Jihadis' Theological Perception Of The Coronavirus Pandemic: A Review Of Terror Organizations' Responses To COVID-19 And The Resulting Security Implications - Part I

October 22, 2018

I. Background

Since the coronavirus pandemic began, jihadis have been following it closely. Beginning with early chatter in late January 2020, this topic is a frequent focus of their online discourse. Additionally, it is impacting the global jihad, and, as U.S. and Western government officials are underlining, it could have security and other ramifications.

On their official social media, jihadis have been posting news reports and articles, as well as guidelines, that are being widely read and republished. Some of these publications are aimed specifically at women. The publications express a desire to infect others, even to contract the virus deliberately in order to do so. Notably, one jihadi wrote: "I think to work in hospital in Texas to make sure all die, if they not die, I would inject more Abu Corona on them." This kind of threat could be a long-term issue for counterterrorism efforts. This online discourse is providing a vital window into their thinking, and counterterrorism officials should be monitoring both open and encrypted platforms for threats and intelligence.

Security officials across the West, including the UN, have warned of the increased threat of terrorist attacks posed by jihadis and other extremists during the pandemic.[2] Many have emphasized that the restrictions, lockdowns, unemployment, and other elements of governments' attempts to control the spread of the coronavirus are contributing to a rise in terrorist recruitment and propaganda efforts. This highlights all the more that global jihad is dependent upon the Internet. Additionally, since terrorists tend to adapt quickly and take advantage of uncertain and unstable situations, the pandemic creates a prime breeding ground for jihadi activity. It has been posited also that the greatest danger will come after the first wave of the pandemic but before a vaccine is available, and that in the years following its end, as the world recovers, the gains made by jihadis are likely to bear fruit.[3]

The MEMRI Jihad and Terrorism Threat Monitor (JTTM) and Cyber and Jihad Lab (CJL) teams have been carrying out up-to-the-minute monitoring of these developments 24/7 since jihadis' earliest mentions of the coronavirus, in January 2020. As the second phase of the pandemic begins, they are continuing to share their findings with counterterrorism officials in the U.S. and worldwide who are focusing on threats by these groups.

U.S. Government Addresses Possibility Of Increased Terrorist Threat During Pandemic

U.S. government officials, including from the FBI, the Departments of Justice, State, and Homeland Security, and the U.S. Armed Forces, began addressing the matter of increased terrorist threats in March 2020. FBI Director Chris Wray said in a March 19 video message that agents would be extra vigilant in monitoring threats against the country as the virus spreads, underlining: "[T]here are reports about individuals... trying to exploit the coronavirus... [C]riminals and adversaries may also seek to capitalize on this situation."[4]

FBI Director Christopher Wray in FBI video. (Source: Fbi.gov/video-repository/director-covid19-031920.mp4/view, March 19, 2020.)

A few days later, on March 23, the Department of Homeland Security's Counterterrorism Mission Center and Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Office circulated a memo to law enforcement officials across the U.S. warning that terrorists may attempt to take advantage of the coronavirus pandemic by attacking the U.S. in the near future. The memo stated that "violent extremists probably are seeking to exploit public fears associated with the spread of COVID-19 to incite violence, intimidate targets and promote their ideologies, and we assess these efforts will intensify in the coming months."

Citing a call by ISIS, in its weekly newsletter, for supporters to carry out attacks against overburdened health care systems in Western countries, the memo stated: "ISIS has told its membership that their globe-spanning war is to go on, even as the virus spreads. Moreover, it has told them that the national and international security regimes that help keep the group in check are about to be overloaded, and that they should take maximum advantage."[5] The memo was referring to the editorial in the ISIS Al-Naba' weekly's March 19 issue, titled "The Crusaders' Worst Nightmare," that underlined that the pandemic "coincides with the caliphate's preparations to launch new strikes, similar the ones it launched in Paris and London and Brussels." It added that the "financial losses of the Crusaders and tyrants" and "their preoccupation with protecting their countries from themselves and their other enemies" will contribute greatly to "weakening their capabilities to fight the mujahideen."[6]

Another government document, a March 24, 2020 memo from U.S. Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey A. Rosen that was circulated to federal law enforcement and U.S. attorneys, addressed the many crimes prosecutors might seek to explore in the wake of the global pandemic. It deemed the coronavirus a "biological agent" and said that therefore certain acts related to it would be charged as federal crimes of terrorism. Stating that officials might encounter "the purposeful exposure and infection of others" with the virus, the memo cited particular laws governing the development and possession of biological agents for use as a weapon, threats by wire and mail and false information, and hoaxes regarding biological weapons. It added: "Threats or attempts to use COVID-19 as a weapon against Americans will not be tolerated."[7]

By now, the FBI had already investigated cases of neo-Nazi and white supremacists encouraging followers[8] who became infected to spread the disease to police officers and to Jews, and there were additional reported instances of attempts at deliberate infection. A New Jersey man breathed on someone and informed them that he was infected. A woman who deliberately coughed on produce in a Pennsylvania supermarket, announced she had COVID-19, and said "you are all going to get sick" was charged with two felony counts of terrorist threats and one count of threats to use a "biological agent."[9]

Department of Justice National Security Division head John Demers also discussed, in an extensive March 27 interview,[10] how it may prompt some terrorists to accelerate plans for attacks. He noted that the department and the FBI are closely monitoring how the virus is shaping their plans and where and when they may see "windows of opportunities" – for example, while public places are not crowded, hospitals are. There are still "a few cases of people who want to travel to other countries and engage in terrorist activities" and that the agency is exploring this, and that also "there are worries that people could try to weaponize their own illness by trying to infect other people."

Politico.com, March 27, 2020; John Demers, Wall Street Journal, December 13, 2019.

In an April letter to FBI Director Christopher Wray, Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf and Acting Director of National Intelligence Richard Grenell, Senators Maggie Hassan (NH-D) and James Lankford (OK-R) expressed concern about terror threats during the pandemic. They underlined that government counterterrorism officials may have been forced to work from home and that some front-line police forces have been hobbled as they fight the virus themselves.[11]

Another matter considered by counterterror officials and others, in the U.S. and abroad, is the security risk of face masks. While prior to the pandemic Islamic face coverings were banned in some places because of the security risk, at the time of writing face masks are recommended or required to enter many facilities and businesses and to obtain a variety of services. On April 21, 2020, Spanish police arrested Abdel-Majed Abdel Bary, a British-Egyptian jihadi who had joined ISIS in Syria in 2013. Referred to by authorities as "one of the most wanted terrorists in Europe," he was previously a rapper known as "Jinny." Officials said that he and two associates had entered the country under cover of the pandemic, wearing face masks to disguise themselves. Abdel Bary is known for having posed with a severed head in Syria and is believed to be one of several British jihadis under investigation for the 2014 beheading of American photojournalist James Foley. [12]

Left, Abdel-Majed Abdel Bary in Syria; right, his arrest in Spain, April 21, 2020, The Guardian, April 21, 2020

Video footage of the August 14 extradition of jihadi Sheikh Abdullah Al-Faisal from Jamaica to the U.S. showed him and his captors masked against the coronavirus.[13]

Al-Faisal is, according to Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr, who indicted him in 2017, "one of the most prolific recruiters for jihadists globally." [14]

Source: Nbcnews.com/video/video-shows-the-extradition-of-sheikh-abdullah-al-faisal-90098757652, August 14, 2020.

Source: Nbcnews.com/video/video-shows-the-extradition-of-sheikh-abdullah-al-faisal-90098757652, August 14, 2020.

With regard to U.S. military efforts in other countries, the Lead Inspector General for the U.S. military's Operation Pacific Eagle-Philippines noted in its quarterly report to the U.S. Congress, released August 13, that ISIS East Asia was seeking to take advantage of the Philippines armed forces' efforts to fight the coronavirus pandemic in order to strengthen its position and make new advances. It said that extremist groups tried to use social distancing restrictions necessitated by COVID-19 as a propaganda tool, and that several social media accounts with possible ties to ISIS-East Asia threatened violence if mosques weren’t reopened and framed the Philippine government as incompetent. [15]

The pandemic is also impacting U.S. decision-making regarding imprisoned terrorists. On August 18, 2020, U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema, in Alexandria, Virginia ordered the imprisoned Iraqi-American Salafi preacher Ali Al-Tamimi, from the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area, released from custody while he pursues an appeal for his 2005 life sentence for inciting his followers in northern Virginia to join the Taliban and wage jihad against U.S. forces shortly after the 9/11 attacks. The release was in part because of concerns that he is susceptible to the coronavirus. Al-Tamimi supporters shared their jubilant reactions on social media. For example, on August 18, Facebook user An-Nu'maan Ibn Muqrin Al-Muzanee shared a news article about his temporary release, and wrote: "Allahu Akbar! Alhumdililah. Shaykh Ali At-Tamimi has been released from prison after 15 years!!!" [16]

An article titled "The Future Role of the U.S. Armed Forces in Counterterrorism" in the September 2020 issue of the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point's CTC Sentinel noted that "reduced defense spending in the post-pandemic environment will further increase pressure to cut counterterrorism." This, stated the article, will require the U.S. Armed Forces to shift their priorities.[17]

International Authorities Warn About Security Issues

Authorities across the globe have also been warning about security issues that can develop due to the pandemic. EU counterterrorism chief Gilles de Kerchove stressed, on April 30, that governments should not overlook security issues, including the risk of frustration over lockdowns and economic hardships that foster radicalization and recruitment. He added, "The massive amount of money that will be spent to address the economic, social and healthcare consequences of the virus risks being at the expense of security. We must prevent the one crisis ending up producing another."[18]

In the UK in June, Lord Carlile of Berriew, who for a decade was the UK's independent reviewer of terrorist legislation, warned about jihadis trying "use the Covid-19 global crisis to their advantage," and are "determined to try and capitalize on the new geopolitical realities." He went on to state: "They believe that key national and international institutions will be distracted by the crisis at home, that counter-terrorism, security, and military budgets will be reduced as a result of the economic consequences of the pandemic, that instability in conflict zones will continue with increasing numbers of refugees, and that unemployment and economic hardships will impact increasing numbers of potentially vulnerable people across the world. In addition, the lockdowns imposed in many countries may have helped terrorist groups to recruit and radicalise new individuals." Islamic extremist groups, he said, "define Covid-19 as a result of God's wrath, calling for Western countries to turn to Islam in response." He also warned of the weaknesses of the UK's Prevent program aimed at tackling the issue of extremism in prisons, and called for the re-introduction of terrorism control orders. [19]

Also that month, on June 6, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said that while "it is too early to fully assess the implications of COVID-19 on the terrorism landscape... we know that ISIS, Al-Qaeda, [and] their regional affiliates... seek to exploit divisions, local conflicts, governance failures and grievances to advance their objectives." He added: "Psycho-social, economic and political stresses associated with COVID-19 have risen dramatically. Terrorists must not be allowed to exploit those fissures and fragilities." [20] The previous day, UN Under-Secretary-General for Peace Operations Jean-Pierre Lacroix had told the UN Security Council that the last six months had been particularly challenging across the Sahel region in Africa. He said: "We are seeing attempts by terrorists and other groups in the region to capitalize on the pandemic to undermine State authority and destabilize Governments," noting that this came with innocent lives being lost daily, schools shuttered, and many people denied access to basic social services. "It will take years to rebuild affected communities in the Sahel even under the best of circumstances (as well as) sustained efforts to ensure that nobody is left behind," he added. [21]

Andrei Novikov, head of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) Anti-Terrorism Center, said in late June that jihadi recruiters are encouraging new members of international terrorist organizations to spread the coronavirus in public places. He added: "While governments are trying to ensure health security, focusing on protecting the lives and health of their people, recruiters of international terrorist groups are not just taking advantage of the difficult situation in order to recruit more 'jihad soldiers,' they are calling on infected members to spread COVID-19 as wide as possible in public places, state agencies and so on." He also said that "countries that have effective systems to control the epidemiological situation, identify the infected and treat the sick are in the best position." [22]

A report on the short-term and potential long-term impact of the pandemic on terrorists and terrorist groups, released in June by the UN Security Council Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate, underlined the captive online audience now available to recruiters. This, it said, included over 1 billion students no longer in school full time who are "engaging in unsupervised Internet usage." Noting that "the reported rise in cybercrime could also lead to increased connectivity between terrorists and criminal actors," it added that some terrorist groups now had an opportunity to step up their roles as "alternative service providers, in "delivery of essential services and promot[ing] the relative effectiveness of their health and social care efforts." Future counterterrorism efforts could be strengthened by possible mass digital surveillance to trace person-to-person contacts and increased state authority, it said. In the short term, according to the report, jihadis can expect increased border security and restrictions on movement due to the pandemic, as well as negative impacts on resources and supply chains, especially in remote areas. Their popularity may also actually wane, as media attention to their attacks may be reduced – though it could also prompt them to carry out even more "attention-grabbing" attacks, such as the May 2020 attack on a maternity hospital in Afghanistan, but this could also alienate potential supporters. [23]

Afghan officials said on June 25 that the virus was sweeping through the country's security forces, severely reducing the forces available to carry out operations and forcing troops into quarantine as the country faces increased Taliban activity. Senior Afghan officials from four provinces of the country reported suspected infection rates of 60%-90% among their units. [24]

A July 23 report by the UN's Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team stated that in Iraq, ISIS had "exploited security gaps caused by the pandemic and by political turbulence in Iraq to relaunch a sustained rural insurgency, as well as sporadic operations in Baghdad and other large cities." According to the report, ISIS was also exploiting the pandemic-related security gaps in Iraq to relaunch and invigorate its rural insurgency in the country, and that "Al-Qaeda has ingrained itself in local communities and conflicts." The number of ISIS attacks in Iraq and Syria had "increased significantly in early 2020 as compared with the same period in 2019," it said, and estimated that there are currently over 10,000 ISIS fighters in Iraq and Syria, and that the organization still has about $100 million in reserves.

According to a report to the U.S. Congress, during the past quarter in Africa, the coronavirus pandemic posed an emerging challenge to U.S. government counterterrorism efforts. The report, by the U.S. Congress on the East Africa Counterterrorism Operation and the North and West Africa Counterterrorism Operation, which are aimed at degrading Al-Qaeda and ISIS affiliates and other violent extremist organizations in designated regions of that country, covered January-March 2020 and was published in July. It stated that USAFRICOM had scaled back its advising to African forces as a result of the pandemic, and that many U.S. State Department and USAID staff returned to the United States under a DoS authorized departure order. USAID reported that these staff reductions and diversions of USAID stockpiles of personal protective equipment challenged the agency's pandemic response in Africa. [25] Local media reports state that the redirection of resources in East Africa and in North and West Africa, where ISIS is aggressively increasing its base, provides ample opportunity for it to regroup and redeploy, and allows it and other violent extremist groups to recruit youth, the majority of whom are unemployed or underemployed and out of school because of the pandemic. [26]

The pandemic has also impacted health efforts in the South Asia region. It was reported on July 20 that Pakistan had resumed its polio vaccination campaign, which had been suspended for four months due to the pandemic; Pakistan is one of the two countries in the world where polio remains a serious problem. [27]

Prosecution of ISIS crimes has been hampered by the pandemic. The United Nations Investigative Team to Promote Accountability for Crimes Committed by Da'esh/ISIL (UNITAD), which gathers testimonies and evidence from survivors and families of victims of crimes, massacres, and other atrocities carried out by ISIS for use in court cases, introduced, in July, an app for submitting evidence that it can no longer collect in person. [28]

ISIS is exploiting the gaps in security during the pandemic to regroup and plan a "divine punishment" in the West, targeting enemies while the West is "weakened and distracted," said the UN Security Council Committee in its July 16 report to the UN. The report added that attacks had "increased significantly in early 2020 as compared with the same period in 2019" and that a global recession could help ISIS recruit new members. "[Terrorist] groups are using the outbreak to advance propaganda and fundraising and, in some regions, are seeking to take advantage of perceptions that the attention of security forces is diverted elsewhere." It added: "At the same time, the pandemic has made cross-border travel more difficult and targets more elusive... Should the pandemic lead to a severe global recession, the international community may be faced with further headwinds in countering terrorism and extremist narratives."

However, the report added: "With public gatherings discouraged and venues closed, there are few targets available to terrorists looking to undertake ISIL-inspired attacks. This highlights the operational limitations of ISIL since it gave up its external operational capability. Member States believe that the group has increased the urgency with which it is seeking to reconstitute that capability, although there is no evidence that it has succeeded as yet." [29]

"Measures to minimize the spread of COVID-19, such as lockdowns and restrictions on movement, seem to have reduced the risk of terrorist attacks in many countries," UN counterterrorism chief Vladimir Voronkov told the UN Security Council on August 24. He added that there is, however, "a continued trend of attacks by individuals inspired online and acting alone or in small groups, which could be fueled by ISIS's opportunistic propaganda efforts during the COVID-19 crisis." ISIS and other jihadi groups, he said, seek "to exploit the far-reaching disruption and negative socioeconomic and political impacts of the pandemic." He added that the pandemic's impact on ISIS recruitment and fundraising activities remains unclear, and that there is no clear indication of a change in its strategic direction. In addition to further complicating "the already dire and unsustainable situation" of the detainees at camps in Syria and Iraq, especially women and children, he said, "repatriation, prosecution, rehabilitation, and reintegration and the protection of the vulnerable have become ever more urgent." [30]

Australian authorities noted in September that the threat of ISIS and the hundreds of fighters across the Asia-Pacific region had remained high throughout the pandemic, and that that government had relisted Islamic State East Asia as a terrorist organization, one of 27 listed under the country's criminal code. [31] Earlier, in June, Australian Security Intelligence Organization chief Mike Burgess said that with more Australians at home and online during lockdowns, terrorists have "a world of opportunity" to spread their ideology and try to radicalize citizens. [32]

Weaponizing The Coronavirus – A Growing Possibility

Security officials have detected increasing interest among ISIS members in using the virus as a weapon during the pandemic. Lt.-Gen. (ret.) Michael Nagata, former director of the Directorate of Strategic Operational Planning at the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center, underlined that while "The U.S. counterterrorism community has long held that the use of a biological agent of some kind for a major terrorist attack is not a matter of if, but when," but that it can be assumed that "terrorists are likely to provide early warning by failing several times in the process, despite improved technologies or capabilities." Additionally, Juan Zarate, a senior fellow at the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, stated that "the severity and extreme disruption" of the pandemic "will likely spur the imagination of the most creative and dangerous groups and individuals to reconsider bioterrorist attacks." He added: "The demonstration effects of this moment for terrorists with destructive, global ambitions represent one of the most dangerous externalities of this crisis. This then requires a deliberate focus on countering bioterrorism, as an element of a broader global response to this crisis." [33]

Biosecurity expert Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, who was commanding officer of the UK Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear (CBRN) Regiment and NATO's Rapid Reaction CBRN Battalion, [34] said that ISIS and Al-Qaeda had "experimented with bioweapons but found chemical much easier to make," but that "the COVID experience will undoubtedly change this and we must now be on our guard, as it has brought the world to its knees and will take years to get out of it." [35]

The UK-based David Otto, a NATO recommended Counter Terrorism Expert and lecturer for the NATO Against Terrorism programs at NATO School and a pioneer expert for the Interpol Global Counter Terrorism Strategy who presented terrorism solutions at the 2016 Interpol General Assembly Private & Confidential – Bali Indonesia alongside the U.S. Deputy Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL at Department of State.[36] said in mid-August: "The end game for terrorists is to punish infidels, and there is nothing stopping an ISIS sympathizer or an ISIS fighter infected with Covid-19 to go around and infect more people in the name of jihad." The aim, he added, "would not be to actually kill the people that they're spreading the virus against but to force a lockdown to weaken and punish the economies of Western countries that would have to treat these infected individuals... The key is for extreme preventive vigilance against biological warfare where ISIS has failed in direct combat. Its caliphate has fallen but the ideology is still standing... [T]errorists are looking at ways to turn this global pandemic into a gain to suit their perceived goals – how they can launch attacks which would have a more significant impact in a time when most countries are focusing on tackling the coronavirus."[37]

Themes In The Jihadi Discourse On The Coronavirus Pandemic, And Platforms Being Used

MEMRI JTTM research has found a number of themes in the jihadi discourse on the coronavirus pandemic:

About This Report

In the first phase of the pandemic, nearly every major jihadi group and sheikh issued statements about and discussed the pandemic, and it is a major topic in ISIS, Al-Qaeda, Hay'at Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS), and other organizations' official media outlets, news channels, and publications online. They are using a range of platforms, including mainstream ones such as Facebook, Twitter, the Internet Archive, but also encrypted ones such as Telegram and Rocket.chat as well as dedicated websites and forums. They are even following Western media's coronavirus coverage, and are even sharing and commenting on reports from it. For example, a pro-ISIS Rocket.chat posted an Arabic translation of a Foreign Policy article stating that coronavirus self-quarantine provided an opportunity for extremist groups to spread propaganda and misinformation and encourage violence. [38] Additionally, when Western media interpreted directives published in the ISIS weekly Al-Naba' as instructions to fighters not to attack the West at this time, jihadis called this a Western lie.[39]

Foreign Policy article in pro-ISIS Rocket.chat

It is clear that jihadi organizations do not consider the coronavirus as something that can negatively impact them – underlined by the fact that they are not circulating conspiracy theories accusing the Jews of creating it and propagating it. On the contrary: Jihadis consider the coronavirus as an ally and as soldier of Allah to fight their enemies.

It is interesting to note that no statements about the coronavirus have been made by Al-Qaeda leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri or by ISIS leader Abu Ibrahim Al-Hashemi Al-Qurayshi. Also, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has issued no statements on it.

This in-depth report documents all major official releases by leading jihadi groups, as well as chatter by their followers, both in the West and worldwide. It highlights discussions of emerging potential areas of threat, and how the pandemic is inspiring increased jihad activity. And, as the virus impacts terrorist activity and movements on the ground, it highlights implications for the future of global jihad.



The Cyber & Jihad Lab

The Cyber & Jihad Lab monitors, tracks, translates, researches, and analyzes cyber jihad originating from the Middle East, Iran, South Asia, and North and West Africa. It innovates and experiments with possible solutions for stopping cyber jihad, advancing legislation and initiatives federally – including with Capitol Hill and attorneys-general – and on the state level, to draft and enforce measures that will serve as precedents for further action. It works with leaders in business, law enforcement, academia, and families of terror victims to craft and support efforts and solutions to combat cyber jihad, and recruits, and works with technology industry leaders to craft and support efforts and solutions.

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