Terrorist Organizations Use COVID-19 Lockdown To Expand Territory
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As the world begins to cautiously emerge from lockdown, it has begun to look beyond its own borders. For most, lockdown has confined us to the four walls of our homes. Yet for some terrorist organizations, COVID-19 has provided an opportunity to consolidate and expand. This is particularly visible in the case of Boko Haram and Daesh.
Boko Haram, a Salafi-jihadi Muslim terrorist organization, first emerged in 2003. Boko Haram’s crimes are widespread, geographically, and vary greatly in magnitude. The group is based in north-east Nigeria but is also active in neighboring countries. Its attacks are not random. They are directed towards those who oppose Boko Haram’s ideologies or support western values. Boko Haram specifically targets Christians as “non-believers.”
Attacking women and girls is a signature tactic employed by Boko Haram. The group subjects women and girls to physical and mental abuse, rape and sexual violence, forced labor and much more. The impact of these crimes is devastating. Boko Haram and its affiliates including the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) are carrying out attacks on civilians and religious minorities throughout Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Niger, and Nigeria.
In late April 2020, Open Doors, an organization working on the topic of religious persecution, reported that terrorist organizations, such as Boko Haram, had started to significantly expand their territory. Open Doors reported that Boko Haram now targets parts of Sub-Saharan Africa. On March 23, 2020, attacks are reported to have taken place in Chad, leaving at least 98 soldiers dead. Open Doors expressed their concern that the COVID-19 lockdown may leave the door open for Boko Haram to further expand its territory.
Similarly, Daesh, a terror group that unleashed mass atrocities in Syria and Iraq in 2014, appears to be gaining strength yet again. In 2014, Daesh took control of many regions in Syria and Iraq, perpetrating countless atrocities and specifically targeting religious minorities for annihilation. These attacks were so serious as to meet the legal definition of genocide. Their crimes included murder by the thousands, abuse of women and girls for sex slavery, and boys for forced conscription. Many of the victims are still missing, six years after the atrocities. Affected communities have halved and the remnants live in perpetual fear of a resurgence.
Despite some military success against Daesh, reports suggest that the fight is not yet over. On May 3, 2020, Nobel peace prize laureate and advocate for victims of sexual violence, Nadia Murad, warned that only recently “several Iraqi security force members were killed by Daesh. The international community must acknowledge that Daesh remains a significant threat to Iraqis and the global community.” This warning comes from a person who herself experienced the worst atrocities at the hands of Daesh only a few years ago. Her warning should not be ignored.
Terrorist organizations have been able to consolidate and grow power during these difficult times as it has capitalized on the turmoil. Terrorist organizations rely heavily on ideology to expand reach. In recent weeks, Nigerian Boko Haram leader, Abubakar Shekau, has declared that COVID-19 pandemic was brought about by “evil”, proclaiming that his version of Islam was an “anti-virus.” Daesh has continued to push propaganda calling on its members to attack the west and exploit its weakness. Increased propaganda campaigns promoting extreme ideologies could prove extremely dangerous in the long run.
As we continue to adjust to a COVID-19 affected world, changing the way we do business, changing the way we socialize and spend our time, we should not turn a blind eye to the situation in other parts of the world. Especially those which remain most affected by terrorism. Otherwise, once the threat of COVID-19 is neutralized, we will wake up to find that the threat of terrorism has been allowed to expand, silently and out of sight. As well as the threat this poses for those who live in affected territories, there is a wider risk to us all. There are things that COVID-19 should not change. We should remain steadfast in our opposition to terrorism. We should continue to protect the most vulnerable communities from the risks posed by terrorist organizations.
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