A few days ago, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned that COVID-19 poses a great risk to global peace and security and called for “heightened solidarity” to defeat the crisis and prevent it from “potentially leading to an increase in social unrest and violence that would greatly undermine our ability to fight the disease.”
The UN boss further cautioned that as the international community focuses on battling the COVID-19 pandemic, terrorist groups could see “a window of opportunity to strike.”
He went on to paint a grim scenario of violent extremists potentially taking advantage of the unpreparedness of many countries in responding to the COVID-19 outbreak to unleash “bioterrorism” attacks.
As the World battles the COVID-19 pandemic, there is a real risk of terrorists exploiting the prevailing crisis to launch attacks against nations and communities considered soft targets.
Violent extremists are also likely to take advantage of the fact that many countries’ resources are stretched as they fight COVID-19. And considering the harsh socio-economic impact of the pandemic on vulnerable communities, extremists may exploit local grievances to recruit and radicalize new members.
Already, groups like Al Qaeda, Islamic State (IS) and Taliban have publicly avowed the coronavirus pandemic as an opportunity to further their extremist agenda.
Extremist groups operating in various parts of Africa have in fact escalated attacks on security and civilian targets. In the last month alone, Boko Haram killed 92 soldiers in Chad, an extremist group linked to IS raided a port in Mozambique, while an Al Qaeda affiliate killed 29 soldiers in Mali.
This is ample warning that the perceived lull in terror attacks since the onset of the COVID-19 outbreak should not lead us into a false sense of security. Extremists are known to be calculating, always waiting to strike at an opportune moment.
We, therefore, need to be vigilant and step up efforts in preventing and countering violent extremism (PCVE) as part of the general response to COVID-19. Having previously borne the brunt of terrorism over the years, as a country our focus should not be limited to preventing direct attacks but also taming radicalization activities likely to be fueled by the COVID-19 crisis.
According to Foundation for Dialogue, a Kenyan NGO engaged in PCVE, while preventive measures against COVID-19 have led to less crowding thus dissuading terrorists from launching direct attacks, restrictions on religious worship and other social activities could motivate extremists to radicalize vulnerable youth.
Experts also caution that extremists could capitalize on the prevailing socio-economic impacts of COVID-19 and create narratives denouncing the secular state order as ineffective in addressing the needs of vulnerable communities.
Hence, the need for enhanced vigilance to suppress violent extremism by cutting off the oxygen of grievances that feeds it at the local community level.
Various studies have shown that among the factors that make people most susceptible to terrorist recruitment and radicalization are perceptions of social injustice and alienation.
If not properly addressed within the context of the national COVID-19 response, the social and economic issues facing vulnerable communities could mutate into social unrest and violence, the very challenges Mr. Guterres warns will undermine the war on the pandemic.
Organisations and groups involved in PCVE should, therefore, focus their efforts on community awareness and sensitization on violent extremism to target narratives directed at vulnerable groups, particularly those seeking to prey on the latter’s sense of despondency in this time of uncertainty and social upheaval.
Additionally, PCVE agenda should be integrated into COVID-19 national response framework, first integrated within the National Strategy to Countering Violent Extremism (NSCVE) and second, at the county level, integration with County Action Plans on PCVE.
In identifying their COVID-19 response parameters, counties should also map out risk factors that violent extremists may exploit to push their agenda. The County Engagement Forums should align their activities with National and County COVID-19 response programs especially aspects targeting the most vulnerable communities.
Priority should be accorded to efforts that prevent social unrest from perceived exclusion taking root in our communities as this provides fertile ground for extremism to thrive.
However, we must always bear in mind that ultimately, all terrorism prevention strategies must begin with the individual. As we adhere to laid down guidelines on COVID-19 prevention, we should all be alive to the fact that the agents and sympathizers of terrorism are lurking in our midst and waiting for the right time to pounce. It is our civic duty to protect our community and country.
In exercising this civic duty, we should always be guided by the immortal words of the great American statesmen Thomas Jefferson: ‘Let the eyes of vigilance never be closed.’
Mr. Mwachinga is an Advocate of the High Court of Kenya and a Partner at Viva Africa Consulting LLP. [email protected]