COVID-19 In-depth Analysis

COVID-19 exacerbates the risk of violent extremism in the Sahel and West Africa

Long before the arrival of COVID-19, the Sahel and West Africa were two particular regions in Africa that were confronted by many complex and interrelated security and humanitarian challenges. From violent conflict to famine and other humanitarian difficulties, the spread of COVID-19 is magnifying the threats to the region’s most vulnerable populations. Arguably, the most challenging of these issues are the toxic atmosphere and insecurity created as a result of the activities of armed violent extremist groups.

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Photo: Michele Cattani/AFP via Getty Images
Photo: Michele Cattani/AFP via Getty Images

A report by the Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate (CTED) reveals that COVID-19 has the potential to lead to the creation of ‘nouvelle extremist groups’, and also to increase the membership of existing terrorist and extremist groups. The emergence, growth and reach of the pandemic has exposed the changing phases of violent extremism in the Sahel and West Africa, and has heightened the need to consider different security approaches to prevention and response efforts by multilateral and bilateral arrangements. The spread of the virus has caused many deaths, as well as economic, religious and sociocultural disruptions of significant concern to many national and regional economic communities (RECs) and regional mechanisms (RMs). The psychological and social impacts of this health crisis have been worsened by the need for strict social distancing, community lockdowns, curfews, limited public gatherings, disruptive border and local travel restrictions, and the rapid spread of information and misinformation through both mainstream and social media.

COVID-19 is dominating global headlines, but part of states’ resilience-building efforts must be aimed at dealing with another big emergency of our times: violent extremism @edu_afful

As the governments of Sahelian and West African countries such as Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Chad, Nigeria, Togo and Côte d’Ivoire struggle to implement measures to contain the virus, they are also having to contend with an ever-present and mounting danger of extremist violence that exposes their vulnerability and risk levels. To extremist groups operating in the region, including Al-Qaeda and Islamic State affiliates, the current uncertainty, fear and desperation surrounding states’ responses to the COVID-19 pandemic provides an opportunity to mobilise, influence and sway more supporters, while concurrently presenting an existential threat to their very survival in the immediate and long term.

Troubling trends

Arguably, COVID-19 has changed the way extremist organisations and conflict entrepreneurs go about their business in the sub-region. Already, there are signs dotted all over the region where attempts have been made by terrorist and extremist groups to exploit the pandemic to undermine state authority, destabilise governments and attack both local and international forces. Whereas the data available makes it reasonably impossible to be emphatic about the spike in attacks and an increase in the operational tempo of extremism activities, attacks have remained unabated and relentless throughout the pandemic. Regional jihadists groups such as Boko Haram, Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin, Macina Liberation Front (FLM), the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) and Ansar ul Islam have continued to carry out a number of high-profile attacks in Mali, Burkina Faso and Chad, and March and April 2020 saw sustained attacks from Boko Haram and the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) in the Lake Chad Basin and the Sahel. Cumulatively, over 100 soldiers from Chad and Côte d’Ivoire have lost their lives. These attacks notwithstanding, the governance structure of these extremist and insurgency groups appear to be uncharacteristically frail. Although unofficial routes remain wide opened, supply lines to these extremist have been cut as a results of the closure of many official borders.

The situation is further compounded by the Sahelian states’ response to these threats, especially where they have to commit a significant portion of their resources to fighting the virus while simultaneously designating between 15% and 30% of their individual budgets to the defence sector to tackle extremist activities. In addition, indications of potential drawdown and tactical retreat by Western partners in the fight against violent extremism in the Sahel, as a result of the virus, leaves a possible opening for the extremists to engage. Extremist groups in Mali and Burkina Faso have intervened to address some of the gaps associated with the lack of government infrastructures and responses, especially in the areas of water infrastructure and hygiene to provide for local health needs. This service provision has the propensity to legitimise the activities of the groups and cause some level of local reliance in places where these resources are limited – especially considering that these groups have been providing such social services for at least a decade or more.

Regarding tactics and behaviours, many of these extremist groups are exploiting the excessive digitisation and increasing demand to use virtual solutions for daily activities to fuel their recruiting drive. With the closure of schools and the use of virtual classrooms in place of physical contact, jihadist recruiters have found an opportunity to use cyberspace to make the youth their captive audience. On the flipside, the curtailing of the freedom of movement and vastly increased surveillance and security measures to tackle the pandemic regionally have made the task of planning, preparing and executing extremist acts cumbersome and weighty – but, of course, not impossible.

Peacebuilding in the midst of COVID-19

The desire to provide definite responses to the growing impact of the virus has amplified the inadequacies, pre-existing inequalities and socio-economic vulnerabilities of countries in transition. It has also heightened the underlining pull and push factors that might expose such countries to extremist activities. One of the interventions that has taken a major blow has been the peacebuilding industry: protocols such as restricted movement and social distancing are exacerbating existing tensions and reducing peacebuilding efforts that rely predominantly on people-centred approaches and in-person gatherings. In addition, the uncertainty surrounding the pandemic has not prevented extremist activities from festering, with some leaders of Boko Haram and the ISGS openly encouraging their followers to launch attacks.

For countries such as Liberia, Guinea-Bissau, Mali and The Gambia, local conflict dynamics and structural challenges emanating from the temporal halt or cancellation of peacebuilding programmes and dialogues have generated grievances that can be exploited by extremist groups. Such stagnation is already impacting on reforms in the areas of security, justice, reconciliation, democracy, inclusive politics and economic transformation. The political tensions associated with the current Malian regime, for instance, is putting efforts to build peace and security in Mali at risk. In the case of The Gambia, the potential delays of some key programmes associated with transitional justice and economic reforms are having a ripple effect on commerce and tourism, which happen to be critical sectors of the economy accommodating the youth, women and small business owners.

Much as the COVID-19 crisis is dominating all global headlines – and rightly so – part of states’ resilience-building efforts must be the desire to deal with another big emergency of our times: violent extremism. It is essential that we confront the COVID-19 emergency with a sense of urgency, and navigating a course out of the pandemic will require risk-taking and perseverance. However, if countries within the Sahel and West Africa act now, with resolve and determination at all levels, we can make the region more resilient as well as avert the most damaging consequences of violent extremism, especially in this COVID-19 era. There is the need for a concerted effort from government, civil society, the media and communities. In effect, the approach to dealing with violent extremism in the midst of this pandemic must be anchored on a whole-of-government as well as a whole-of-community approach.

Dr Fiifi Edu-Afful is a Senior Research Fellow of the Peace Support Operation Programme at the Kofi Annan International Peacekeeping Training Centre (KAIPTC) in Accra, Ghana.

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