COVID-19 in the Era of Misinformation and Terrorism

Articles & Insights

May 4, 2020

corona, coronavirus, virus

 “COVID-19 is Allah’s soldier”

— Islamic State and Al-Qaeda

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected the world in an unprecedented scale and disrupting the normalcy that defined engagements globally. A concern shared widely focus on the existence of disinformation from COVID-19. Terror groups are not left behind in the disinformation cycle, and are advancing  several narratives to achieve their objectives.

The Islamic State and Al-Qaeda are on record describing the virus as a small “soldier of Allah”.[1] Capitalizing on the fear that accompanies COVID-19 and the seemingly fractured international cooperation, the Islamic State through its sanctioned Al-Naba editorial details the destruction that the pandemic has had globally as some sort of punishment on the perceived enemy countries.[2] Scholars agree that the packaging of such information and its dissemination provides an opportunity for the consumption of “conspiracies” by the public.[3] The destructive nature of such disinformation is huge, especially from an elusive pandemic as COVID-19. Al-Shabaab a dominant terror group in the Horn of Africa is taking cue from the other terror groups like ISIS and Al-Qaeda. The terror group maintains that COVID-19 is a Western problem and borne out of its “oppression” of the Muslim population.[4] The problem is aggravated by religious leaders who are reluctant to the closure of religious places.[5]

Even though some terror groups like Islamic State, giving guidelines on taking precautions against COVID-19,[6] there are predicted challenges in the response to the pandemic. The populations that subscribe to some ideologies of such a terror group like ISIS may downplay the severity of COVID-19. The fragility of  knowledge and beliefs in the face of disinformation[7]  creates a scenario where the public perception, packaged in wishful thinking, especially during uncertainty can dis-base scientific propositions.[8] There could be infections within areas controlled by such terror groups yet undetected due of the limited information provided and the held perceptions about the disease.

The geopolitics in Somalia resulting from challenges faced between NISA, Al-Shabaab, and the Violent Extremist Organisations (VEO’s) area of influence for example is not precise. Whether Somalia’s Central or Southern regions are a haven for Al-Shabaab, determining the size and population the terror group controls invite controversy, more so currently. It is thus complex to determine the spread and impact of the virus in such areas. Additionally, the profiling from the organisations on humanitarian response especially from international actors can influence the acceptance of support to such regions. This could lead to catastrophes as previously witnessed during the famine in Somalia when the terror groups opposed foreign humanitarian intervention, leading to several deaths.[9]

Governments are doing a lot. Different policy directives in place try to “flatten-the-curve,” of COVID-19. Though with the policy directives, the implementation has faced a beating. A lot of the actions from law enforcement in the Horn of Africa region, reverse the gains made on relationship and peace building. These issues risk playing into the vulnerabilities that push individuals into violent extremism and terrorism.  On the other hand, complete lockdowns are a mooted idea for the region. Now, youth have lost their livelihoods and with these terror groups disregard government guidelines and controls and could knowingly or unknowingly aid in the spread of the virus.[10] They also seem to provide the salvation option for the challenges’ livelihood challenges including the provision of food. Al-Shabaab has in the past and during drought, supplied food to communities. This is on the humanitarian angle, to win sympathy from the communities for recruitment and safe passage.

COVID-19 is a global threat. One that has destabilized the international system and more so the Horn of Africa. However, it would be unforgiving on development partners and governments to assume a wholistic avenue of response that includes other vulnerabilities leading to conflict. Scofield Associates therefore supplies some intervention recommendations.

Intervention Areas

  1. Audience mapping research on the COVID-19 narratives. While face to face interactions are not practical in the current context, research to advise policy remains crucial. For stakeholders, the online space using big data analytics, supplies a new avenue for research and insights. Governments and development partners can invest in this area as institutions morph and align to the new norm.  This will bring an understanding of the perceptions, biases, media use, frequency of disinformation, language use and audiences reached.
  2. Sentiment analysis for narrative understanding and alternative messaging development. Perceptions form ideas which intern become a reality. During challenging times like these facts remain as the most sought-after gem. In the absence of credible information, the default is a reliance on perceptions shared as sentiments. These stay to be the “truths” for decision-making. These narratives shape the reality for communities.
  3. National government capacity strengthening to increase trust and ease local responses. While the major discussions focus on the possibilities of violent attack in communities, there is also the likelihood of sympathy seeking attacks from the VEO’s. COVID-19 is overwhelming governments in developing worlds. VEO’ s may also use these pressures to provide aid to communities as was witnessed before in Somalia. While this may not seem as a violent attack in the sense of humanitarian support, it remains a crucial threat as the communities form a perspective to the VEO’s that becomes difficult to change in the long run.
  4. Development of policy briefs advised by data modelling and predictive analytics for governments. At the risk of reiterating the importance of data, analysis for insights serves as the crucial part that guarantees sustainable policies.

It is important that such information is shared with the right individuals within government for action. A synthesis of such material is crucial at this challenging time.


[1]Nur Aziemah Azman. 2020. “Divine Retribution’: The Islamic State’s COVID-19 Propaganda : The Islamic State’s narrative on the coronavirus pandemic reinforces anti-China and anti-Shiite sentiments.” The Diplomat, March 24. Accessed April 22, 2020.

[2] Ibid.

[3]Vivian Gerrand. 2020. “Resilience, radicalisation and democracy in the COVID-19 Pandemic.” Open Democracy, April 2. Accessed April 22, 2020.

[4]Safeworld. 2020. COVID-19 in Somalia: A conflict-sensitive response to overlapping crises. Safeworld. Accessed April 21, 2020.

[5]BBC. 2020. “Coronavirus: Fighting al-Shabab propaganda in Somalia.” BBC News, April 2. Accessed April 2, 2020.

[6]International Crisis Group. 2020. Contending with ISIS in the Time of Coronavirus. Commentary, International Crisis Group.

[7]Richard Szafranski. 1997. A Theory of Information Warfare. Thesis, Air University.

[8]Stephan Lewandowsky et al. 2013. “Misinformation, Disinformation, and Violent Conflict : From Iraq and the “War on Terror” to Future Threats to Peace.” American Psychologist.

[9]BBC. 2020. “Coronavirus: Fighting al-Shabaab propaganda in Somalia.” BBC News, April 2. Accessed April 2, 2020.

[10]Aggrey Mutambo. 2020. “Covid-19: Experts warn of potential wave of extremism.” Daily Nation, April 25. Accessed April 25, 2020.