Extremist Groups Stepping up Operations during the Covid-19 Outbreak in Sub-Saharan Africa

Sub-Saharan African extremist groups are poised to make strategic gains during the Covid-19 outbreak, outmaneuvering distracted and overstretched domestic and foreign security forces. Violent attacks in the region’s hotspots rose by 37 percent between mid-March and mid-April, according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) database, and groups have begun to release pandemic-related propaganda. Meanwhile, African states—like governments worldwide—are shifting military resources to the pandemic response, potentially undercutting counterterrorism operations. This dynamic is compounded by the withdrawal of international peacekeepers and counterterrorism units from the region. If these trends continue, sub-Saharan Africa is at risk of losing ground to violent groups following years of counterterrorism advances alongside regional and international security partners.

Extremists Exploiting Covid-19 to Expand Footprint

Extremist groups across sub-Saharan Africa are leveraging the Covid-19 crisis as an opportunity to intensify attacks and increase civilian support. As U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) commander Stephen Townsend warned in an April 7 press release, “al-Qaeda, al-Shabaab and ISIS have announced that they see this crisis as an opportunity to further their terrorist agenda.” Suspected jihadists killed 25 soldiers at a Malian army base on March 19, and Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM) insurgents conducted a high-profile kidnapping of Malian opposition leader Soumaila Cisse on March 25. That same week, Boko Haram launched its deadliest operation against Chadian forces to date, killing 92 soldiers. On the same day, Mozambican militants in Cabo Delgado broke new ground with simultaneous attacks against district capitals Moçimboa da Praia and Quissanga.

In addition to an uptick in attacks, extremist movements are incorporating Covid-19 into their propaganda, using the pandemic as justification for their cause. African affiliates have tailored the Islamic State and al-Qaeda’s general message—that the pandemic is God’s wrath against the West—to their local audiences. JNIM hailed the pandemic as a “punishment” on France for supporting counterterrorism operations in Mali, while al-Shabaab warned supporters that Covid-19 was spread by “crusader forces.” Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau has likened Covid-19 measures put in place by the Nigerian government, e.g., social distancing and lockdowns, to a war on Muslims. As caseloads mount and death tolls rise, extremists are likely to issue statements or publish videos criticizing governments’ inability to help the sick. And as travel and commerce become more restricted, these groups will have ample fodder to accuse the state of intentionally depriving its people of basic commodities and life-saving health care.

Extremist groups may also use the Covid-19 crisis as an opportunity to deliver services such as food distribution and health care provision. These groups are uniquely positioned to step up service delivery because they operate in areas where state presence is weak and contested, a status unlikely to change while governments struggle to contain the outbreak. Groups with the capacity to provide some form of health care could spin their efforts as succeeding where governments are failing. Al-Shabaab, for example, took advantage of the famine in Somalia three years ago to publish photos of its fighters distributing food and medical supplies to needy families, blaming the crisis on regional and international governments. The Taliban, Hezbollah, and other groups outside Africa have already begun to offer public health services during the Covid-19 pandemic to shore up political legitimacy. 

African Governments and Militaries Distracted by the Outbreak

While extremist groups are escalating attacks and increasing their propaganda output, regional governments are redeploying increased security resources to the Covid-19 outbreak. In Nigeria, the military has been tasked with implementing heightened safety measures, including transferring the sick to hospitals, curbing movement, and guarding government food storage from looters. A memo from Nigeria’s army headquarters called on soldiers to be on “maximum security alert and be ready for deployment” and suspended leave passages for all personnel. Similarly, the Kenyan military is on the frontlines of enforcing the country’s lockdown and curfew while also offering medical support, transporting vital supplies, and protecting key installations. While there are merits to these strategies, the focus on Covid-19 could leave militaries shorthanded in responding to domestic threats and vulnerable to a surge in extremist activity.

In the coming weeks and months, African countries may reconsider their contributions to regional security missions as they pivot focus toward Covid-19. Countries involved in the Multinational Joint Task Force against Boko Haram and African Union Mission to Somalia (AMISOM), for example, may decide to pause operations or recall troops due to fear over soldiers’ health as well as a need to enforce stringent lockdown measures. Key AMISOM troop contributors, including Uganda and Ethiopia, already have increased domestic military and police presence throughout their respective countries. While there are no reports indicating governments have pulled troops from multilateral operations and transferred them to Covid-19 efforts yet, this is a plausible scenario if caseloads mount and security personnel are tasked with additional pandemic-related responses.

International Troops Scramble Home or Shelter in Place

Foreign defense and security partners are also adjusting or reducing their assistance to sub-Saharan Africa, threatening to hinder information sharing and operational support. UN chief Antonio Guterres suspended the rotation and deployment of all international peacekeepers until June 30 to mitigate the risk of transmission—affecting seven UN peacekeeping missions in Africa, including in Mali, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and South Sudan. Confirmed cases of the coronavirus among UN peacekeepers in South Sudan and the Central African Republic have stoked a xenophobic frenzy, with newspapers blaming the United Nations for bringing the virus into the country and social media posts threatening retaliation against foreigners.

Some European partners are drawing down personnel stationed in Africa while others are choosing to maintain troop presence. The British Army Training Unit Kenya (BATUK), which provides counterterrorism training and other skills, has ordered the return of all UK personnel. Similarly, Ireland has repatriated its troops from Mali’s UN peacekeeping mission MINUSMA, defying Guterres’ suspension of peacekeeper rotations until June 30. The French, however, are continuing military activities in the Sahel despite infections among at least four soldiers serving with France’s Operation Barkhane.

AFRICOM has reduced some operations and personnel but so far has maintained airstrike missions in the region. In early April, the Command cancelled at least two multinational military exercises after initially announcing the drills would be reduced in “scale and scope.” AFRICOM also barred local workers and declared a public health emergency at its base in Djibouti on April 24. AFRICOM commander Townsend, however, reaffirmed his commitment to security operations across the continent during the pandemic, and U.S. airstrikes against al-Shabaab have not been reduced.

Warnings Signs and Opportunities

The extent of extremist advances in sub-Saharan Africa during the Covid-19 outbreak will depend on regional government responses and insurgent ability to navigate rapidly shifting circumstances. Below are three key factors that will affect security, both during and in the wake of the pandemic:

  • State Priorities. Government decisions to maintain or reduce counterinsurgency operations will shape the scale and scope of extremist violence in the region. If security responses remain robust, they will stave off further extremist gains during the pandemic. Government measures to tighten borders and monitor internal transportation routes to curb the spread of Covid-19 may inadvertently negatively affect extremists’ operations and access to safe havens. However, if counterinsurgency resources are diverted to Covid-19 responses, governments may confront a surge in extremist violence.

  • Extremist Supply Lines. Insurgents’ ability to maintain and expand operations will depend on their access to critical resources, such as food, money, and weapons. As commerce and road traffic grind to a halt during lockdowns, extremists who rely on taxation and extortion to fund their operations and gain new recruits will find themselves with reduced income, likely disrupting their momentum. These deficits also may prompt insurgents to increase their harassment and torture of civilians as well as pillage community resources to make up for shortfalls.

  • Health Status, On Both Sides. The ability of extremist groups and state security forces to advance their competing aims will depend in part on their ability to maintain physical health. Extremist groups tend to operate in isolated locations, which will likely provide them some protection against the virus, while operations and interactions with the local population will increase their risk of infection. With regard to the health of state security forces, temporarily suspending troop rotations and ramping up medical care on military bases could help reduce the risk of units’ exposure to Covid-19 and facilitate early treatment if soldiers or police become infected.

African governments and international partners have the opportunity to shape the above factors by engaging civilians, leveraging religious leaders, and capitalizing on insurgent mistakes.

  • Enhance Civilian Outreach. Covid-19 may provide an opportunity to ramp up non-military programs in improved governance and service provision, undercutting some of the extremists’ leverage and propaganda points. In the past few weeks, Senegal, Ghana, and Uganda have deployed mobile hospitals provided by the U.S. State Department’s African Peacekeeping Rapid Response Partnership, which promotes peacekeeping missions by institutionalizing critical capabilities such as medicine and engineering. Deploying medical teams and food delivery to areas where extremists are active or have the potential for expansion would further help governments make inroads in winning the hearts and minds of locals.

  • Uplift Religious Leaders. African governments should support local religious leaders in informing the public about critical safety measures during the pandemic and debunking extremist propaganda about the virus. Somali imams and teachers, in collaboration with Somali government ministries, have been broadcasting best practices for staying safe during the pandemic—tying them to Koranic dictates.

  • Exploit Insurgent Missteps. African security forces and international partners should seize on insurgent strategic mistakes to weaken their ranks. For example, if extremists attempt to launch operations beyond their capabilities and overextend themselves, security forces should retaliate, hitting poorly defended bases and safe havens. In addition, if the insurgents themselves fall ill, governments could point to the militant’s rising infection rates to challenge extremists’ claim that Covid-19 is God’s revenge on the West.

Emilia Columbo is a senior associate (non-resident) with the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.Marielle Harris is a program manager with the CSIS Africa Program

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Marielle Harris