Jihadis' Theological Perception Of The Coronavirus Pandemic: A Review Of Terror Organizations' Responses To COVID-19 And The Resulting Security Implications – Part II – October 2020-August 24, 2022

By: Steven Stalinsky, R. Sosnow, S. Ali, N. Mozes, Y. Kerman, A. Smith, and G. Pacchiani*
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October 25, 2022
By: Steven Stalinsky, R. Sosnow, S. Ali, N. Mozes, Y. Kerman, A. Smith, and G. Pacchiani*

 

Table of Contents

Introduction

FOREWORD BY AMB. ALBERTO M. FERNANDEZ, MEMRI Vice President, Former President of the Middle East Broadcasting Networks (MBN), and Former State Department's Coordinator for the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications

I. Jihadis Contracting COVID-19

II. Jihadis Who Have Died Of COVID-19

III. COVID-19 Guidance and Updates – Promoting Social Distancing, Quarantining, Encouraging And Discouraging Vaccination

IV. Calls For Violence Amid Western Protests Against COVID Vaccine And Other Mandates

V. General COVID-19 Discussion Covers Topics Such As Media Preoccupation With Virus, Possible Cure For Virus

VI. Jihadis Celebrate World Leaders, Rival Jihadi Leaders Contracting COVID-19

VII. "Collapsing" Governments And COVID-19 As Divine Punishment

 

Introduction

On October 22, 2020, the MEMRI Jihad and Terrorism Threat Monitor (JTTM) released its landmark study Jihadis' Theological Perception Of The Coronavirus Pandemic: A Review of Terror Organizations' Responses To COVID-19 And The Resulting Security Implications. The report detailed jihadis' responses and reactions to the COVID-19 pandemic. From the outbreak of the pandemic, MEMRI's JTTM and Cyber Jihad Lab (CJL) research teams worked together to monitor and track jihadi activity related to COVID-19 and jihadi reactions to government anti-COVID measures.

The report documented the increase in online jihadi threats as well as jihadi outreach, propaganda, recruitment, and fundraising efforts from the very first days of the pandemic, and warned that the greatest danger from jihadi groups and individuals would come after the first wave of the pandemic and before a vaccine was available.

Click here to read the MEMRI study Jihadis' Theological Perception Of The Coronavirus Pandemic: A Review of Terror Organizations' Responses To COVID-19 And The Resulting Security Implications


FOREWORD BY AMB. ALBERTO M. FERNANDEZ, MEMRI Vice President, Former President of the Middle East Broadcasting Networks (MBN), and Former State Department's Coordinator for the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications

The following is Amb. Fernandez's Foreword to Part I of this series:

The weaponization of disease has an ancient and fateful history. Plagues and epidemics have devastated armies and weakened empires. In the 14th century, Mongol armies besieging Genoese possessions on the Black Sea catapulted corpses of bubonic plague victims into enemy strongholds. Genoese ships spread the disease to Constantinople and from there to Europe. Tens of millions would die, perhaps as many as 200 million died. In Cairo, the Black Death killed a third of the population.

Despite this history, and despite even more recent events such as the Spanish Influenza pandemic of a century ago, and more recent outbreaks of SARS and MERS some years ago, the world staggers today before the economic, political, and social cost of the coronavirus pandemic. And just as states adapt and seek to confront the obvious health aspects of this crisis, they must confront the national security dimensions of the pandemic.

Not surprisingly, states adjust, and non-state actors such as jihadi organizations also adjust and seek to take full advantage of this latest development. In one way, the coronavirus plague has hurt jihadi groups like ISIS and Al-Qaeda. An early response by governments to the pandemic was to close borders, suspend air travel, and generally make movement of populations more difficult and more closely supervised. Surveillance for health reasons is in the end not that different from surveillance for national security reasons.

But in the long term, the pandemic may be of great and decisive benefit to the global jihad. These groups have made, and will continue to make, short-term tactical decisions to use this crisis to their benefit, as is richly documented in this extensive report – although some of these measures are marginal or silly, adventitious efforts to benefit here and there from Western distraction or confusion.

In my view, the biggest benefit to jihadi groups from this pandemic lies not in the possibility of an attack here or there, or bioterror of some sort striking a blow. And it is not solely the possibility of the exhaustion or vulnerability of Western counterterrorism. The danger is more existential. The pandemic is weakening the internal moorings of societies worldwide, hollowing out economies and the governments that depend on them, sowing despair and confusion and existential dread. The pandemic is like social media – an accelerant – which makes existing destructive trends more volatile and lethal. The weaknesses of economies are made weaker. The unhappiness and distrust of groaning masses in the Middle East (and elsewhere) is further deepened. This is a process of making troubled ground more fertile for revolution – and Salafi-jihadi groups are, ultimately, revolutionary groups first and foremost. These are groups that sell both radical change and a long-promised and longed-for utopia embedded in a powerful religious discourse. The pandemic's health and economic consequences will chip away at the ability of states to respond to challenges. It will increase debt, poverty and discord among populations who already have many reasons to be dissatisfied with the status quo.

And in a bitter reversal, even states that may have done a relatively good job in dealing with public health aspects of the coronavirus, say Jordan, for example, will still pay a heavy economic price as a result of the pandemic's effects elsewhere. In other countries that have done less well, such as Egypt or Iraq, the effects of the pandemic only add greater weight to an already substantial misery index.

It is my hope that the Middle East Media Research Institute's important historical review of the coronavirus pandemic's impact on global jihad will encourage us to look more deeply at both short-term vulnerabilities and the long-term threat arising from this unique combination of health emergency, economic collapse, and the siren song of chiliastic revolution. This report should be read by relevant government officials of every stripe, and by academia, in the U.S. and abroad. And I would like to extend my congratulations to the MEMRI JTTM and CJL teams, whose 24/7 monitoring contributed so much to it.

Part II Of This Study Reviews Period From October 2020 To August 2022: Inciting Violence, Promoting Narrative Of Western Collapse, And More

Two years later, MEMRI JTTM is publishing this second study, Jihadis' Theological Perception Of The Coronavirus Pandemic: A Review Of Terror Organizations' Responses To COVID-19 And The Resulting Security Implications – Part II – October 2020-August 2022. The study will review how, during this time period, jihadi groups and individuals carried out the following: inciting violence, promoting narratives of Western governments "collapsing" and the virus as divine punishment; writing about jihadis who had contracted the virus, including Sheikh 'Adnan Al-Saqqa and octogenarian Abu Muhammad Al-Daghestani in Syria, and celebrating others coming down with it; providing their followers with guidance and updates on the virus; and discussing it in general.

Jihadis encouraged their followers to take advantage of the political and social instability brought about by protests in the West against vaccination and other COVID-related mandates and to attack targets. Others commented that the U.S., Nigeria, and other governments are collapsing under this instability. They celebrated when world leaders, such as French President Emmanuel Macron and Russian President Vladimir Putin, fell ill with COVID and prayed for their deaths. They also continued to insist that the virus is a "soldier of Allah," and that its spread is divine retribution against the West for its Middle East policy. These are the main themes in the jihadi discourse on the coronavirus pandemic.

Western media reports have reviewed the general impact of COVID-19 on jihadi violence. A June 2021 Euronews.com report stated that the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic had "accelerated the spread of violent ideologies," leading to an increase in threats of "jihadist terrorism." According to this report, most of the increased jihadi attacks came from "lone actors." Some of the lone wolf actors were also found to be in contact with known terrorist groups. While there have, it said, been some successful efforts to slow the dissemination of jihadi propaganda, groups such as ISIS and Al-Qaeda had "exploited different events" such as discrimination in the West to "cast itself as an alternative protecting the rights of the oppressed."[1]

Another June 2021 Europol article stated that "jihadist terrorism remains the greatest threat to the European Union." It said that attacks carried out by jihadis had increased from 2019 to 2020, among them 10 attacks that left 12 people dead and another 47 wounded. Anti-COVID-regulation measures such as lockdowns had possibly let to terrorists using methods such as "stabbings, vehicle ramming, and arson" rather than explosives to carry out attacks, it said, and added that jihadi propaganda was suggesting ways of weaponizing the COVID-19 virus against different targets. However, no such attack ha since been reported. The report also stated that the virus has caused a sharp rise in the amount of time people spend online, allowing jihadi groups to more easily spread their message.[2]

An earlier report by The Guardian published in February 2021 warned that "Islamic extremists" were planning to carry out a number of attacks as soon as COVID-19 restrictions on movement are lifted. It said that ISIS spokesman Abu Hamza Al-Qurashi had allegedly called for ISIS supporters to concentrate efforts more on devising "high-impact attacks," and less on using social media to disseminate propaganda. The report further highlighted that some extremist groups sought to "exploit" the pandemic to "launch fresh attacks," while other groups have concentrated on "bolstering local support." Despite some Islamic extremist groups' intentions of capitalizing on the opportunities presented by COVID-19, it said, Al-Qaeda and ISIS both have suffered setbacks since the beginning of the pandemic.[3]


This report reviews reactions and statements from jihadi groups, leaders, and followers: the Islamic state (ISIS), Al-Qaeda, Hay'at Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS), Harakat Al-Shabab Al-Mujahideen, the Syrian National Army (SNA), the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), and Asa'ib Ahl Al-Haq (AAH); figures such as AQAP leader Khalid Batarfi, pro-ISIS British preacher Anjem Choudary, Syria-based Saudi jihadi cleric Abdullah Al-Muhaysini, Jordan-based jihadi ideologue Abu Qatadah Al-Filastini, leader of the Iran-backed Asa'ib Ahl Al-Haq (AAH) Qais Al-Khazali, Kuwaiti Salafi cleric Dr. Hakim Al-Mutairi, Syrian jihadi cleric Abdul Razzaq Al-Mahdi, HTS media operative Abu Muhammad Al-Shimali, independent Syria-based HTS-affiliated Egyptian jihadi cleric Yahya Al-Farghali, Syrian jihadi cleric Abu Basir Al-Tartousi, Canada-based pro-Al-Qaeda cleric Tariq Abdel haleem, and others.

I. Jihadis Contracting COVID-19

Throughout the pandemic, there were many reports that jihadi leaders and figures had contracted the virus. Those reported as stricken included: Saudi Islamic scholar 'Aaidh Al-Qurani; Syria-based jihadi cleric Abdul Razzaq Al-Mahdi; Syria-based American jihadi reporter Bilal Abdul Kareem, who operates the On The Ground News media outlet; and unconfirmed rumors about Hay'at Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS) Abu Muhammad Al-Joulani.

ISIS And Pro-ISIS Media Outlets Reporting On Jihadis With COVID-19

ISIS supporter Sayaf Al-Harbi shared on October 28, 2020 on his Telegram channel a news story stating that Saudi Islamic scholar 'Aaidh Al-Qurani was in a Riyadh hospital with the virus. Al-Harbi celebrated this news, calling the virus a "soldier of Allah" and adding that it was "harvesting the lives of the unbelievers' imams."


Telegram


Saudi Islamic scholar 'Aaidh Al-Qurani

An English-language Telegram channel affiliated with Michigan-based pro-ISIS preacher Ahmad Musa Jibril announced on December 24, 2021 that Jibril's father, Sheikh Musa Jibril, had tested positive and asked followers to pray for his recovery. The channel also noted that Ahmad Jibril had himself been ill with it for some time but had asked his students not to publicize this. Praising him for his "humility, asceticism, patience, and an enduring dutifulness to his parents," it went on to appeal to Allah to grant both father and son a recovery and a long life.



Telegram


Ahmad Musa Jibril

Syria-Based Jihadis With COVID-19

There were conflicting rumors on the condition of HTS leader Abu Muhammad Al-Joulani. According to the pro-rebel Baladi News, Al-Joulani had dislocated his left shoulder in a horseback-riding accident and had been taken to a private medical clinic for treatment. The anti-HTS Uss Al-Sira' fi Al-Sham claimed on November 13, 2020, that Al-Joulani had instead suffered a "military" injury due to an assassination attempt by members of HTS or ISIS. However, it was rumored that he had COVID. Another pro-rebel Telegram channel claimed that Al-Joulani was in good health and that all reports to the contrary were false. 


Baladi-news.com/ar/articles/67472; Telegram

Celebrating the recovery of three COVID patients, independent Syria-based jihadi cleric Abdul Razzaq Al-Mahdi wrote on July 21, 2021 on Telegram that this proved Islamic scholars' claims that "the land of jihad is never endangered by an epidemic."


Abdul Razzaq Al-Mahdi

Al-Mahdi's Telegram channel stated on September 27, 2021 that he had COVID-19 and was in quarantine. A photo accompanying the message showed him connected to an oxygen tank.


Telegram

A student of Al-Mahdi's reported on October 7, 2021 that he had comforted the sheikh during his illness by reading Islamic books to him and that Al-Mahdi had finished writing a book titled The Excellence of Jihad and the Mujahideen, Ribat [Guarding at the Front] and the Murabiteen, and Those Who Spend for the Sake of Allah, which will be published soon.


Telegram

Al-Mahdi posted, on October 8, 2021, a video in which he announced that he was now fully recovered and thanked those who had supported him during his illness. He also asked for forgiveness for his mistakes and said that he would soon be with the mujahideen at the frontlines.


Telegram

Syria-based HTS-affiliated Egyptian jihadi cleric Yahya Al-Farghali wrote on September 27, 2021 on Telegram wishes for Al-Mahdi's speedy recovery.


Telegram


Syria-based HTS-affiliated Egyptian jihadi cleric Yahya Al-Farghali

Al-Mahdi also announced that he was resuming the "Preachers Calling to Allah in the Land of Syria" initiative, whose launch had been delayed because of his illness. This project involves preachers traveling across the Idlib area to preach to the locals, particularly IDP camps and remote villages.


Telegram

Syria-based Egyptian jihadi cleric Abu Shu'aib Al-Masri wrote on his Telegram channel on October 18, 2021 that he had been informed of the COVID death of Mohammad Hafith (Hazim Al-Masri). He said of him that he had been "one of the most veteran brothers in the arena who was active in the media sphere even before he set out to wage jihad in Syria, and he also manufactured drones." The message included a link to Hafith's Twitter account.[4] Hafith's Telegram account, which also reported his death, added that he had written about history and that he died in Syria.


Telegram

Syria-based American jihadi reporter Bilal Abdul Kareem, who operates the On The Ground News media outlet, also contracted COVID. On September 15, 2021, he shared a photo of himself reacting to his positive test result, writing jokingly: "If someone is on the way, could they stop by my mother's house in New York and drop her off here?"

 
Telegram

Bilal Abdul Kareem resumed his weekly Q&A YouTube video series on September 29, 2021, saying that he was recovering from COVID-19. He explained that he had had severe symptoms but is feeling better now, and called the virus a blessing from Allah as it makes people more appreciative of the blessing of good health.


Telegram

II. Jihadis Who Have Died Of COVID-19

Several jihadis are reported to have died of the virus: Sheikh Mostapha Sh'aban, the Imam of Omar Bin Al-Khattab mosque in the city of Jissr Al-Shighour, Syria; Sheikh 'Adnan Al-Saqqa of Homs; and octogenarian Abu Muhammad Al-Daghestani, said to have been the oldest foreign fighter in Syria.

Syria-Based Jihadis Who Have Died Of COVID-19

The HTS-backed Salvation Government's Ministry of Religious Endowment issued a statement on October 14, 2021 eulogizing Sheikh Mostapha Sh'aban, the Imam of Omar Bin Al-Khattab mosque in the city of Jissr Al-Shighour, Syria, who had died of COVID-19.


Telegram

HTS eulogized an earlier victim of the virus, Sheikh 'Adnan Al-Saqqa of Homs, on January 11, 2021, who had died in Istanbul. In the message, it praised the sheikh's Islamic knowledge, devotion to spreading Islam through da'wah (Islamic outreach), and support for the revolution.


Telegram


Sheikh 'Adnan Al-Saqqa reportedly died of COVID-19 in Istanbul

Syrian jihadi Telegram channels, including supporters of HTS and Al-Qaeda, reported on January 29, 2021 that Abu Muhammad Al-Daghestani, who was from Dagestan, spoke Lezgi, and was reportedly the oldest foreign fighter in Syria, had died of COVID-19. According to most reports, he was 84 and had traveled to Syria with several family members, including a son who was killed in battle in 2015; however, one channel said he was only in his early 70s. The channels posted video clips showing him at the front and speaking in Russian about jihad.


Telegram

 


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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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