Cairo, Egypt – Seven months into the COVID-19 pandemic, and the health and socioeconomic impact has already been devastating. While presenting governments around the world with multiple novel challenges, it is also exacerbating existing ones, most notably terrorism.
On one hand, and despite the UN Secretary General’s call for a global ceasefire, terrorist organizations and other non-state actors have stepped up their operations and recruitment. Most aim to capitalize on the diversion of states’ resources and attention because of the pandemic.
On the other hand, and equally troubling, is the likely impact of the pandemic on widening the breeding ground for extremism leading to terrorism. Widespread feelings of anxiety, uncertainty and isolation are making individuals more susceptible to radical ideologies. Lockdowns, social distancing and curfews are encouraging more people to move to digital platforms, where they are more vulnerable to becoming targets for online recruitment.
Acting in its capacity as the Secretariat of the Aswan Forum for Sustainable Peace and Development, the Cairo International Center for Conflict Resolution, Peacekeeping and Peacebuilding (CCCPA) hosted a two-hour virtual expert workshop, titled:
Terrorism in the Shadow of the Pandemic
The workshop aimed to take stock of the devastating socioeconomic, political and security implications of the COVID-19 crisis on terrorism and extremism. It also provided an opportunity to review the evidence on how terrorist organizations across Africa are strategically and operationally capitalizing on the pandemic to increase their operations, enhance territorial gains, and augment recruitment efforts.
The workshop brought together a select group of experts and practitioners from a wide spectrum of professional backgrounds, including DDR, counterterrorism, preventing extremism, development, and transitional justice, representing national governments, international and regional organizations, and research centers.
In her opening remarks, May Salem, Programme Manager for DDR and Preventing Radicalisation and Extremism Leading to Terrorism (PRELT) at CCCPA, highlighted that as states try to grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic, terrorist groups have seen it as a golden opportunity to expand their reach or to regain momentum: “Not only have terrorist groups exploited lockdowns and curfews to launch attacks across the African continent, they have also been fuelling mistrust in government institutions through their propaganda and the provision of public health services and humanitarian aid to civilian populations.”
Dr. Vanda FelBab-Brown, Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy, Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence, explained that despite recent reports of heightened military operations and attacks by terrorist groups since the onset of the pandemic, the medium and long-term impacts of such attacks cannot yet be discerned. Brown shed light on the challenges of governance that the pandemic brought to the fore, with heightened competition between the state and terrorist groups to provide basic goods and services to local populations: “Depending on how each terrorist group positions itself, and how much aid they attempt to provide to local populations, groups can potentially gain massive political capital.”
In his remarks, Allan Ngari, Senior Researcher, Transnational Threats and International Crime Programme at the Institute for Security Studies, provided an overview of terrorist trends in Africa in the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic. He emphasized the need to break institutional silos, especially between criminal justice and security interventions, in order to provide effective solutions at both the national and regional levels. Ngari added that “The fight against extremism cannot only be won through military prowess, important as it might be. Strong criminal justice systems grounded in respect for rule of law strengthen the legitimacy of the state by showing that all its institutions engage in the fight against terrorism. Cementing criminal justice responses is part of the arsenal against terrorism and it strips terrorists of their false badges of honor as fighters in a “just” war. “
On her part, Sheikha Khadija Gambo, Permanent Commissioner in the Kaduna State Peace Commission, emphasized that key to effectively combatting terrorism in Africa, during the pandemic and beyond, is addressing the root causes and structural drivers that propel individuals to join terrorist groups in the first place. Gambo spoke about the significance of local population perceptions: “In ungoverned spaces, the presence of government must be felt. The extent to which people have been abandoned and neglected has to be addressed. There must be a deliberate effort to engage the people at the local, state and federal levels to validate their concerns through dialogue.”
The workshop produced actionable policy recommendations for policymakers and practitioners aimed at exploring the outlines of a coherent and integrated response to the multifaceted impact of the novel coronavirus pandemic on terrorism and extremism in Africa. Among the recommendations were: framing the pandemic as a governance challenge, rather than merely a security challenge; the imperative of preventative efforts to address the root causes and structural drivers of conflict and terrorism; engaging local communities including religious and tribal leaders in response and recovery efforts; bridging institutional silos between various actors; and operationalizing existing tools and instruments, such at the regional level In Africa.
This event was made possible in part by the generous support of the Government of Japan, the Government of Sweden and the United Nations Development Programme.