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The Reshaping of the Terrorist and Extremist Landscape in a Post Pandemic World
RESEARCH PROGRAM

The Reshaping of the Terrorist and Extremist Landscape in a Post Pandemic World

A major research program investigating the impact of COVID-19 on terrorist and extremist narratives.

Regions

East Africa

COVID-19 has claimed upwards of 250,000 lives across Africa. During the pandemic crisis, “violent extremists have been able to exploit deteriorating security, social, and economic circumstances to gain further support for their ideologies.” Insights from over 100 interviews across East Africa, including the Horn, illustrate the varied impact of COVID-19 on terrorism and violent extremism amid escalating attacks in the region.

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This report presents the research findings on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on terrorism and violent extremism in East Africa, including the Horn of Africa region, between January and December 2021. Countries within the scope include Tanzania, Kenya, Somalia, Uganda, Ethiopia, and Eritrea. Violent extremist organizations and terrorist groups have exploited the COVID-19 pandemic by changing their narratives within the East and the Horn of Africa. Anti-vaccination narratives are the most popular and have appeared throughout the later stages of the pandemic. One of the primary groups creating and disseminating these narratives is Al-Shabaab in Somalia, which is against the AstraZeneca vaccination but not all vaccines.1

Examples of extremist narratives and propoganda in East Africa

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Examples of extremist narratives and propoganda in East Africa

A Ugandan publication illustrating mainstream anti-foreigner and anti-Chinese sentiments elicited by the pandemic.

“Coronavirus: Fighting al-Shabab propaganda in Somalia,” BBC, 2 April 2020, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-52103799 (accessed 5 October 2021); “Panic as Chinese National Quaratines in Arua Hotel,” Monitor, 19 July 2020, (Accessed 16 January 2022); L. Storer, J. Osuta, D. Anguala, “Do COVID-19 conspiracy theories challenge public health delivery,” LSE Blog, 21 April 2020.

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Conspiratorial narratives across East Africa and globally drew on racialized anti-Chinese sentiment, contending that the virus originated in China as punishment for actions against Uighurs, or simply situated the problem as a Chinese one: a “Chinese sickness.”

A propaganda piece from Hizb ut Tahrir in Kenya offering its ideology as a means to combat perceived corruption during COVID-19.

Key Informant Interviews with Personnel from Kenya, 2021; “Coronavirus Fight has Produced Another Virus of Corruption Creating Covid-19 Millionaires,” Central Media Office of Hizb ut Tahrir in Kenya, October 5 2020. (Link redacted).

Several interviews conducted with personnel from Kenya confirmed that VEOs and individual actors incorporated the pandemic into already existing narratives and intensified the creation and dissemination of online propaganda. For instance, multiple respondents from Kenya said they had seen narratives on social media from VEOs operating in Somalia, namely Al-Shabaab, as well as from extremist groups further afield, including Daesh, Boko Haram, Hizb ut Tahrir and their affiliates.

Editorial of issue 2 of Daesh-linked magazine The Voice of Hind

Editorial of issue 2 of Daesh-linked magazine The Voice of Hind, sourced from Telegram channels.

Like elsewhere in the world, misinformation in the region during 2020 often traded on conspiracies as to the virus’s origin and transmission patterns. Misinformation campaigns by VEOs exploited grievances related to the pandemic, such as movement restrictions and access to public health systems.

Headline from a Somalia-based media organization relaying a public health press conference by Al-Shabaab fighters

“Somalia's Islamist group al Shabaab says sets up COVID-19 treatment centre,” Reuters, 12 June 2020, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-somalia-idUSKBN23J32C (accessed 2 November 2021); Image source: “Al-Shabaab establishes parallel COVID-19 center in Somalia,” Garowe Online, 16 June 2020.

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Al-Shabaab gave out public health advice in May 2020 and “a few days later, a special committee [supposedly with doctors and scientists] was formed by Al-Shabaab to manage the response to COVID-19 in territories under the group’s control.” Local officials in Al-Shabaab-controlled areas of Somalia were instructed to provide adequate assistance to the committee’s members.

Press release from Al-Shabaab illustrating its response to COVID-19 in 2020

"Shabaab Appoints Committee to Monitor COVID-19 Pandemic in its Controlled Territories,” SITE Intelligence Group Enterprise, 13 May 2020. (Site redacted).

Local officials in Al-Shabaab-controlled areas of Somalia were instructed to provide adequate assistance to the committee’s members, while the group also reportedly set up a COVID-19 isolation center.

Al-Shabaab COVID-19 treatment centre

Reuters article indicating Al-Shabaab providing service delivery in the context of COVID-19.

Image circulated from a pro-Daesh Telegram channel in 2020.

Source: Telegram

The most prominent narrative spread by VEOs in Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia, and Eritrea reasoned that COVID-19 is a manifestation of divine anger or punishment for nonbelievers from God (Allah).

Al-Shabaab statement on AstraZeneca vaccine

Al-Shabaab forbids the use of AstraZeneca vaccine at the same time that European regulators voice conerns about the vaccine.

Al-Shabaab claims COVID-19 vaccines are unfit for consumption by Muslims (Haram) and suggests traditional remedies.

Source: ‘Al-Shabaab recommends use of honey in fight against COVID-19 pandemic’, Garowe Online (11 April 2021), https://www.garoweonline.com/en/world/africa/al-shabaab-recommends-use-of-honey-in-fight-against-covid-19-pandemic, accessed 20 October 2021.

Al-Shabaab claims COVID-19 vaccines are unfit for consumption by Muslims (Haram) and suggests traditional remedies.

The pandemic affected changes in communication platforms and channels by extremist actors in the region. In Uganda, for example, the Allied Democratic Force (ADF) started to use Telegram – via its affiliation with Daesh and the group’s Amaq media group – to claim responsibility for their actions while continuing to draw on in-person recruitment in Uganda.2 Al-Shabaab used new mediums online to radicalize and recruit due to pandemic restrictions while maintaining in-person contact despite these restrictions. Changes in extremist organizations’ use of communication platforms and channels were primarily in Somalia, Tanzania, Kenya, and Ethiopia.

Extremist organizations continued to leverage pandemic-related misinformation in the region, with a particular focus on the nature and efficacy of vaccines, to sow distrust in government entities with the broader aim of replacing those governments. In its disinformation attempts, Al-Shabaab used the pandemic as an opportunity to spread narratives against specific vaccinations while providing alternative suggestions for how East Africans should protect their health.

Yet, the available evidence demonstrates that these efforts by violent extremist organizations yielded minimal success. While some forms of notable recruitment efforts were noted in Kenya, Somalia, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Uganda, and Eritrea, there was little evidence to suggest an increase in recruitment and radicalization.

Uganda experienced only one terrorist incident in the first half of 2021, but at least seven terrorist attacks were reported from October to November. There was also an increase in terrorist attacks in Somalia and Ethiopia in 2021. Meanwhile, Kenya and Tanzania saw fewer attacks in 2021 compared to 2020. Eritrea did not encounter any terrorist attacks in 2021, though it faced threats from locally designated terrorist organizations in Ethiopia originating from the Tigray region.

Policy Recommendations

  • Governments, civil society organizations, religious institutions, and the private sector (including technology companies) should collaborate on efforts to create tailored counter-narratives and alternative messaging campaigns disseminated by violent extremist organizations in the East and the Horn of Africa, particularly those that spread COVID-19 misinformation and disinformation. This should include campaigns to limit the spread of COVID-19 vaccine misinformation and disinformation.
  • Governments should work with organizations such as Tech against Terrorism (TaT) and the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism (GIFCT) to improve coordination to limit the spread of terrorist messages online. This may include sharing tools, resources, and best practices to improve enforcement of dangerous content disseminated by violent extremist organizations..
  • Governments and non-governmental organizations should work together to resolve internal grievances and improve trust in public institutions. Violent extremist organizations may manipulate these grievances and mistrust to polarize communities and recruit individuals to their cause in the context of COVID-19.
  • Appropriate provision of adequate social and medical services, as well as addressing economic concerns by governments, will likely discourage citizens from supporting violent extremist organizations and non-state armed actors. A whole-of-government and whole-of-society approach is needed to counter violent actors in the East and Horn of Africa. Specifically, increased cooperation and efficient information-sharing between the public sector and civil society is required to ensure the needs of those on the front lines affected by extremist activity are understood and addressed by policymakers– which is even more important in times of public health crisis. Bottom-up and efficient communication between sectors will improve abilities to address grievances that may otherwise lead to radicalization and recruitment.

Footnotes

[1]

C. Ero, ‘Africa’s Peace and Security: The Pressures of COVID-19,’ International Crisis Group (6 May 2021), accessed 20 October 2021

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[2]

M. Schwikowski, ‘ADF: The group blamed for the bombings in Uganda,’ DW Akademie (17 November 2021), accessed 22 April 2022

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Region reports

For full analysis and recommendations, download the region reports for 2020 and 2021.

2021 report coming soon.

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Weaponised Conspiracies
Narrative #03

Weaponised Conspiracies

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