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Is the threat from ISIS really more significant because of COVID-19?

Is the threat from ISIS really more significant because of COVID-19?
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Murmurings that Salafi jihadist groups such as ISIS and al Qaeda aspire to take advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic have reverberated through the online prism most of the world currently inhabits. While ISIS and other groups certainly have touted the desire to strike against its infidel enemy, the West, whether the organization has the reach to do so is worthy of close examination. 

In ISIS’s weekly publication, al-Naba, the group called for the mujahideen to carry out strikes against the West during the pandemic. Both al Qaeda and ISIS also have claimed that COVID-19 is God’s retribution for the West’s decadence. In al Qaeda’s propaganda arm, As-Sahab, the group pronounced that COVID-19 has exposed the West’s “brittleness” and the coronavirus is “God’s smallest soldier.” 

ISIS and al Qaeda’s verbal banter notwithstanding, can these groups realistically cash in on the COVID-19 crisis, or are their missives nothing more than empty threats?

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Propagandists who tout ISIS’s millenarian apocalyptic ideology, one that embraces the notion of end-times, are weaving narratives emphasizing how a global pandemic that has killed more Americans than did U.S. involvement in the Vietnam war fits ISIS’s worldview. Ideology is often a key driver for those willing to join radical groups such as ISIS or carry out acts of violence in the group’s name. 

With the dissolution of ISIS’s physical caliphate, adding members to the fold is critically important. At the group’s zenith, tens of thousands of foreign fighters from across the globe heeded Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s call to create an Islamic caliphate that harkened to the times of the Prophet Muhammad. ISIS’s ideology, strength of its leadership, and territorial conquests allowed it to overtake al Qaeda as the preeminent jihadist group. The erosion of the group’s access to territory, and the death of al-Baghdadi, however, give the organization one key pillar to rebuild the group: ideology. 

By connecting its ideology to a crisis narrative — COVID-19 — the organization may try to build upon its ideological foundation. Practically, is that really happening? The answer is more nuanced.

First, the group’s new leader, Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurashi, appointed last fall, needs to demonstrate relevancy by increasing the organization’s operational tempo. In April 2020, in Iraq alone, ISIS may have been responsible for more than 150 attacks. This uptick of ISIS activity, though, is more likely a result of the instability in Iraq because of the diminishment of the U.S. force posture throughout the Levant than the COVID-19 pandemic. The Trump administration’s decision to scale back U.S. engagement in Syria and Iraq has provided ISIS’s new leader an exploitable power vacuum. And, of course, that rollback of U.S. assets predates COVID-19. Further, al-Qurashi took the reins prior to the pandemic.

Second, ISIS’s motto — remaining and expanding — is part of the organization’s effort to demonstrate its broad reach. At the group’s zenith, in 2015 to 2016, the organization received oaths of allegiance from terrorist leaders (and thus their groups) spanning the globe. This positioned ISIS to create a series of so-called provinces and networks to grow its caliphate well beyond the contours of the Middle East. This expansion of the ISIS brand also allowed the organization to take credit for attacks carried out by its overseas network — giving the impression that the group could strike anywhere. 

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In April 2020, ISIS announced responsibility for a series of attacks, including a horrific massacre in Xitaxi, Mozambique, that resulted in more than 50 deaths. This attack, however, was more about taking advantage of an unstable country in the middle of an intensifying conflict than the COVID-19 pandemic. ISIS’s propensity to take advantage of civil conflict and state instability allowed it to gain power in Syria, and ISIS leadership clearly is again following that script.

Third, between 2015 and 2017, ISIS’s use of external operatives to strike the West in places such as Brussels, Paris, London and other locations was critical for generating fear, a desired end-state of terrorism as a tactic, in its target audiences. An ancillary benefit was creating an atmosphere of success that, inevitably, benefited al-Baghdadi. With those blows against the West, al-Baghdadi and his messengers could highlight its success via its propaganda machine, which focused on bringing in more finances and recruits. 

As al-Qurashi tries to rebuild ISIS he also has looked westward. In April 2020, German government authorities foiled a purported ISIS plot in Germany targeting U.S. military facilities. The operatives, all hailing from Tajikistan, already had procured their weapons for the thwarted attack. Again, given the complexity of an attack on a well-fortified overseas U.S. military installation, it is likely that the ISIS plot began well before COVID-19 was labeled a pandemic.

While it remains possible that Salafi-jihadist groups could leverage the global public health crisis to carry out acts of terrorism, it seems more likely that any ISIS resurgence is tied to pre-existing counterterrorism strategies and decisions. Moreover, ISIS’s new leader needs to consolidate power and demonstrate success. 

ISIS is more likely to take advantage of the instability in failed states than to actually depend on the spread of COVID-19 to project its strength. The pandemic makes for a strong talking point for the group, but it probably is not anything more than that. More productive of an answer to ISIS’s blather is for the United States to rekindle the key partnerships that were fundamental to the success of evicting ISIS from its territory. One important first step is to quickly resume the capacity-building efforts in Iraq that remain a key aspect of Operation Inherent Resolve

Jason M. Blazakis is a professor of practice at Middlebury Institute of International Studies, director of its Center on Terrorism, Extremism, and Counterterrorism, and a senior research fellow at the Soufan Center. From 2008 to August 2018, he was director of the State Department’s Office of Counterterrorism Finance and Designations. He also worked at State’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research and was a domestic intelligence analyst with the Congressional Research Service. Follow him on Twitter @Jason_Blazakis.