While most of the world suffers from the impact of the Coronavirus, the Islamic State terrorist organization (ISIS, also known as Daesh) is finding ways to exploit the pandemic to its advantage. ISIS’s exploitation of the virus has taken two forms. First, the terrorist organization is using the virus to spread conspiracy theories, propaganda, and misinformation on the internet. Second, the terrorist organization is taking advantage of the gaps caused by the pandemic in providing security in its previously controlled territory in Iraq and Syria.
According to a report published by the United Nations Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute (UNICRI) in November 2020, ISIS has been taking advantage of the fear and chaos caused by COVID-19 to spread propaganda, recruit followers, and incite violence. While ISIS’s use of the internet as a tool for propaganda and recruitment is not new, the way the terrorist organization has used the internet to exploit COVID-19 is innovative.
ISIS has actively spread misinformation about the origins of the Coronavirus, insisting that the pandemic is “God’s way of punishing non-believers and that the virus is proof of God’s wrath of the West.” ISIS has, also, encouraged followers to use COVID-19 as a form of biological warfare to infect and punish the individuals whom they call “the non-believers.” These messages are supported by the fact that ISIS claims it has the “real” knowledge of the virus and that when the pandemic is over a new society will emerge in which ISIS is victorious and its enemies have been defeated.
The purpose of this misinformation is to dismantle people’s trust in their ruling governments and undermine governments’ credibility, while reinforcing ISIS’s narrative as a reality. ISIS hopes that by undermining government credibility, people will seek alternative sources of leadership and, thus, look to ISIS, which will in turn gain more followers and authority.
Another objective of ISIS’s intentional spread of misinformation surrounding the Coronavirus is to encourage individuals to radicalize and carry out lone-wolf attacks in the name of ISIS. Lone-wolf attacks are terrorist attacks carried out by one individual without the traditional direct support and supply by the recruiting terrorist organization.
In addition to exploiting the effects of COVID-19 to spread propaganda on the internet, ISIS is also taking advantage of the gaps in security and political stability that the pandemic has caused. In July, 2020, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) issued its “Twenty-Sixth Report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team.” In the report, UNSC mentioned that the number of attacks by ISIS in the Levant region has increased significantly, since 2019. The year 2020 has seen an uptick in attacks in ISIS’ former core areas in Syria and Iraq where about ten thousand ISIS fighters are currently moving between the two countries, especially near the Syria-Iraq border of the Anbar and Ninewa governorates.
According to the UNSC report, ISIS fighters are scattered in small cells and have been conducting hit-and-run operations, with the intention of exploiting the security gaps and political instability that have emerged in Iraqi and Kurdish security forces and governance since the start of the pandemic. At the same time ISIS has increased the number of political assassinations against Iraqi and Kurdish officials, only perpetuating political instability and taking advantage of the growing power vacuum. The terrorist organization also attacks local businesses that support local governments, further inciting the chaos and violence that the group thrives on.
Below are some recommendations for concerned governments in the Middle East about how to deal with the threats of terrorist organizations, like ISIS, during the pandemic:
• Although ISIS has been using the pandemic to its advantage, the group has still been negatively affected. Middle Eastern governments should capitalize on the ways that ISIS has been weakened by COVID-19 in order to prevent the terrorist organization from strengthening during COVID.
• Curfews and travel restrictions that are effectively enforced have curbed ISIS’s ability to travel freely and interrupted their plans. These restrictions are more heavily enforced in cities. Rural areas, where ISIS is thriving, are suffering because they do not have the same level of enforcement of restrictive policies. Accordingly, governments should invest in deploying more security forces to rural areas to enforce curfews and travel restrictions that weaken ISIS and keep communities safe.
• COVID-19 prevents people from gathering in the large crowds that ISIS likes to target in their terrorist attacks. A lack of people in public spaces has made it difficult for ISIS to inflict violence on civilians for political gain in their usual manner. Therefore, governments should continue to advise people against gathering in large groups, both for their own safety against the spread of COVID-19, but also to prevent attacks from terrorist organizations like ISIS.
• Lastly, governments should invest in artificial intelligence tools used to detect and dismantle misinformation online. The fewer platforms ISIS has to spread propaganda, recruit, and radicalize individuals, the weaker they will be.