This article was first published by American University in Cairo’s Cairo Review of Global Affairs. It was published as part of UCF’s partnership with AUC, thanks to the generous support of Jonathan and Nancy Wolf.
As the countries of the world, each in their own way, seek to combat the coronavirus (COVID-19), violent groups like the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and Al-Qaeda (AQ) see the pandemic as an opportunity to take advantage of the confusion and weakness created by the virus—which the jihadists view as a “punishment from God”—to plan and execute attacks, especially in the West. It is important to note that this desire to use the pandemic to attack enemies is not a new phenomenon but rather one connected to extremist discourse around virus epidemics in recent years.
During the Ebola outbreak of 2014, elements of AQ discussed weaponizing it for attacks against the United States and other Western countries. In October 2014, in the English language online forum Ansar al-Mujahideen, a member of AQ, noting the fear building in the United States, suggested using Ebola to “strike terror into the hearts of the west”. His idea was to have AQ members travel to areas where Ebola was active, become infected, and then enter the United States and other Western countries before they become symptomatic in order to spread the virus to as many people as possible. This was presented as an alternative to suicide bombing. Fortunately, it does not appear that any members of AQ were able to accomplish this task, either due to a lack of commitment or inability to access the region to become infected. Following this epidemic, there was no further discussion of Ebola’s weaponization. However, this did not temper the desire to take advantage of rare outbreaks as potential weapons.
The 2016 outbreak of the Zika virus was seen by ISIS as another opportunity to attack the United States in order to spread terror. During a chat in an ISIS deep web forum, one member noted that the World Health Organization considered Zika a serious global threat “similar to the Ebola virus”. He then suggested multiple ways to help spread Zika within the United States and Europe, including harvesting and relocating infected mosquitoes or developing a mosquito-breeding operation to facilitate a mass infection program. There was no discussion of the danger to those involved; quite the contrary, it was postulated that those involved would be “totally safe throughout the operation if (they) commit to secrecy and good behavior”.
When looking now at the COVID-19 pandemic, it is disconcerting to see the multitude of similar ideas that spring from the various online jihadist forums. Many ideas stated seem to be more fantasy than well thought-out operational planning. However, ISIS members and other violent extremists have taken an approach that appears not only practical but troubling in the extreme. In ISIS’ weekly online newsletter Al-Naba, for example, there is no lack of hyperbole regarding COVID-19. The ISIS mouthpiece states that the virus is God’s retribution against the West and a “soldier of Allah”.
Yet, this message is also coupled with conspiracy theories from within radical Shia groups like the Houthis in Yemen and the Hezbollah Brigades located in Iraq, that President Trump and the government of the United States unleashed COVID-19 on the world as a bioweapon. While these messages have little value outside these online communities, the desire to view the pandemic as an opportunity has proliferated. Both AQ and elements of ISIS see the virus as an opening to engage in attacks.
In March, the pro-AQ Thabat News Agency encouraged its fighters to keep up their jihad and use this pandemic to “hammer the final nail in the coffin” of the unbeliever. They declared that the virus was sent to weaken the West militarily and economically and be the “invisible soldier of Allah”. Surprisingly, they also criticize the Muslim community for adhering to Western guidelines and the closures of mosques. In what can be seen as a counterintuitive move, they urge Muslims to ignore the virus warnings and orders for mosque closures in order to attend prayers, even if this poses the danger of increasing the virus’ spread.
Likewise, in Al-Naba articles the virus is viewed as a “punishment from God” and its economic impact on the West is lauded. The AQ Thabat News Agency has referenced a March article in issue 226 of Al-Naba. In this article an ISIS member calls on “lone wolf jihadists” to capitalize on the paralysis overtaking “Crusade countries” during the pandemic and to “mount attacks.” When one considers the strain COVID-19 has placed upon police departments and other security elements within Western countries, and indeed all countries, the threat posed by these extremist elements cannot and should not be ignored. While the United States has indicated great concern about the threat posed by increased drug cartels in Latin America, our security forces can ill-afford taking their eyes off the terrorist threat.
News stories relating the impact of the virus on police departments, Transport Security Administration (TSA) officers, healthcare workers, and first responders only serve to reinforce the message from AQ and ISIS that Western countries have been weakened. Fortunately, as with previous epidemics and calls to action, there is no evidence to suggest there are members within these extremist communities willing to commit attacks at this time. However, it is important to note that it only takes one committed individual to perpetrate a violent attack that results in a large number of casualties. Attacks in Paris, Brussels, Nice, and London are prime examples, as is the 2016 Pulse Nightclub attack in Orlando. Even though these “lone-wolf” terrorists are the most difficult to identify, security services must remain ever-vigilant toward detecting and thwarting any plots against the citizens of their countries.
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) both recognize that extremist elements are hoping to take advantage of this pandemic. In a bulletin by the DHS’s Counterterrorism Mission Center and Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Office, the Department acknowledges that while the extremists seek to exploit public fear to incite violence, there is currently no intelligence to suggest an active plot is underway. Similarly, in a video to the Bureau workforce, FBI Director Chris Wray stated, “With all the worry and uncertainty out there, we want the public to know that there are still things they can count on: We’re here, and we’re going to stay here, to protect them, no matter what. Because our criminal and national security adversaries sure aren’t going to take a day off—whether that’s for the coronavirus or, for that matter, anything else.” No doubt this includes looking for clues within the various online fora where jihadist members seek advice and offer operational assistance.
An important weapon in our counter terrorism arsenal is the community of everyday users online who, upon seeing something suspicious, ought to report this extremist dialogue to the authorities for investigation. Just as defeating the COVID-19 virus requires everyone do their part to prevent the spread of the disease, we can also be a part of preventing any mass casualty attacks by ISIS or AQ sympathizers by paying attention to extremist comments or content we might see and passing that information on to law enforcement.
Ted Reynolds is Director of Terrorism Studies at UCF.