Isaac Kfir, Advisory Board, International Institute for Justice and the Rule of Law and Adjunct Professor, Charles Sturt University
In November 2019, the UK Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre recommended that the terrorism threat in the UK be lowered from severe (an attack is highly likely) to substantial (an attack is likely). Assistant Commissioner Neil Basu, the head of Counter-Terrorism Policing, explained that there had been “positive developments” in the fight against terrorism which brought the threat level down to its lowest since 2014. One such development was the killing of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi by US Army Delta Force commandos in October 2019. Another achievement was the capture of the Islamic State’s (IS) last stronghold in Syria — the city of Baghouz — by Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in March 2019, effectively ending its so-called Caliphate.
While IS has lost its territorial grip, there is emerging evidence that it — along with other terrorist groups — has been rebuilding and carrying out operations. Once such example was the recent killing of two US Marines in a gun battle near Erbil in Iraq. Meanwhile, across the Sahel, IS and al-Qaeda have been cooperating, stepping up attacks in recent months as they sensed an opportunity to further destabilize the region. These groups have exploited recent political turmoil, where governments have failed to provide security and jobs for their citizens.
While the West has not experienced a mass casualty terrorist attack for years, this does not mean the terrorist threat is declining. To ignore the Salafi-jihadi threat now — especially as governments focus their efforts on combatting COVID-19 — is a big mistake.
Bulama Bukarti — an analyst focusing on Sub-Saharan Africa and an expert on Boko Haram — has described Salafi-jihadis as “opportunistic and adept at exploiting confusion and chaos to further their ideological goals”. According to Bukarti, if the pandemic reaches Muslim countries, the Safafi-jihadis have already concocted various conspiracy theories claiming that the West, Jews and infidels are responsible. If the virus does not reach Muslims — especially in areas of Salafi-jihadi control — they will frame it as divine protection of the faithful.
In fact, the COVID-19 pandemic has emboldened many Safafi-jihadi groups which see the virus as an opportunity to challenge effective counter-terrorism measures that have weakened their global network. A recent editorial in al-Naba — the official online publication for IS — asserted that COVID-19 was sent by God to avenge China’s persecution of the Uighurs. The editorial titled “the vengeance of your Lord is severe” is taken directly from a Quranic verse in Surah al-Buruj. Terrorism expert, Nur Aziemah Azman, explains that this Surah refers to a time when the persecution of Muslims was at its peak, but also serves as a reminder that those who remained steadfast in their faith were rewarded. Azman believes this is clear message to all Salafi-jihadis to keep pursuing the campaign to restore the Caliphate.
The Crude Oil Price Factor
It is also important to understand how the fall of oil prices due to the virus will likely boost recruitment for terrorist groups. As governments impose massive restrictions on movement to slow down the spread of the virus and travel has nearly grounded to a halt, US crude prices fell to a 17-year low by mid-March.
This has had a tremendous impact on countries like Iraq where oil generates 90% of its income. Before the outbreak of COVID-19, observers were optimistic that the country had turned a corner, especially with the defeat of IS. The World Bank even anticipated Iraq’s GDP would grow by 5.1% in 2020. However, now with crude hovering at $23 a barrel (the 2020 budget was based on a projected price of $56 a barrel), the country finds itself in a difficult position. This is especially challenging because around 30% of Iraqis rely on government jobs or contracts, meaning that the state spent around $47 billion on salaries, pensions and social welfare in 2020. The situation is so dire that when Iraq’s health minister asked the government for $5 million in emergency funds to help combat the spread of COVID-19, he was told that no money could be spared.
The lack of employment opportunities will likely drive people to join groups like IS which offer salaries. IS coffers are still very full, largely due to the fact that the group reportedly has records on approximately 7 to 8 million people, making them vulnerable to extortion. Additionally, the terrorist group was able to smuggle $400 million out of Iraq and Syria. Also, most of its illicit networks are still operational, bringing in additional revenue. This is largely because IS uses many Iraqi and Syrian tribal leaders as middlemen, allowing them to take a cut from smuggling operations. Ironically, the fact that the group no longer controls territories means that operational costs have substantially declined. This means that it has more money to spend on recruitment, training and buying weapons.
The Case of Sub-Saharan Africa
Similar patterns are occurring in Sub-Saharan Africa, which has seen an increase in Salafi-jihadi activity fueled, in part, by returning foreign fighters but also because Western aid programs have had to cut back on their activities and food distribution due to the virus as lockdowns have caused a massive drop or halt in production.
It also seems that these Salafi-jihadis are also tapping into the informal gold trade in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger (worth $2 billion), which makes them very attractive to people that live on a dollar or two a day. As international aid dries up, it is the terrorists who now have the most money and opportunities to offer the people.
In conclusion, the COVID-19 pandemic has given Salafi-jihadis an opportunity to reverse many of the losses they have endured over the past few years. As countries around the world impose lockdowns on their respective populations, redirect their overseas aid to domestic assistance, ignore human rights abuses and reduce their counter-terrorism commitments, Salafi-jihadis grow stronger. They have already concocted narratives surrounding the pandemic, professing that the virus is a kind of divine retribution for non-believers and that it presents an opportune time to further the jihadi cause. We, therefore, must be conscious that battling COVID-19 has severely curtailed our ability to fight terrorism and given jihadists the opportunity to expand their influence.
European Eye on Radicalization aims to publish a diversity of perspectives and as such does not endorse the opinions expressed by contributors. The views expressed in this article represent the author alone.