Sunni Jihadists and the Coronavirus: Staying the Course

Adam Hoffman’s essay on the Sunni jihadists in the region examines divergent approaches to navigating the crisis among the leading jihadi organizations. This article is part of "The Coronavirus in the Middle East: State and Society in a Time of Crisis".

Coronavirus causes death. Illustration from Pixabay .

Since early 2020, jihadist groups have closely fol­lowed the news about the coronavirus. Much of the existing analysis on Sunni jihadi groups’ re­sponses to the coronavirus has argued that jihad­ists see the virus as an opportunity, as they seek to exploit the temporary weakness of their ene­mies to carry out attacks. While there is certainly evidence to support this claim, a broader analysis of jihadists’ reactions to the coronavirus shows a variety of responses to the pandemic.

The Islamic State [IS]’s Arabic-language magazine, al-Naba’, reported in late January that the Chi­nese government said that “the number of those killed by coronavirus has reached 132 until now, while the number of infected has reached up to 6000,” and reported on the “decisive measures” taken by the Chinese government to contain the virus. Similarly, an editorial in Hay’at Tahrir al-Sh­am’s Iba’ magazine reported in late March on the Italian prime minister, Giuseppe Conte’s, state­ment days earlier, “We have lost control entirely and the epidemic is destroying us” (the quote was later proved to be fabricated). Alexandra Phelan, Nuri Veronika, Helen Stenger and Irine Gayatri argue that by updating their followers on the spread of the coronavirus through such reports, jihadi groups have tried to demonstrate good gov­ernance, which could significantly enhance their legitimacy.

In addition to publishing news on the pandem­ic, various jihadi groups have also issued public health guidance to prevent the virus from spread­ing among their followers. In an infographic pub­lished in al-Naba’ [see Figure 1 in the full publication], IS advised its followers that “the healthy should not enter the land of the epidemic and the infected should not exit from it.” Contrary to these instructions, IS supporters on Telegram published another graphic which called on Muslim women to wear the niqab instead of face masks, urging them to “fear Allah” instead of the virus [see Figure 2 in the full publication].

This public health guidance suggests that jihad­ists recognized the global nature of the corona­virus crisis: a statement published by al-Qa’ida’s central leadership noted that “today, if someone sneezes in China, those in New York suffer from its consequences.” A statement published by the Gaza-based group Jama’at Jaysh al-Islam similarly noted that “the danger of the epidemic that has befallen the land of China today is not confined to the disbelievers alone,” but it is also possible it will spread beyond them to Muslims living in China or those who visit it.

While jihadists were clearly aware of the global spread of the pandemic, they diverged in their interpretations of the causes and meaning of the coronavirus. One dominant view was that the pan­demic was a divine punishment inflicted on God’s enemies. In reference to widespread reports of the Chinese government’s internment of millions of Muslim Uyghurs in “re-education camps,” an editorial in al-Naba’ argued that “the epidemic is a punishment from God Almighty on the Chi­nese government on account of the crimes it has committed against the Muslims there, including killing, imprisonment, displacement, and tempt­ing them away from their religion.” An al-Qa’ida statement similarly argued that “the pandemic is a punishment from the Lord of the Worlds for the injustice and oppression committed against Muslims specifically and mankind generally by governments you elect.”

Another theme was that the coronavirus is a soldier of god that was released on the world to punish god’s enemies. This message was also echoed by some of the IS’ women supporters in the al-Hawl prison camp in northeastern Syria, who claimed that the coronavirus “is just one sol­dier sent by Allah” as a punishment to infidels and Muslim rulers who oppress other Muslims. By this logic, these women argued that any Muslims who have died from the coronavirus had been infected by it because they weren’t true Muslims.

Another interpretation for the pandemic was proposed by al-Qa’ida, which argued that the coronavirus was the result of Muslims’ own mor­al corruption and failure to practice the true Is­lam. Yet another interpretation was offered by Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, one of the leading ideologues of the salafi-jihadi movement. Maqdi­si argued that the coronavirus is “a blessing in the disguise of tribulation,” and listed the many bene­fits of the pandemic: the people have become iso­lated from Arab rulers, it has covered the faces of women, and closed bars and nightclubs and plac­es of corruption, among other benefits.

Finally, the IS and other jihadi groups viewed the pandemic as an opportunity to reorganize and at­tack the West. An editorial in al-Naba’ described the coronavirus as “the worst nightmares of the Crusaders” and noted that “security has become among the most important preoccupations of the governments” of Western countries. According to the IS, the last thing these governments want to deal with during this crisis is the threat of a fresh wave of IS violence at home. In another publi­cation, Jama’at Jaysh al-Islam described the pan­demic as a gift from God to jihadis “to organize their ranks … in order that they may seize the op­portunity to assault their enemy.”

Much like jihadists offered different interpreta­tions of the pandemic, different groups also called for different responses to it. The Islamic State, un­surprisingly, called on its followers to carry out attacks in the West. It asks its adherents to “inten­sify the pressure” on its enemies, and reminded its followers that “the most beloved form of acts of obedience to God Almighty is jihad in His path and inflicting damage on His enemies.” For the IS, jihad against the enemies of God continues, even during the coronavirus crisis – and the dis­tractions, confusion, and panic in Western states are the perfect opportunity for carrying out new attacks.

In a remarkably different response, al-Qa’ida’s central leadership argued that “at this time of un­certainty, we must show greater mercy to the um­mah than ever” and issued “a general call for the masses in the Western world to embrace Islam.” In an attempt to show the advantages of Islam in dealing with pandemics in comparison with other solutions to the coronavirus, al-Qa’ida stressed that “Islam is a hygiene-oriented religion,” adding that “it lays great stress on principles of preven­tion so as to protect one from all forms of dis­ease.”

Jason Burke, a prominent journalist who covers the jihadi scene, argues that those jihadi groups that have shown little interest in winning the sup­port of local communities were often those that have taken the hardest line. More broadly, the different responses in the jihadi ecosystem re­flect existing differences between various jihadi groups: the IS always advocated brutal and vio­lent action to implement its radical ideology, and it should come as no surprise that it urges its fol­lowers to carry out attacks at this time of global crisis. In the same vein, al-Qa’ida’s call on Western­ers to embrace Islam is consistent with its political approach since the September 11 attacks, which prioritized the consolidation of popular support over short-term military victories. As such, while Sunni jihadists are no doubt closely following the coronavirus crisis and seek to exploit it, their var­ious responses largely reflect their existing polit­ical strategies.

This article is part of The Coronavirus in the Middle East: State and Society in a Time of Crisis.

For a full version of this article that includes source citations, please see the original publication file, here.