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Covid-19 and its impact on extremist groups’ use of IEDs

The global Covid-19 pandemic, now entering its third year, has wreaked havoc on the safety, health and well-being of societies and communities worldwide. As of 1 March, 2022, there have been 435,626,514 confirmed cases and 5,952,215 deaths[1] as reported by the World Health Organization. Beyond the daily lives of many being altered due to this crisis, global socio-economic, geopolitical, and conflict landscapes have been impacted. Resources and political attention have been refocused on public health, distracting from counterterrorism efforts allowing terrorist groups in many countries to carry on as normal. As Miles Comerford from the Institute for Strategic Dialogue notes: “In contexts where terrorism is largely an urban phenomenon there has been a notable reduction in violence to coincide with global lockdown. However, in settings where terrorism is occurring in the context of a broader conflict-including in disputed or border regions- Covid-19 seems to have had relatively little impact on the trajectory of violence.”[2]

The pandemic has allowed terrorist recruiters and extremists to exploit financial, health and personal concerns opportunistically to advance their own movement and ideology all while using propaganda to reinforce power and influence, and fuel division to further a loss of trust in governance and state authority. Violent extremists have continued to utilize low-tech, low-cost tactics such as improvised explosive devices (IEDs), shooting attacks and vehicle ramming that often defy detection and disruption.[3]

For the purpose of this article, AOAV has concentrated on four areas of conflict- Iraq, Syria, Somalia and Afghanistan- and the extremist groups that operate there: ISIS, Al Qaeda and the Taliban. By analysing discourse from these groups during the pandemic, as well as the AOAV’s own database on global IED attacks, we sought to discover if dialogue and strategy impacted tactics, specifically IED usage, and capability during the Covid-19 pandemic. AOAV’s data is gleaned from English language media reports and does not profess to capture ever single incident. Especially in an age of pandemic, reporting of explosive violence may well have been under-powered and neglected.

The Islamic State (Iraq and Syria)
Covid-19 introduced yet another threat to the already battered and fragile political orders in Iraq and Syria, putting further strain on the failing health care systems there. The Wilson Centre (2020) reported that the Islamic State blamed Shiites for the first cases of coronavirus in Iraq and called the outbreak a “sign” that Shiites should “abandon polytheism”.[4] Subsequent statements from their al Naba newsletter called the disease a “painful torment” for all “Crusader nations” in the West. While followers were warned not to travel to Europe, they were urged to protect themselves through physical precautions and prayer and to capitalize on the paralysis of Western governments and their militaries.[5] The group also stated that followers should free ISIS prisoners being held in camps in Iraq and Syria.

While ISIS is nothing close to its former capability, according to the UN counter-terrorism chief, it has shown over the Covid pandemic that it ”continues to exploit the disruption, grievances and development setbacks caused by the pandemic to regroup, recruit new followers and intensify its activities- both online and on the ground.”[6] Present proxy militias, civil unrest due to high unemployment, ethno-religious grievances, a lack of government trust and vulnerable borders in Iraq and a civil war in Syria, that is about to enter its eleventh year, has aided this re-establishment.

IED Attacks in Iraq 2019-2021
There were 447 recorded IED attacks in Iraq from 2019-2021. The number of IED attacks has been on the rise over the past year with a total of 187 attacks in 2021. ISIS was the known perpetrator in 36 of these attacks, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) for 4 while the remaining attacks have unknown perpetrators. This accounts for a 60% increase from 2020’s 117 IED attacks. ISIS claimed responsibility for 28 of the 2020 IED attacks, the PKK 2 and the remaining attacks had unknown perpetrators.

Interestingly, 2020 had the lowest number of IED attacks for the three year period, mainly attributed to a decline in attacks during the first half of 2020, when the Covid pandemic began. There was a 20% decrease in the number of attacks from 2019 (143) to 2020 (117). ISIS also claimed responsibility for the highest number of attacks during 2019 with a total of 62. The PKK claimed 2 and the remaining 79 had unknown perpetrators. The IED attacks over the three year period focused mainly on soft targets- roads, urban residences, villages, agricultural land, places of worship or markets. Out of the total three years only 17 attacks were carried out on hard targets- police stations (2) or military bases (15). In the three year period 25 IED were car bombs, 140 were road side, 1 used multiple explosive weapons with the remaining non-specific IEDs.

IED attacks in Iraq. Source: AOAV

IED Attacks in Syria 2019-2021
There were 827 recorded IED attacks in Syria from 2019-2021. IED related attacks yearly averages declined by 40% from 2019 to 2021. This was mainly attributed to a marked decline in IED attacks in Syria for the second half of 2021. In 2019 there were 338 total IED attacks of which 98 were attributed to ISIS. In 2020, there were 286 total IED attacks, with 36 linked to ISIS. 2021 had a total of 203 IED attacks, with ISIS linked to 49 of them. Over the three year period, ISIS was linked to a total of 183 IED attacks, Syrian Rebel groups were the known perpetrator for 4 of the attacks, Turkish backed groups 3, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and YPG both accounted for one each and the remaining IED attacks were by unknown perpetrators.

Landmines accounted for almost 10% of the attacks in 2019 and 2020 and 15% of the attacks in 2021. 18 of the attacks for the three year period were suicide attacks. 159 of the attacks were victim-activated, this accounted for 20% of all IED attacks for the three year period. Soft targets were again with roads, markets, villages and urban residences accounting for a large number of the attacks. 135 of the IED attacks were car bombs, 60 were road side IED’s, 2 were multi-explosive IED’s and the remaining attacks were non-specific.

IED attacks in Syria. Source: AOAV

Al Qaeda and Affiliates
In recent years, officials have characterized the Al Qaeda (AQ) threat as stemming mainly from its affiliates. In March 2020, an AQ affiliate group issued a declaration on the Media Network Al-Thurur, rejecting a cease fire and instead calling for an intensified battle against a crippled West.[7] Hayat Tahrir al Sham (HTS) in Syria instructed its followers not to let the virus distract them from their fight against Shiites and other non-believers. In its Iba’ newsletter they stated that the virus had been sent by God to kill disbelievers.[8] Markets, public spaces, schools and mosques were closed down and HTS instructed people to keep their distance from others. Al Shabaab “claimed that the virus had been deliberately spread in Somalia “by crusader forces”.[9] Further to this, AQ, HTS and A-Shabaab “have used official propaganda channels to emphasize their governance and state-building credentials, and to present the effectiveness of their respective ‘Ministries of Health’ within their pseudo-states.[10]

IED Attacks in Somalia
Al-Shabaab is the largest, wealthiest, and most violent AQ associated group in the world, according to the US Department of Defence. For the past three years, Al Shabaab has been responsible for half of all IED attacks in Somalia. Out of the 201 three-year total of IED attacks from 2019-2021, Al-Shabaab was the perpetrator for 100 of them. Soft targets accounted for 90% of all IED attacks. 39% of the IED’s were used in roadside attacks, 23% were used as car bombs and the remaining were non-specific IED attacks. 14 IED attacks over the three year period were by remote detonation, 54 were suicide attacks, 24 were vicitim activated, and the remaining had an unclear activation method.

IED attacks in Somalia. Source: AOAV

The Taliban
The Taliban’s response to Covid-19 has been in stark contrast to other extremist groups. They have been eager to profess their readiness and aptitude for handling the crisis, hoping to reinforce their political legitimacy and social status. While efforts and co-operation with the Afghan government have varied district to district and are often described as propaganda, their public health awareness campaign during the Covid pandemic has been welcomed. Social media pages connected with the group have shown Taliban members in white gowns and gloves distributing soap and educating on proper hand hygiene.[11]

Militants announced Afghans returning from Iran would be forced to quarantine. Cease-fires were offered in areas of outbreak. Remarkably, they began to cooperate with the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the Red Cross. This unexpected response may have resulted from many top members of the Taliban contracting the virus[12], leaving leadership roles vacant affecting security and financial operations. The US withdrawal from Afghanistan has renewed concerns that it will become a safe haven for a plethora of terrorist and extremist groups and many of these efforts aided by government and NGO health workers will be discontinued. While the U.N. reported the plummeting of covid testing and vaccinations in the weeks after the Taliban seized power,[13] a recent January 2022 video of the Taliban’s acting Minister of Public Health, Qalandar Ebad urging the people in Afghanistan to get vaccinated, gives hope.[14]

IED Attacks in Afghanistan
There were a total of 1,072 recorded IED attacks in Afghanistan during the period of 2019-2021. Despite Covid, IED attacks rose 54% from 2019’s total of 307 IED attacks to 2020’s total of 472, which was also the height of IED attacks for the three year period. 2021 saw a massive drop off in the second half of the year (July-December 2021) with only 47 recorded IED attacks, compared to 304 for the same period of time during the previous year.

As the lowest number of attacks have occurred most recently (August 2021 and onwards), it is likely correlated to the Taliban takeover. Out of the 307 total IED attacks for 2019, the Taliban were the perpetrators for 95, ISIS Afghanistan for 11, and the remaining had unknown perpetrators. In 2020, the Taliban was responsible for 80 IED attacks, ISIS Afghanistan 6, out of the 472 total attacks for the year. 2021 had a total of 293 IED attacks for the year with the Taliban responsible for 31 and ISIS Afghanistan responsible for 15. Soft targets- roads, urban residents, villages, and markets were the most common targets. Only 8% of all attacks were on hard targets. 54% (582) of all attacks used road side bombs, 12% (129) used car bombs, 0.1% were multi-explosive IED’s and the remaining 34% (360) were non-specific IED’s.

IED attacks in Afghanistan. Source: AOAV

Conclusion
Extremist groups have used the instability that the Covid pandemic has presented to their distinct advantage. Dialogue has reinforced ideological beliefs and has been used as a tool to further strengthen strategy and to gain legitimacy. IED attacks and tactics used over this period have remained fairly consistent over the past three years, exhibiting extremist organisations’ ability to maintain their operational capacity.

The last six months of 2021 have provided the lowest IED attack totals during the three year period for Syria, Afghanistan and Somalia. Only in Iraq has the most recent six month total for IED attacks been at its highest level for the three year period.

Looking ahead, similar trends have already been seen from the AOAV database from January 2022 with IED attacks levels, tactics and targets in all four countries remaining consistent with end of year 2021 levels. As 2022 progresses, extremist groups look likely to continue to embrace unpredictable, smaller-scale IED attacks, while continuing to expand their growth and increase their operational capabilities.


[1] https://covid19.who.int

[2] Comerford, Miles, “How Have Terrorist Organisations Responded to COVID-19?” Vision of Humanity, https://www.visionofhumanity.org/how-have-terrorist-organisations-responded-to-covid-19/.

[3] Wood, Jonathon and Arsla Jawaid, “Covid and the Taliban Drive Diverse Terrorist Threats” Control Risks, https://www.controlrisks.com/riskmap/top-risks/terrorism-risk-covid-and-the-taliban-drive-diverse-terrorist-threats

[4] Andrew Hanna. The Wilson Centre. “What Islamists Are Doing and Saying on Covid-19 Crisis.” May 14, 2020.

[5] Norlen, Tova. “The Impact of Covid-19 on Salafi-Jihadi Terrorism. Connections: The Quarterly Journal, Vol. 19, 2020.

[6] “Islamic State Threat Moves Online, Expands Across Africa: Senior Counter-Terrorism Expert.” UN News 19 Aug 2021. https://news.un.org/en/story/2021/08/1098112.

[7] Norlen, Tova. “The Impact of Covid-19 on Salafi-Jihadi Terrorism. Connections: The Quarterly Journal, Vol. 19, 2020.

[8] Andrew Hanna. The Wilson Centre. “What Islamists Are Doing and Saying on Covid-19 Crisis.” May 14, 2020.

[9] Comerford, Miles, “How Have Terrorist Organisations Responded to COVID-19?” Vision of Humanity, https://www.visionofhumanity.org/how-have-terrorist-organisations-responded-to-covid-19/.

[10] Comerford, Miles, “How Have Terrorist Organisations Responded to COVID-19?” Vision of Humanity, https://www.visionofhumanity.org/how-have-terrorist-organisations-responded-to-covid-19/.

[11]Ezzatullah Mehrdad, “In Afghanistan, the Coronavirus Fight Goes Through Taliban Territory.” The New Humanitarian. June 3, 2020.

[12] Lynne O’Donnell and Mirwais Khan, “Leader of the Afghan Taliban Said to be Gravely Ill with the Coronavirus,” Foreign Policy, June 1 2020.

[13] Erin Cunningham. “Taliban Takeover Could Drive Covid Crisis in Afghanistan as Vaccinations Plummet, U.N. Warns.” The Washington Post. August 25, 2021.

[14] “Covid: Taliban’s Acting Health Minister Asks People to Get Vaccinated,” Business Standard News, January 30,2022.