Author: Ilgar VELIZADE
Everyday news about the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic has completely overtaken that of combating terrorism. This is quite reasonable, as the material and moral consequences of the pandemic exceeded, unfortunately, the damage caused by terrorism to various countries. It might seem however that terrorist activities around the world have gone to background...
On the contrary, international think tanks note that terrorist organisations have significantly intensified activities. Only in March-April, the number of terrorist operations in Iraq and Syria increased by an order of magnitude. In addition, the area of terrorist activities is gradually expanding. For example, ISIS took the responsibility for a series of recent terrorist attacks in the Philippines, Maldives and Mozambique. The number of militants in Iraq is also increasing.
Resurgence of terrorism in Iraq?
At the end of 2017, the Iraqi government announced, albeit hastily, that the ISIS militants in Iraq were almost destroyed. A review of the situation in the region shows that the terrorists are still operating in the rural areas of Anbar, Diyalah, Kirkuk, Salahuddin and Mosul. Despite the operations of the Iraqi army against militants in these parts of the country, it is impossible to eradicate the terrorist resistance.
ISIS terrorists have intensified significantly in Iraq, especially in rural areas, amid political instability and security problems. In addition, the withdrawal of the US-led coalition forces due to the outbreak of coronavirus also affects the situation.
Therefore, ISIS is trying to strengthen its potential in the most remote areas of the country. It takes advantage of the weakening central administrative bodies after mass protests against the Iraqi government, when Iraq was swept by mass protests due to worsening living conditions of the population and the growth of corruption, which forced Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi to resign.
According to the Iraqi High Commission for Human Rights, as a result of the protests that began on October 1, at least 496 citizens were killed and 17,000 were injured in the country. The resignation of Abdul-Mahdi on December 1, the subsequent government crisis and disagreements between Iraqi political parties paved the way for ISIS to expand its activities throughout the country, especially in the north-west.
Thus, a series of steps taken in the last few months, including a curfew introduced in Iraq due to the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the two-month suspension of any military operations by the US-led international coalition forces, has increased the mobility and potential of ISIS for conducting acts of terror. In addition, the US has withdrawn its troops from six military bases located in Iraq.
Therefore, ISIS began to regain its position in the regions with the widest security gaps. Experts believe that after the coalition forces ceased material, technical and intelligence support to the Iraqi government, the militants felt that their time was coming again.
The lack of solidarity between the central government and the Kurdish regional government of Iraq (KRG) also played into the hands of the terrorists. These disagreements create a window of opportunities for expanding the ISIS coverage towards the north of Iraq where it was the most active terrorist group a while back.
Apparently, ISIS is not strong enough to engage in large-scale battles, but they are actively restoring forces, in particular, by recruiting new members.
Official statistics show that in the first four months of 2020, a total of 170 civilians and security officers died as a result of the ISIS attacks and other acts of violence in Iraq. Experts make pessimistic predictions, which boils down to the fact that if the trend continues, then ISIS can restore its previous positions in a relatively short period of time.
Iraq is only part of the problem
Meanwhile, the ongoing events in other parts of the planet are also disappointing. Besides Iraq, terrorist groups are getting increasingly active in Syria, Yemen, a number of countries in the African Sahara and Sahel, Afghanistan, the Philippines, Mozambique, the Maldives and so on, which may be explained by the rivalry between these groups.
Thus, Boko Haram expects to extend its influence to large parts of the African continent south of the Sahara. Back in March 2020, in Chad, militant groups launched attacks that killed at least 98 government soldiers. Experts believe that strict quarantine measures, which also apply to the military, may encourage Boko Haram to further expand their territorial coverage.
In general, the reduction and limitation of military contingents of the Western countries in the zones of terrorist operations noticeably influence the terrorist organisations. They may be interested in spreading the pandemic, despite the risk of infection among their own members.
Quite often COVID-19 is used by ideologists of terrorist movements to intimidate and disorientate the masses. The disease is often presented as a “punishment” or “fair retaliation” for the destruction of the Islamic State or the death of the leaders of al-Qaeda and other similar organisations. In West Africa, the leader of Boko Haram stated that the virus is a punishment for those who do not obey Islam, and proposed as a decision to become a follower of his organisation. In other countries, terrorist activists call the people for retaliation for the death of al-Baghdadi and thereby free the planet from a dangerous disease. Given the increasingly decreasing prestige of the state authorities, many people tend to trust such propaganda.
In fact, terrorist organisations were able to consolidate and build up their forces in these difficult times because they most effectively used the existing difficulties. Recently, Boko Haram’s leader Abubakar Shekau said that the COVID-19 pandemic is caused by “evil,” urging its members to attack the West and exploit its weaknesses. Intensifying propaganda campaigns that spread extremist ideas can be extremely dangerous in the long run.
At present, there is also a significant increase in extremist activity on the Internet, which increases the risk of increasing short- and medium-term radicalisation.
Two evils of the modern world
There are serious long-term fears that states, weakened by the serious economic consequences of the pandemic, will be more vulnerable to the emergence or rebirth of terrorist groups. Many terrorist groups have so far noted that, due to the pandemic, the resources of many governments, particularly those designed to ensure security, have been greatly weakened.
One of the serious problems is that COVID-19 could lead to a resurgence of terrorist interest in the use of chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear weapons. It is known that even before the pandemic, a number of terrorist movements were actively interested in using biological and chemical weapons, although the facts of actual use are few. At the same time, there are serious obstacles that prevent the terrorists’ access to these types of weapons. The enormous impact of COVID-19 on the weakening of government and international bodies responsible for security in different countries may again encourage destructive forces to use the prohibited weapons.
Meanwhile, no matter how difficult the situation with the spread of COVID-19 is, the priorities of humanity in the fight against terrorism must not change. Protecting the most vulnerable sectors of society from the risks posed by terrorist organisations must continue to be the focus of international attention.
As the world community is trying to adapt to the existing situation caused by pandemic through changing business approaches, ways of communication and spending time, internal problems become increasingly relevant. At the same time, experts in different countries urge not to turn a blind eye to the situation with the intensification of terrorism. Otherwise, as soon as the threat of COVID-19 is neutralised, the world may face a new global wave of extremism. In addition to the threat this phenomenon poses to the areas affected by extremist activity, there is a wider risk to the rest of the world. Terrorism, like a pandemic, knows no boundaries; the fight against one evil should not exclude the fight against another.