In a speech directly addressing the pandemic at the end of April 2020, the infamous al-Shabaab spokesperson Ali Mahmoud Rage (‘Ali Dheere’) took the message further by suggesting that the virus may have been intentionally spread by foreign forces in Somalia
Somalilandsun: Many terrorist groups have released statements advocating weaponizing COVID-19. Those entities exercising some form of territorial control, such as the Taliban and al-Shabaab, also face wider questions over the capacity and inclination of their administrative systems to effectively respond to the crisis. In Somalia, al-Shabaab has proactively established an isolation center and is issuing health advice, the latest extensions of a long-running experiment in militant governance. Previous humanitarian disasters revealed the group’s largesse to be ad hoc and rather mercurial. While recent strategic setbacks could change how it navigates this latest challenge, the pandemic may nevertheless expose intrinsic limitations in al-Shabaab’s approach to civic administration. The key issue is whether the authorities the group is fighting can do any better.
Internationally recognized governments are not the only stakeholders that have been deliberating over how to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic. Communications released by jihadi organizations and their affiliated media outlets demonstrate a degree of hesitation about how to capitalize on the global crisis.
Transnational networks with little territorial control such as the remnants of the Islamic State inside Syria and Iraq and al-Qa`ida Central deemed COVID-19 a “Soldier of Allah,” sent to weaken the enemies of Islam and punish the disbelievers.1 While rudimentary health advice has been circulated through these organizations’ official channels, they have also consistently claimed that jihad would itself provide protection and sought to ‘weaponize’ the virus by encouraging attacks against the “Crusader” enemy.2
Such propagandizing and proselytizing are expected and well documented, yet there has been little coverage of extremist movements actually ‘governing’ large populations, where entirely different challenges are presented by the pandemic. Some groups may be starting to display a pragmatic streak in their dealings. The Afghan Taliban, for example, is trying to proactively frame itself as a more proficient responder than the government in Kabul: prescribing health advice, calling for safe passage to humanitarian agencies, and advising businesses against raising prices on essential goods.3 They have also dispatched “health teams to far flung provinces,” enforced quarantine procedures, and distributed “gloves, soap and masks.”4 This is likely an exercise in self-preservation as much as self-aggrandizement given ‘supreme leader’ Haibatullah Akhunzada and several members of the group’s Doha office reportedly contracted the virus.5 Nevertheless, such maneuvering speaks to the looming challenge COVID-19 creates for insurgent movements and their experiments in jihadi governance.
Whether the Taliban is an outlier or representative of an emerging trend is still unclear, but it is worth considering the past performance and prospective options facing other militant organizations that impose some form of territorial rule as they grapple with this crisis.
This article by CHRISTOPHER HOCKEY, MICHAEL JONES focuses on the specific case of al-Shabaab—an extremist group that has maintained extensive territorial and semi-territorial control in Somalia for over a decade—to understand how such actors are reacting to COVID-19. Drawing on journalistic accounts and existing scholarship, the article maps al-Shabaab’s response and existing capabilities to tackle the pandemic before identifying (and caveating) lessons from the group’s response to previous humanitarian disasters. It then enumerates incentives and challenges COVID-19 may raise for al-Shabaab, and contextualizes these within the wider management of the outbreak in Somalia.
At the time of writing, Somalia is perhaps only just beginning to feel the effects of the pandemic with the curve depicting a steady incline. By June 22, 2020, 2,812 cases and 90 deaths had been confirmed, according to most international sources.6 These numbers—spread across all of Somalia’s regional states7—are relatively low by global comparisons. However, community transmission is well established and many more people have undoubtedly been infected by the virus than official figures suggest; there is simply not enough testing taking place, and many areas are inaccessible.8 Reports note an increase in burials and challenges in accurately reporting deaths.9 The economic impacts of COVID-19 are also beginning to be felt with vital remittances from the diaspora dropping significantly and food prices rising.10
Al-Shabaab’s official propaganda outlets initially remained relatively quiet. The virus first featured prominently in a Consultative Forum on Jihad in East Africa convened by the group’s Office for Policy and Wilayat (administrative divisions) in March 2020. The group warned Muslims to “take caution against” infectious diseases like COVID-19 and suggested that its “spread is contributed to by the crusader forces who have invaded the country and the disbelieving countries that support them.”11 The full statement—”a fatwa of scholars”—illustrates the absurdity of an organization purporting to be concerned with conservation on the one hand (pledging to “cooperate in preventing illegal tree logging and the erosion of pasture grounds”) and encouraging violence against the ‘crusader’ on the other (urging “the mujahideen [to] intensify the obligatory jihad”). Crucially, other resolutions emerging from the forum included a call for expanding public services such as “security, justice, education and health”—provided by the ‘Islamic Wilayat.’
In a speech directly addressing the pandemic at the end of April 2020, the infamous al-Shabaab spokesperson Ali Mahmoud Rage (‘Ali Dheere’) took the message further by suggesting that the virus may have been intentionally spread by foreign forces in Somalia.12 He urged followers to “be cautious” of medical assistance from non-Muslims, to instead turn to Allah and to be charitable. Reiterating a message delivered by other officials during sermons, Rage argued that Muslims should celebrate because Allah is justly punishing the ‘disbelievers’ for their treatment of Muslims. However, he lamented that Somalis would also be affected due to the fact that the foreigners were in their land and suggested that this was further reason to “expel them from our country.” Measures taken by the international community and Federal Government of Somalia (FGS), most pertinently the closure of mosques, were criticized.
These messages have been repeated through al-Shabaab’s affiliated radio stations and online news sites,13 as well as during a key sermon delivered in mosques across al-Shabaab-controlled territory in May 2020. The sermon added that those who are “weak in faith” would not be able to use prayer and charity to protect themselves from COVID-19.14 Practical guidance was provided, including advice on how to live a healthy lifestyle and warnings to businesses not to raise prices or exploit the economic situation. A few days later, a special committee was formed to manage the response to COVID-19 in territories under jihadi control. A statement from al-Shabaab claimed that the committee included doctors and scientists. Local officials were instructed to provide adequate assistance to the committee’s members.15
Marking Eid al-Fitr at the end of May 2020, al-Shabaab issued another statement again celebrating the virus as “divine punishment” for disbelievers.16 However, the group also ordered Muslims within the “Islamic territories” to “follow the directions of the Health Bureau.” Most recently, on June 12, 2020, the group used a radio station to declare that the “coronavirus prevention and treatment committee” had established an isolation facility within its stronghold of Jilib, Middle Juba.17 Puportedly, the center will be dedicated to treating those with COVID-19 symptoms and is replete with vehicles18 to transport patients using the center’s “round-the-clock hotline.”19
The message from al-Shabaab is that this is a “plague” sent to punish their enemies, but one that also needs to be dealt with pragmatically. In May 2020, al-Shabaab insisted that COVID-19 had not reached areas under its control,20 and by mid-June 2020, the organization had still not publicly confirmed any cases. However, its actions—setting up a committee, preparing its so-called “Health Bureau,” and establishing an isolation center—certainly indicate that the group is concerned. Rumors on social media suggest21 that the virus may already be affecting members of the group’s leadership, as it reportedly has with other extremist outfits like the Taliban.22
What form, if any, a civic response would take and why al-Shabaab would consider an approach so incongruous with its well-publicized violence requires understanding how the group has previously operated.
Al-Shabaab has long made practical concessions in its navigation of Somali social dynamics: the modalities and maturity of its parastatal experiment at least partially relies on the delivery of (some) incentives, basic institutions, public goods, and ‘justice’ alongside the imposition of “coercive security.”23 Brutality and fear help the group quash dissent and maintain a “semi-territorial presence” across the Somali interior,24 but it has also made efforts to appease communal demands and leverage grievances where necessary. While this narrative is usually packaged in an ideological rubric, its appeal derives from helping resolve local problems,25 such as the appropriation of sharia as a holistic framework for restoring social relations and transcending clan cleavages.
A string of ministries and ‘shadow’ administrations (Wilaayadaha) supply a vital set of services, perhaps none more important than al-Shabaab’s mobile courts, which remain a widely favored mechanism for civil arbitration.26 In contrast to Somalia’s official justice system or assorted iterations of Xeer—a syncretic, clan-based code largely drawn from customary values, and oral tradition27—these outlets are often considered more efficient and less corrupt by many Somalis.28
Mimicking the functionality of antecedent organizations like the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), al-Shabaab has also exploited economic pragmatism to consolidate some degree of support, violently imposing order in ways conducive to local commercial transactions.29 Its checkpoints have historically extorted less than those of clan militias,30 and the group’s institutional depth helped expedite some semblance of ‘normality’ for the populations under its control. Similarly, al-Shabaab has co-opted popular ethno-nationalist narratives where useful, temporarily blending its religious discourse with pan-Somali tropes and references to mobilize recruits during the Ethiopian occupation of Somalia—a shift otherwise at odds with the exclusivist ‘Islamic’ identity it generally promotes.31
Of course, this should not be mistaken for a concerted effort to ‘win hearts and minds,’ and the coverage and dispensation of its regime varies considerably. Al-Shabaab’s egalitarian ‘pan-clan’ pretensions, for instance, often mask the same prejudices and extortive practices that have historically characterized many of Somalia’s local conflicts. Minorities have sometimes benefited from alliances with and protection from al-Shabaab but in regions such as the Jubba Valley al-Shabaab has consistently exploited marginal groups, extracting disproportionately high levies on harvests and zakat (Islamic alms) from rural “Bantu”a families.32 Nonetheless, during its ‘heyday,’ al-Shabaab’s administrative superstructure was considered “the most extensive and effective” model of Somali governance since the fall of the military dictator Siad Barre in 1991,33 in part because of this “myth of societal homogeneity” cultivated by the group.34
Territorial losses have undoubtedly diminished al-Shabaab’s capacity and inclination to maintain a coherent proto-state,35 but even now, it continues to successfully arbitrate inter-communal conflicts and offer local clients “paths for social promotion.”36
Disparate displays of civic largesse, conservationism, and philanthropic outreach may not be convincing to those under or outside al-Shabaab’s control, but they lend benevolent trappings to an organization that markets itself on competency, drawing a distinction to the inefficiencies and elite complexion it ascribes to the internationally recognized FGS based in Mogadishu.
However, A.H. Salam and Alex de Waal suggest these “little solutions” proposed by such groups to satisfy the “real day-to-day needs of people”37 are consistently trapped in a “paralytic impasse” when it comes to scalability.38 The impact of a global pandemic such as COVID-19 may quickly expose their constraints and raise new, existential challenges to al-Shabaab’s authority.
Healthcare, for example, presents a rather intractable problem. During its territorial ‘Golden Age’ (2009-2010), al-Shabaab appointed regional coordinators to manage hospitals in the coastal town of Merka, Lower Shabelle, and other provincial settlements through a centralized ‘health department,’39 however AMISOM-led offensives have gradually pushed them out into Somalia’s rural peripheries, hampering any systematic access to medical attention.40 Fighters may still be able to purchase treatment from private clinics or blend in as ‘locals’ to enter government-run facilities in Mogadishu,b but the same amenities do not extend to the vast majority of communities in rural Somalia and the riverine valleys. Malnutrition, poor WASH (water, sanitation, and hygiene) conditions, and low immunization levels are prevalent across the country, but those living under al-Shabaab are even excluded from the meager improvements offered by counterinsurgency stabilization efforts. While the group has previously “sought out” medics in order to cope with outbreaks of diseases such as cholera41 and despite the purported establishment of the COVID-19 isolation and care facility, the lack of technical expertise, specialist equipment, administrative capabilities, and resources necessary for containing or managing the proliferation of the virus leaves these populations highly vulnerable.
What Has al-Shabaab Done During Previous Disasters?
During previous complex emergencies like the famine of 2010-2011, al-Shabaab largely outsourced essential services to NGOs and aid agencies, although they tended to be ad hoc arrangements determined by the whims of individual commanders and “Humanitarian Coordination Officers.”42 These operations were subjected to heavy “registration fees,” and all activities were closely surveilled, with relief workers often being forced to disclose sensitive budgetary and logistical details.43 Consequently, internationally funded food corridors were precarious—constrained by U.S.-led counterterrorism legislation,44 the predation of local militias, and eventually halted by al-Shabaab’s paranoia over Western espionage.45
Similar dynamics emerged after a severe drought and concurrent cholera and measles outbreaks in 2017 as the group eventually banned external interventions,46 preferring instead to launch its own in-house efforts to deliver “livestock, food, water and even money” across afflicted populations.47 While its messaging referenced wider concerns over the distortive impact of external aid on local markets, the sincerity was dubious and the substitute programming proved insufficient.48 When al-Shabaab became “overwhelmed by the numbers,” people were temporarily allowed to “seek healthcare elsewhere,”49 although internal migration was subsequently suppressed in part due to concerns such a mass exodus would leave insurgents vulnerable to aerial bombardment.50 A somewhat contradictory logic has therefore played out between embryonic forms of militant-managed ‘humanitarianism’ and the more conventional proclivities of “counter-humanitarianism,”51 with al-Shabaab trying to “mollify [its] critics,”52 preserve the integrity of its political project, and hold drought-stricken communities hostage for military gain, all at the same time.
What Makes the COVID-19 Pandemic Different?
Of course, al-Shabaab’s responses to previous disasters are not perfect analogies given the nature and potential scale of the current pandemic. For one, Somalia’s past famines were in large part “man-made” where the distribution of available food was impeded by conflict.53 Moreover, the potential spread of COVID-19 coincides with the legacies of 2019’s erratic weather patterns, and vast locust infestations devastating crops yields across Somalia, Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia, and South Sudan.54 Flight restrictions are delaying pesticide imports across the region,55 capacity-building schemes have been widely suspended or disrupted, and national lockdowns increase pressure on already strained supply chains. The problem has been compounded by floods affecting almost a million people and forcing them to crowd into camps where COVID-19 could spread rapidly.56 With the locust problem not likely to end anytime soon,57 the extent of these coalescing disasters could be unprecedented given the 2020 Humanitarian Response Plan for Somalia was still only 31 percent funded by early June 2020.58
Under such conditions, it is uncertain how al-Shabaab will respond, especially as it is not on a particularly stable footing after rumored leadership disputes, latent concerns over funding and the loss of several ‘bridge towns’ along the River Shabelle to Somali security forces over the last 12 months. Consequently, the group may leverage the pandemic to strengthen its military position at a time when the resources and attention of AMISOM and the Somali authorities are becoming increasingly consumed elsewhere.59 Movement of peacekeeping personnel is now minimized,60 rotations and new deployments are largely postponed, meeting sizes remain heavily regulated, and civilian contractors have mostly been evacuated from Mogadishu.61 Though the frequency of large-scale al-Shabaab attacks has been relatively low in recent months,62 incidents are still reported across the country. In mid-May 2020, the group claimed responsibility for the killing of the governor of Mudug and three bodyguards in the northern town of Galkayo using a suicide vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (SVBIED).63 In April 2020, the militants used two VBIEDs in an attack against AMISOM troops in Barawe, Lower Shabelle.64 In the capital, a series of mortar attacks have targeted the fortified airport complex.65
Nevertheless, as a relatively strategic, sometime pragmatic “politico-military organization,”66 elements within al-Shabaab have evidently recognized the serious problems COVID-19 presents. Its popularity—while never overwhelming—has taken a significant hit in recent years, not only from its disastrous response to famines67 but a series of deadly attacks in Mogadishu resulting in high civilian casualties.c While the pandemic may be used as an opportunity to exploit potential frustrations with the FGS’s measures to mitigate the spread of the virus,68 al-Shabaab’s own failure to deliver some systematic response could also precipitate a further surge of public discontent against the group itself, sapping its credibility as a ‘stabilizing force’ and undermining the authority of its brand, particularly if ‘out-performed’ by its competitors. Similarly, although al-Shabaab includes a nucleus of committed ideologues, exercises stringent internal policing,69 and has tried to portray itself as detached from clan politics,70 it does not operate as a monolith. Many recruits join for opportunistic, political, or expedient reasons,71 and the insurgency’s manpower is dependent on numerous alliances: arrangements made in a fluctuating conflict ecosystem that are both convenient and often fleeting.72 Al-Shabaab abandoning these constituencies or blocking their access to medical support may consequently deplete the group’s military capabilities or compromise its remaining territorial control, especially as the group is not in the same position of strength it enjoyed in 2010.
The virus also has broader implications for the insurgency’s financial self-sufficiency, an essential ingredient for al-Shabaab’s resilience over the last decade. Many of its revenue streams are drawn from the Somali economy: racketeering and the extortion of local industries; the imposition of crop levies and land taxes; the introduction of fees for business licences and automobile imports;73 and the tapping of remittance flows and illicit markets.d Any COVID-related disruption to this commercial circuitry, or the labor force underpinning it, may therefore increase pressure on the group’s funding and, by extension, its decision-making. Internecine spats over cash shortages reportedly created a division between the group’s leader Ahmed Diriye and his deputies in early 2020,74 raising the prospect of further rifts given that al-Shabaab appears to already be facing certain financial constraints.
This leaves al-Shabaab vulnerable given its coercive faculties are going to be little use stemming a virus that crosscuts social, economic, and ethnic boundaries. Reflecting a problem shared across both state and sub-national authoritarianisms, guns may help enforce quarantines, but if and when the disease spreads, the usual recourse for ‘strongmen’—appropriation, patronage, and violence—will do little to assuage the need for ventilators and intensive care units. Without a stick and/or carrot commensurate to the scale of this disaster, al-Shabaab’s structural weaknesses may be revealed.
What About the Government?
Unfortunately, many of these challenges are not unique to al-Shabaab. Even if there is not a major outbreak across Somalia, the economic impact of the pandemic elsewhere will have significant resonance,e with the fallout potentially becoming more fatal than the virus itself.75
Suffering from severe institutional and financial constraints, the FGS remains dangerously under-resourced and reliant on financial assistance from the international community. Mogadishu is also in the midst of a protracted dispute with some of Somalia’s Federal Member States (FMSs)76 and COVID-19 has arrived as the country makes arrangements for elections toward the end of the year, with Mogadishu continuing to insist that the polls will embrace universal suffrage for the first time in approximately 50 years.77 Many doubted whether the FGS was in the position to conduct ‘one-person-one-vote’ elections before this crisis; preparations will undoubtedly now be further disrupted.78
Somalia’s healthcare system has been described as “mere scaffolding,” with most civilians depending on informal providers.79 At the start of the pandemic, the country had fewer than 20 beds available in ICUs.80 International support has ensured that there are now almost 300 beds in isolation facilities,81 but this number is hardly enough to deal with the expected escalation in COVID-19 cases. Hygiene and social distancing advice is being shared as widely as possible by the FGS, with the support of humanitarian agencies.82 The extensive network managed by Hormuud—Somalia’s largest telecommunications firm—has been leveraged to help disperse public messaging. Educational institutions have been shut, most flights suspended, population movement restricted, and a night-time curfew imposed on Mogadishu.83 The FGS has also implemented tax-exemption and dropped some import fees.84 As is the case in most of sub-Saharan Africa, however, a complete lockdown is hardly feasible with the majority of the population dependent on subsistence labor and more concerned about their daily safety than the invisible enemy that is COVID-19. The closure of mosques in some areas has been contentious, and reports suggested that FGS social distancing advice was—at least initially—ignored, across Mogadishu where markets remain crowded.85 For those lacking access to clean water and residing in cramped conditions, adherence to the recommendations is next to impossible.86 Internally displaced persons (IDP) living in camps on the edge of Mogadishu are reportedly “waiting for death.”87 Besides, there are vast swathes of the country over which the FGS has no access, let alone control. These include territories controlled by al-Shabaab, but the cooperation of the state authorities in other areas is also uncertain.
Reports suggest that Islamist rhetoric on the virus has begun to take hold among some of the population, with rumors circulating that the pandemic has been sent to punish various foreign nations.88 The government is keen that its COVID-19 advice is issued by religious leaders and madrassa teachers, stakeholders with social capital, access, and influence to potentially broadcast this narrative more effectively.89 Such a move could be critical, as al-Shabaab and its sympathizers see the FGS as a puppet for the ‘Crusader West.’ It would otherwise be easy for the Islamist militant group to dismiss the administration’s direct recommendations—along with the virus itself—as foreign interference.
For al-Shabaab, a widespread COVID-19 outbreak in Somalia will present an entirely different challenge to that experienced during previous humanitarian emergencies in the country. Food aid alone will not suffice; the coming of the rains will not bring respite. Medical expertise and specialist equipment will be needed. While al-Shabaab is believed to have access to some basic medical facilities,90 it does not have the capacity to put thousands of people into intensive care units.
Consequently, the pandemic raises challenges not only for al-Shabaab but for wider models of ‘jihadi governance’ that deliver “little solutions” to day-to-day issues but lack the scale, capacity, or inclination to respond to a seismic challenge like COVID-19. The key question is whether the authorities they are fighting can do any better.
In Somalia, neither side has the funds, equipment, or expertise to limit the spread of the virus or to treat the patients. An economic collapse in Somalia would affect both the FGS and al-Shabaab. The one benefit the FGS has is access to international support. The U.S. government has already pledged USD 7 million to Somalia’s efforts against COVID-19,91 alongside commitments from U.N. agencies, including both the World Health Organization and the World Food Programme.92 Likewise, the Somali Red Crescent Society and International Committee of the Red Cross are aiming to share disease-prevention information with around 120,000 households and train 500 additional health workers.93 If the situation gets out of control, patients in al-Shabaab-controlled areas are going to need access to these resources, raising difficult, sensitive questions over the relationship between counterterrorism and the delivery of aid and humanitarian relief.
Similarly, with the lack of a long-term military solution to al-Shabaab after more than a decade of international effort, there are growing—if often hushed—calls for dialogue with the group.94 Might it be possible that an existential, and entirely exogenous, crisis of the nature of COVID-19 provides the catalyst for cooperation? If dialogue with al-Shabaab is still considered a pipe dream, surely the pandemic will at least bring together Mogadishu and the FMSs against a common foe.95
Perhaps this is wishful thinking. In the event of a complete COVID-driven meltdown in Somalia, it is likely that al-Shabaab’s propaganda machine will churn out messages insisting that the disaster is further evidence of the FGS’ inability to look after Somalis. It will be easy enough to blame its own governance failings on the military operations against it. FMSs may also see the pandemic as an opportunity to further cement their own authority vis-à-vis Mogadishu. In reality, the status quo is unlikely to change. It will be the civilians who suffer the most. an original publication of Combating Terrorism Centre-CTC
Christopher Hockey is a Research Fellow in the Royal United Services (RUSI)’s Nairobi office. He is involved in several countering violent extremism projects in Kenya, with an emphasis on research, monitoring and evaluation, and violence tracking. As a risk analyst, he was previously focused on the transnational threat from Islamist extremism across eastern and central Africa.
Michael Jones is a Research Fellow in the Royal United Services (RUSI)’s Terrorism and Conflict team with a particular focus on political violence, conflict economies, and militancy in East and Sub-Saharan Africa.