The World Health Organization declared the coronavirus (COVID-19) a global pandemic in March 2020. Even before the pandemic, the threat of violent extremism in the IGAD Member States was growing steadily.
Member States have shifted their focus on the most urgent issue – dealing with the pandemic. Peace, security and stalling recruitment into violent extremist organizations seems to have a lower priority. This gap is incrementally creating a fertile ground for violent extremist organizations (VEOs) to regroup and to reinforce their efforts.
This op-ed highlights how IGAD Member States could respond to the COVID-19 pandemic as a potential to be an enabler for violent extremist behaviour. It gives proposals on how governments should address the socio-economic challenges shaped by the pandemic in order to mitigate a rise in recruitment and radicalization into violent extremism.
There is huge potential of VEOs capitalizing on the gaps being created due to the pandemic. These gaps are outlined below.
- The potential of self-isolation to fuel online radicalization into violent extremism: To contain the pandemic, all IGAD Member States have imposed curfews and lockdowns, including school closures and recommendation to work from home. More people are spending an increased amount of time online for work, school and entertainment. VEOs are intensifying their spread of online propaganda, fake news and misinformation about the origin, spread and government response to the pandemic. Al-Shabaab is using social media platforms to reach to their audience. Narratives by VEOs such as ‘COVID-19 is a ‘soldier of (God)’’ and ‘victims of COVID-19 are martyrs’ is a strategy to ‘weaponize’ the pandemic. These narratives are avenues to lure potential recruits.
- Growing economic crisis a push and pull factor to radicalization into violent extremism: Lockdowns, restrictions on movement, and border closures to manage the pandemic has compromised livelihoods. Countries are witnessing an increase in the price of basic goods coupled with reduced income/lack of work in the informal sector. The informal sector supports many in the region who rely on everyday income to secure basic needs of food, water, medicine, and basic services. This could expose people to the temptation to join VEOs that promise stability and recognition and some form of compensation for their families by if they commit to participate in acts of terror.
- Potential security gaps due to shifted priorities: There is a threat that engaging security forces to enforce curfews and lockdowns measures will allow room for VEOs to consolidate their agenda. Member States have shifted their focus on the most urgent issue – dealing with the pandemic, while the issue of peace, security and recruitment into violent extremist organizations seems to have taken a back seat. This gap is incrementally creating a fertile ground for VEOs to regroup and to reinforce their efforts. VEOs can mobilize and recruit supporters and expand their footprint while governments are occupied with managing the spread of the coronavirus.
- Deteriorating relationship between law enforcement officers and the community: An apparent lack of clarity on the mechanisms for enforcing response measures such as curfews and lockdowns during the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in the use of excessive force and violence by those tasked with enforcing response measures in Kenya and Uganda. There has been growing concern about police brutality. A positive relationship between the community and law enforcement in preventing and countering violent extremism is important. The public is less likely to expose suspicious or extremist activities in their local communities if they no confidence in the police. Communities that have interpersonal trust in the police are more likely to contact law enforcement officers with their concerns
How then should IGAD Member States respond? Governments are now tasked with being innovative in finding solutions to adapt to a ‘new normal’ in dealing with the challenges of COVID-19 in relation to violent extremism. We propose the following immediate responses by governments for policy design and implementation.
- Counter propaganda, misinformation and fake news by VEOs: The deliberate dissemination of non-factual information on the origin, spread and response to COVID-19 forms the propaganda, fake news and misinformation package by VEOs during the pandemic. Disinformation creates an environment, especially online, for fear and insecurity thrive. Governments should develop and disseminate contextualized targeted counter and alternative narratives (music, poetry, painting) against ideologies being perpetuated by VEOs during the pandemic. Civil society, religious leaders, the local community, and media practitioners can be recruited as ambassadors to share government narratives at local community level.
- Facilitate interfaith dialogue in the local community: Religious leaders hold great influence in their communities. Despite places of worship being shut down, governments should advocate for and give religious leaders a platform to engage communities in informing them about the pandemic and debunking the propaganda put out by VEOs. An interfaith dialogue would be useful in countering VEO narratives that so far include religious-based propaganda.
- Building capacity of law enforcement officers: The sometimes hostile strategies employed by law enforcement agencies to enforce curfews and lockdowns during the pandemic has contributed to a rift with the public. These actions can be the push factors to violent extremism. Governments should carry out online training for law enforcement officers and disaster and emergency management agencies on VEO narratives as an element of crisis response and part of disaster management.
- Undertaking research: IGAD Member States should commission country-specific research to generate and share research knowledge, information and analysis on the link between the COVID-19 pandemic and safety and security in the context of violent extremism. IGAD is well placed to commission a regional study with a special focus will be on establishing the country-specific context of a pandemic as a driver of radicalization and violent extremism. The study would also identify vulnerable individuals and groups and the reasons why they would be receptive to radicalization and recruitment by extremists post the pandemic. At the end of the commissioned studies, it is expected that there will be evidence-based studies on the link between a global pandemic and violent extremism to guide relevant policy design and implementation.