purpose.

This article was written by Constantin Ghika, a staff writer for Shield. Constantin is an undergraduate student in the department of War Studies at King’s College London. The multicultural environment in which he grew up (his mother is French and his father is Romanian), as well as his family’s military background, gave him a passion for international defence and security issues. His favourite topics are insurgency, counter-insurgency, terrorism, nuclear weapons, military strategy and military history, among others. In his free time, Constantin enjoys reading, playing video games and doing sports.

While the world struggles with the coronavirus pandemic, some seem to be benefitting from it. Daesh, a terrorist group which has habitually thrived amidst chaos, is one such beneficiary. There have been signs of the group’s resurgence in Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Europe: in April, for example, Daesh executed numerous attacks in Iraq, the Philippines and France. It seems increasingly that Daesh is using COVID-19 to rebound from the loss of its territorial base and leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, in 2019. This article explores Daesh’s perceptions and interpretations of the virus, and examines how the group has taken advantage of a global pandemic for its own purpose.

Daesh interprets the pandemic as divine intervention, simultaneously a blessing for the group and punishment against those it perceives as enemies of Islam. This is in keeping with historical precedent: Salafi Jihadists have often interpreted natural disasters as divine punishment and a legitimisation of their fight. (For example, in 2005, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, declared that Hurricane Katrina was divine punishment for America’s involvement there.) When COVID-19 erupted in China, Daesh called it punishment for China’s persecution of the Uyghurs. After it spread from Iran to Iraq, Daesh blamed Shia Muslims and declared the outbreak a sign that Shiites should abandon their polytheist version of Islam in favour of Daesh’s ‘true’ Sunni Islam. And when the virus reached Europe, it was reframed as a ‘painful torment’ for the Crusaders; a divine response to perceived Western aggression against Muslims across Africa and the Middle East. 

Beyond merely ‘punishing’ its foes, the pandemic has proven a blessing for Daesh. Many of its enemies are currently struggling to contain the pandemic and have thus shifted their attention away from combatting terrorism. Daesh, therefore, has had room to plan its big comeback, moving to rebuild its state in Iraq and Syria and carrying out attacks all around the world. On 19 March 2020, Daesh issued a plan entitled the ‘Crusaders’ Biggest Nightmare’ (‘Crusaders’ referring to the West and its allies). Since the ‘Crusaders’ have allocated significant resources to fighting the virus, the plan assumes, security forces are currently focused on public safety and civilian assistance missions and not counterterrorism. Civilian populations, already suffering economic and social hardship, are increasingly susceptible to panic; the last thing they need is another large-scale terrorist attack or renewed military commitment. The plan’s eponymous ‘Crusaders’s Nightmare,’ then, is for Daesh to go on the offensive. COVID-19 offers an opportunity to fight the enemies of Islam – even an obligation: since Daesh believes the Pandemic comes from Allah, they see it as a sign to commit Jihad and thus accomplish His will. That the pandemic coincided with Ramadan – a time of prayer and reflection for most Muslims, but a time of violence for Daesh – further fueled this perspective.

This is not to say that Daesh has ignored the danger of the virus. The group has issued guidelines which are, according to Sigalit Maor-Hirsh of the International Institute for Counter Terrorism, ‘no different from the ones we see around the world in that they deal with the need to maintain personal health and hygiene in order to avoid infection.’ For example, Daesh has recommended that its members do not travel to Western countries, even to launch acts of terror. But unlike most health guidelines, which support their recommendations with scientific evidence, Daesh’s guidelines are framed in Islamic terms and based on the actions and words of the Prophet Muhammad. According to Daesh, the virus comes from Allah, so the first guideline is to strengthen one’s faith into God, who Islamists claim is the refuge from all diseases. Nothing can be done against Allah’s actions, they claim, except turning to Him. Daesh has thus used even its health guidelines as a medium to further spread its message, a battery in its pandemic propaganda barrage to gain new followers and push them to commit violence. Daesh propagandists have taken advantage of the huge online population during lockdown, creating a surge of online propaganda and encouraging those adherents currently inside ‘enemy’ nations to act. Sure enough, on 15 April three alleged members of Daesh were arrested in Frankfurt while in the process of planning an attack; 12 days later, a man said to have pledged allegiance to Daesh rammed his vehicle into two police motorcyclists in Paris.

Daesh has thus proven itself committed to and capable of doing more than merely pushing its pandemic narrative. Daesh has taken concrete action on the ground to benefit from the pandemic, especially in Iraq, where the group continues to operate despite losing territory and its leader: in December 2019 there were already indications that Daesh was re-organising there, and this April Daesh conducted 34 operations against Iraqi forces in a single week. Daesh’s goal is to rebuild its territorial and military strength, which it pursues tactically by, for example, carrying out attacks on prisons to liberate some of its fighters. (This is reminiscent of its 2012-13 ‘Breaking the Walls’ campaign, carried out as a prequel to its 2014 offensive.) Iraqi forces, for their part, are currently struggling with the pandemic: many soldiers and policemen are not showing up for work, opting instead to stay with their families; those that do turn up are overtaxed with humanitarian duties and unable to effectively counter Daesh. The Iraqi government’s poor handling of the pandemic has given Daesh an opportunity to further criticize the government and portray itself as a credible alternative – although whether the group still has advanced sanitary capabilities capable of dealing with the virus is doubtful. And COVID is merely the latest in a string of favourable shifts for Daesh in Iraq. Since October 2019, the country has been wracked by a socio-economic crisis characterised by mass demonstrations and political instability; the pandemic and accompanying oil price drop have exacerbated these problems. US-Iraq relations have deteriorated, with US and coalition forces less in contact with their Iraqi counterparts; several coalition partners such as France have withdrawn their troops, citing tensions with Iran and the pandemic. Rising tensions and pressure in Baghdad could lead to a US departure, which would deprive Iraqi forces of a key ally.

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic – or rather, as a result of it – Daesh continues to demonstrate its willingness and capability to strike its enemies worldwide. Daesh perceives the pandemic as divine intervention: simultaneously Allah’s punishment against those who did wrong to Muslims and a blessing for the group, placing its enemies under pressure and forcing them to significantly reduce pressure on Daesh, allowing it room to recover. Daesh is likely to continue to exploit the situation in Iraq, where the virus has exacerbated existing problems to create an ideal environment for its resurgence, and to attempt acts of terror in the West, where overwhelmed medical and security forces might struggle to deal with terrorism atop a viral threat. Terrorists will try to exploit troubled times to boost their own legitimacy and spread fear, as they have always done. Governments should seek to avoid tunnel vision, and remain vigilant against local terrorism and worsening international insurgencies even as they combat the coronavirus.

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