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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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In the East and Horn of Africa region, Violent Extremist Organizations (VEOs) and Non- State Armed Groups (NSAGs) changed and adjusted their narratives to varying degrees, weaponizing the pandemic while seeking to radicalize and recruit new members. Individual VEOs directly incorporated the pandemic into their messaging, often indicting public health measures for being discriminatory against Muslims. Others espoused apocalyptic or insular anti-Western and Chinese conspiracy theories. In addition, eugenics theories emerged, purporting that the virus or vaccines were designed to eliminate entire groups. When local groups did not adjust their narratives to fit the local or regional context, this trend was carried across borders from other VEOs into the neighboring countries.

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.

VEOs, especially Al-Shabaab, successfully escalated their use of digital communication platforms amid a shift to less in-person contact during the pandemic restrictions. Interviewees noted significant changes in radicalization and recruitment patterns online in the Federal Republic of Somalia, the Republic of Kenya, and the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia. This mainly included observed growth of various groups’ online presence in these countries to intensify their recruitment and radicalization efforts. In the United Republic of Tanzania, the Republic of Uganda, and the State of Eritrea, there was little evidence to suggest an increase in the online presence of extremist groups or recruitment and radicalization campaigns.

The pandemic impacted VE activity differently across the region. Somalia recorded a decrease in terrorist attacks between January and December 2020, but conflict in the country remained widespread. Kenya and Ethiopia experienced an increase in terrorist attacks in 2020 compared with the year prior. In Tanzania, transborder terrorist attacks from the Republic of Mozambique Daesh affiliate, IS- Mozambique, were recorded. Uganda noted no terrorist attacks in 2020, potentially because of hard border closures, which may have prevented acts by the DRC-based Allied Democratic Forces (ADF). While Ethiopia and Eritrea recorded no terrorist attacks between January and December 2020, the civil conflict with the Tigray People Liberation Front (TPLF) and the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) came into full form in the latter half of the year.

Image source: “Al-Shabaab establishes parallel COVID-19 center in Somalia,” Garowe Online, 16 June 2020

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An interesting and unique regional development on the ground that separated Al-Shabaab from the rest of the regional VEOs was the group’s active efforts to demonstrate its competency and resourcefulness by utilizing the dire health situation caused by the pandemic in their favor. The group repeatedly shared messages against governmental and foreign assistance efforts to provide necessary medical resources for citizens while propagandizing their own public health efforts in Somalia.4 Al-Shabaab reportedly furnished public health education on COVID-19 and developed a quarantine center in the country.5 The research did not observe this trend in other countries (Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia, and Eritrea).

Policy Recommendations

Renewed preventing and countering violent extremism (P/CVE) efforts that take into account the current context of the East and Horn of Africa that has changed during the pandemic along with a direct response to credible regional terrorist threats are needed. The pandemic has dominated headlines, captured government focus, and allowed VEOs in the region to expand their narrative reach. The window of opportunity for extremist groups opened by the pandemic must be narrowed. To accomplish these broader suggestions in response to the new and emerging threats, the researchers propose the following:

  • Governments should work with civil society organizations (CSOs) and religious actors to develop strategic communications campaigns to openly discuss and inoculate against violent extremist (VE) narratives. Novel digital literacy efforts that draw on successful counter misinformation and disinformation campaigns can provide new inspiration for helping new generations of digital natives in the East and Horn of Africa.
  • Governments should continue strengthening and expanding on their work with The Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) and where possible initiate further efforts with cross-existing border and regional cooperation bodies to expand joint work between regional countries in the shared fight against terrorism. Existing offline and online security bodies should commit to more intensified tracking of changes in regional VEO activities. In this context, joint P/CVE efforts should also ensure regional support and coordination to prevent radicalization and recruitment to ease the security burden of neighboring countries. Existing offline and online security bodies should commit to more intensified tracking of changes in regional VEO activities. In this context, joint P/CVE efforts should also ensure regional support and coordination to prevent radicalization and recruitment to ease the security burden of neighboring countries.
  • Cross-cutting P/CVE analysis should be included in sectoral programs responding to the effects of COVID-19, including health, education, and livelihoods. Governmental pandemic responses ought to account for social grievances and inequalities that have allowed terrorism and VE to thrive under COVID-19 conditions.
  • Governments should take a more proactive approach by allocating more resources to localized P/CVE efforts. Particular support should be given to additional primary research at community and provincial levels to examine the nuances of the online and digital threat environment.

Footnotes

[1]

COVID-19 Data Repository by the Center for Systems Science and Engineering (CSSE) at Johns Hopkins University (20201). Total Confirmed Deaths due to COVID-19: Jan 22, 2020 – Dec 31, 2020 (accessed 24 November 2021).

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[2]

Burchill, Extremism in the time of COVID-19, 7.

[3]

The countries covered in this report are Ethiopia, Eritrea, Kenya, Somalia, Tanzania, and Uganda.

[4]

C. Hockey and M. Jones, (2020), ‘The Limits of ‘Shabaab-CARE’: Militant Governance amid COVID-19’, Combating Terrorism Center, 13 (6), (Accessed 14 January 2022);

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[5]

ibid.

[6]

Thomas Hale, Noam Angrist, Rafael Goldszmidt, Beatriz Kira, Anna Petherick, Toby Phillips, Samuel Webster, Emily Cameron-Blake, Laura Hallas, Saptarshi Majumdar, and Helen Tatlow. (2021). “A global panel database of pandemic policies (Oxford COVID-19 Government Response Tracker).” Nature Human Behaviour. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-021-01079-8, as used by Our World In Data; and, Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), acleddata.com.

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[7]

COVID-19 data aggregated from Our World in Data (https://ourworldindata.org/covid-cases) based on confirmed cases sourced from the COVID-19 Data Repository by the Center for Systems Science (https://github.com/CSSEGISandData/COVID-19) and Engineering (CSSE)) at Johns Hopkins University; and, Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED, acleddata.com).

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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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The narratives

Analysis and examples of the narratives that have emerged across all our regions.

Divine retribution
Narrative #01

Divine retribution

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Restrictions as Repression
Narrative #02

Restrictions as Repression

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Weaponised Conspiracies
Narrative #03

Weaponised Conspiracies

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