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How Jihadists Are Reacting to the Coronavirus Pandemic
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How Jihadists Are Reacting to the Coronavirus Pandemic

By calling it “divine retribution” and inviting Westerners to convert to Islam, for starters.

While governments around the world are still trying to contain the coronavirus pandemic, al-Qaeda is attempting to use the crisis to win new recruits. Last week, jihadist websites and social media channels circulated a long missive from al-Qaeda’s senior leadership titled, “The Way Forward: A Word of Advice on the Coronavirus Pandemic.” The six-page statement was clearly written for a Western audience, as English and Arabic versions were disseminated at the same time. The authors, who are fluent in English, have been closely following our news. 

Al-Qaeda crows that the pandemic “has exposed the brittleness of a global economy dominated by the United States,” after President Trump was “bragging” just “a few weeks back” about “economic growth, historically low unemployment rates and one of the longest ever bull rallies [on] Wall Street.” All of that economic prosperity has been reversed by the virus, a “powerful tsunami” that has left millions out of work and raised the prospect of a “long-term recession.”

It is not unusual to see al-Qaeda comment on the American economy. One of the organization’s long-running themes is that the 9/11 wars have cost the U.S. an inordinate amount of money, draining its blood and treasure. But in the new statement, the economic critique merely sets up al-Qaeda’s real message: a call for men and women in the West to convert.  An entire section of the statement is devoted to “A General Call for the Masses in the Western World to Embrace Islam.” An “invisible soldier” has supposedly exposed the inherent weakness of the West’s materialistic ways. 

“O’ people of the Western World! You have seen with your own eyes the power and might of Allah exhibited in this weak, invisible soldier,” the statement reads. Al-Qaeda offers a long litany of grievances and complaints against the West, repeating the tired trope that the American and European governments are at war with all of Islam. 

“We invite you to reflect on the phenomenon that is COVID-19 and carefully consider its deeper causes,” al-Qaeda’s senior leaders write. “The truth remains, whether we like it or not, that this pandemic is a punishment from the Lord of the Worlds for the injustice and oppression committed against Muslims specifically and mankind generally by the governments you elect.” After inviting Western citizens to convert, al-Qaeda stresses that “Islam is a hygiene-oriented Religion,” which “lays great stress on principles of prevention so as to protect one from all forms of disease.”

Al-Qaeda repeats the claim that COVID-19 is a “Divine” retribution for the alleged moral and intellectual decadence of the West. The obvious problem with the terrorists’ argument: The coronavirus doesn’t discriminate by religion, ethnicity, or geography – and many of al-Qaeda’s own could easily suffer from the virus. Some of the group’s most senior leaders, including its global emir, Ayman al-Zawahiri, are elderly and potentially susceptible. 

Al-Qaeda isn’t the only terrorist group to see Allah’s hand in COVID-19. So does ISIS. In a series of articles in ISIS’s weekly, Arabic Al-Naba newsletter, the former caliphate has called on its followers to plan new attacks, now that security services are distracted. ISIS wants its men to use this opportunity to conduct operations such as those carried out in Europe in the past. The U.S. and its allies have systematically targeted ISIS’s international terrorist wing, thereby limiting the jihadists’ ability to launch spectacular attacks in the West. It’s easy to see why ISIS would want to exploit any opening it can.

Like al-Qaeda’s senior leaders, ISIS is pleased by the economic damage wrought by the virus in the West – claiming that the “Crusaders” are on the verge of “economic calamity.” ISIS has also provided its followers with rudimentary health advice, claimed the virus is Allah’s punishment for the Chinese government’s oppression of the Uighur Muslim minority, and warned that international travel, including to Europe, could lead to COVID-19 spreading across Muslims lands.

Both ISIS and al-Qaeda operate global networks, which stretch across multiple continents. And their regional arms are reacting to the coronavirus pandemic as well. One particular concern is that they will launch operations to spring their imprisoned comrades – as both have argued that detained Muslims shouldn’t be forgotten during this health pandemic.

Shabaab is al-Qaeda’s branch in Somalia, where the jihadists are attempting to build an Islamic emirate, or state. Shabaab blames the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) and its Western allies for spreading COVID-19 throughout Somalia, saying the “international Crusaders” are responsible for bringing the pandemic to East Africa. Of course, this is entirely self-serving, as AMISOM is one of the main forces opposed to Shabaab’s expansionist designs. Shabaab’s main “news” site has provided near-daily reports on the situation throughout Africa, documenting how the virus has spread throughout one country after another. 

In Afghanistan, the Taliban seeks to resurrect its own Islamic emirate. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad concluded a withdrawal agreement with the Taliban on Feb. 29, promising a full American retreat in exchange for the Taliban’s vague and entirely dubious counterterrorism assurances. Pompeo claims the Taliban has agreed to “destroy” al-Qaeda’s organization in Afghanistan, even though the written accord says no such thing

More than one month after the agreement was finalized, there is no evidence of social distancing between the Taliban and al-Qaeda. However, the Taliban is using the pandemic to portray its emirate as a responsible and legitimate government. The Taliban has produced dozens of images of its “public awareness and quarantine centers” throughout Afghanistan. The photos show the Islamic Emirate’s “Health Commission” handing out literature, isolating individuals who appear to be infected, and providing some rudimentary treatments. The group has also used the virus to agitate for the release of its prisoners held by the Afghan government, claiming that the facilities make it easy for men to be infected. While this is probably true, the Taliban has an obvious interest in seeing its fighters freed, so they can rejoin the jihad. 

Tom Joscelyn is a senior fellow at Just Security.