Islamic extremists hope to exploit the Covid-19 pandemic to launch new attacks, motivate followers and reinforce their credentials as alternative rulers of swaths of unstable countries across the Middle East, Asia and Africa.
But the responses of different extremist groups have differed. While Islamic State has told its members to launch attacks against weakened and distracted western nations, the Taliban have released images of its public health teams, for example.
Experts say the reaction to the pandemic has also evolved within extremist organisations, as its scale and threat has become better known.
Initially, Isis gloated over Covid-19 in its magazine, al-Naba, describing the virus as a punishment for “Crusader nations”, and calling for strikes against the west as it reeled from the pandemic. However, more recent editions of the publication have carried lengthy articles saying it would be wrong for Muslims to believe they would be spared by the disease.
Though editorials have continued to blame the US for a wave of atheism and immorality that has allegedly provoked punishment in the form of the pandemic, one al-Naba author stressed that similar outbreaks in the past had hit both the faithful and non-Muslims alike.
“They are saying that the pandemic is definitely God’s will but the intention behind it is unclear, so Muslims need to repent and … take measures not to catch or transmit [the virus],” said Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi, a researcher at the Program on Extremism at the George Washington University.
“Isis is recommending various health guidelines to its members and supporters … [and] also encouraging them to not show mercy to the western countries … but rather to continue to attack them, and exploit their weaknesses in these times.”
Though the group has recommended that members do not travel to western countries to launch attacks, it has said that those already present should act. On Wednesday, German police arrested four suspected members alleged to be planning to bomb US military facilities.
Prosecutors said the men joined Isis in January 2019 and were instructed to form a cell in Germany. Their alleged targets included US air force bases in the country and individuals deemed critical of Islam.
In contrast, al-Qaida issued six pages of advice and commentary on Covid-19 last week, arguing that though the virus had cast “a gloomy, painful shadow over the entire world”, the arrival of the pandemic in the Muslim world was a consequence of “our own sins and … the obscenity and moral corruption … widespread in Muslim countries”.
The group, which has not launched attacks in the west for more than a decade, said the crisis was an opportunity “to spread the correct creed, call people to jihad in the way of Allah and revolt against oppression and oppressors”.
There are concerns the Coronavirus crisis could provide an opportunity for Islamic militants to win support as corrupt, inefficient and poorly resourced governments across Africa and the Middle East fail to provide adequate care for already distrustful populations. Islamist groups have repeatedly sought to exploit natural disasters in the past.
Few countries hit badly by extremism have effective health systems and, though the full extent of the spread of the disease is difficult to gauge, many are likely to suffer acutely from the virus in coming weeks and months.
Refugees and detainees – two communities already vulnerable to extremist recruitment – are particularly exposed to the new disease. Isis has recognised this, calling on fighters to make extra efforts to liberate imprisoned members of the group.
In Somalia, al-Shabaab held an urgent meeting two weeks ago to discuss the threat of the epidemic where senior commanders decided to tell Muslims to take precautions against the disease.
Al-Shabaab, which controls swaths of territory and is fighting local government forces backed by US airstrikes and other African troops, blamed the disease on “the crusader forces who have invaded the country and the disbelieving countries that support them”.
An al-Shabaab leader said the group rejoiced in the suffering of the US and its European allies.
“Coronavirus has uncovered the weakness of those who claimed to be superpowers such US, France, Italy, Germany and Britain,” Fu’ad Mohamed Khalaf told a congregation in a mosque in an al-Shabaab-controlled area of southern Somalia, according to the group’s news channels.
A spokesman for the group said it was too soon to comment on whether the group would heed a UN plea for a ceasefire or whether it would allow health workers to access areas it controlled.
In Afghanistan, the Taliban have said they will assist any humanitarian organisation that is helping victims of the virus or helping to stop its spread, and in some parts of the country have offered to cooperate with local authorities.
The Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahed told the Associated Press news agency: “If, God forbid, the outbreak happens in an area where we control the situation, then we can stop fighting in that area.”
The movement has also distributed images of Taliban medics distributing soap, masks and gloves in the eastern province of Nangarhar, and lecturing community leaders on precautions to stop the spread of the disease.
Those groups that have shown little interest in winning the support of local communities are often those that have taken the hardest line.
Abubakar Shekau, the leader of the Boko Haram breakaway faction of extremists in Nigeria, released an audio clip this week claiming that his brutal version of Islam was an “anti-virus” and portraying social distancing measures that have closed mosques as an assault on the faith.
As well as providing an opportunity for militants, the pandemic may undermine the international effort against Islamist extremism, some experts say.
“It is almost certainly correct that Covid-19 will handicap domestic security efforts and international counter-Isis cooperation, allowing the jihadists to better prepare spectacular terror attacks,” the International Crisis Group said.
Though analysts said it was too soon to point to attacks that could be blamed specifically on militants exploiting the coronavirus, Islamist extremists in late March carried out their deadliest assault yet against the military of Chad, a significant contributor to Africa’s growing counterterrorism efforts. At least 92 soldiers were killed near the border with Nigeria and Niger.
Fighters affiliated to al-Qaida killed 29 soldiers in Mali on 19 March. An Islamist extremist group in northern Mozambique has also launched a series of attacks of unprecedented scale in recent weeks, while on Tuesday, a police officer and seven suspected militants were killed in an exchange of gunfire in central Cairo.
Iraq, where the pandemic has prompted the US-led coalition to halt training activities amid a planned pullout from several bases, has seen a surge in attacks by Isis in the last week.
There are signs elsewhere that the militaries of the US, Britain and other countries are also pulling back because of the virus, leaving a possible opening for the extremists.
In March, the US Africa Command cancelled two major exercises with African allies “for force protection considerations”. African military units, already stretched thin, are likely to take protective measures as the virus threatens their ranks.