By Asaf Day
Historically, it is a common phenomenon that following a great global crisis, such as plagues and economic recessions, people resort to radical and/or populist ideologies. Among the more well-known cases, following the Great Depression, which devastated the global economy between 1929-1933, a notable wave of radical ideologies and regimes was experienced worldwide, particularly throughout the European continent. Thus, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, and its anticipated severe economic consequences, could give rise once again to extremist ideas, such as far-left and extreme right, as well as jihadist sympathizers.
For the sake of this piece, I will focus on the latter, and especially the jihadist movements’ attempts to reach out to disenfranchised individuals potentially impacted by the Virus and its effect on the global system. Furthermore, the extensive preoccupation of authorities in tackling the virus could be exploited by jihadist organizations to advance their operational goals.
Most notably, on March 31, al-Qaeda Central Command released a six-page message titled the Way Forward: A Word of Advice on the Coronavirus Pandemic, in which Zawahiri’s group calls upon Muslims to self-reflect amidst the current hardships and “darkness,” particularly ahead of the upcoming month of Ramadan. The message further urges the “people of knowledge and callers to Allah to intensify their efforts to call people to Allah and invite them to repent sincerely. Now is the time to spread the correct Aqeedah [referring to al-Qaeda’s creed].” Namely, the central command seeks its operatives on-the-ground to exploit the increasing sense of helplessness that likely prevails among Muslims to find certainty in al-Qaeda’s ideology, and thereby gain their support.
More interestingly, however, the jihadist group addresses directly non-Muslim individuals living in the West. According to the group, in addition to being a punishment from Allah, the pandemic has revealed the fragility of the global economic system, namely globalization, and the consumption culture. For instance, the author stresses that “the very technological advancement and globalization that man took immense pride in has become his undoing. Today, if someone sneezes in China, those in New York suffer from its consequences.” This, alongside the emphasis on the expected dire economic conditions, is a clever attempt by the jihadist organization to attract non-Muslim Western individuals to its ranks, particularly those feeling disaffected and disillusioned by globalization and the alleged broken international economic system.
Additionally, the group taps on such individuals’ sentiments, as it indirectly puts the blame for the virus on China’s “impure” dietary practices (an easy task for al-Qaeda considering Beijing’s abysmal human rights’ record with regards to its ethnic Muslim Uygur minority), capitalizing on growing anti-Chinese sentiments in the West: “Let us not forget that COVID-19 emerged from one of the filthiest places on earth, the markets of Wuhan, where all known norms of decent and humane dietary practices were trampled upon. From insects to rodents and reptiles, in short everything unsafe for human consumption.”
The author does not “beat around the bush,” as he calls on such individuals to embrace Islam: “we would like to share with you our desire that you should be our partners in the Heavens… and God is our witness as we say this, that we come together in the Heavens to share together the bliss of an eternal life.” To further appeal to the reader, al-Qaeda makes a point about Islam’s hygiene-orientation, as it emphasizes the regular body cleaning practices mandated by the religion.
Like al-Qaeda, the Islamic State discusses COVID-19 and its global impact quite intensively. For example, in the 223rd edition of its newsletter al-Naba, which was issued on February 28, the group published an editorial piece concerning the massive infections in Shiite Iran, attributing the crisis to its perceived idol worshipping. According to the author, the crisis in Iran stems from their practice of worshipping saints, which the Islamic State claims to have brought the wrath of Allah upon them. Coupled with the fact that the mass gatherings in these worship places in the Islamic Republic have been serving as an accelerator for infections, such propaganda serves not only to justify the group’s creed but also to turn Shiites away from their beliefs. Indeed, in the last paragraph of the article, the author wishes that the “idolaters” (referring derogatorily to Shiites) will relinquish their faith and adopt the creed of “Tawhid” (uncompromising monotheism).
In another editorial, which was published on March 19 in the Islamic State’s 226th al-Naba magazine, the organization stresses out the operational benefits that the group could reap from the current global pandemic. For instance, as western security authorities are preoccupied with enforcing measures to tackle the virus, the group urges new attacks “in a similar fashion to the strikes in Paris, London, and Brussels.”
Aside from attacking the West, the author calls on the Islamic State’s militants to take advantage of the anticipated allocation of resources by the group’s western rivals from the Middle East and back to their countries to fight the disease and the economic challenges. His assessment has quickly been reinforced as multiple members of the anti-Islamic State coalition withdrew their troops from Iraq due to COVID-19.
Therefore, it should not come as a surprise if the jihadist capitalization on the COVID-19 translates into an uptick of activity by such elements, as already highlighted by the latest knife attack on April 4 in southern France’s town of Romans-sur-Isere.
Asaf Day is a Middle East and North Africa geopolitical analyst at Le Beck International, a private security-consultancy firm. His areas of expertise include Syria, Israel, and the Palestinians, as well as global jihad organizations. Asaf holds an MA Degree in Arabic Studies from the University of Bar Ilan and a BA from Ben Gurion University, both in Israel.