As the Covid-19 (coronavirus) pandemic affects the majority of countries in Africa, militant terrorist groups on the continent have continued to launch major attacks, raising concerns that the growing pandemic might create an attention vacuum that will present an unrivalled opportunity for these groups.
In the past month, major terrorist attacks have been recorded in several African countries illustrating growing strength among some militant organisations in Africa, particularly the growing influence of the Islamic State (IS) on the continent.
In Mozambique’s northern province of Cabo Delgado, Ahl al-Sunnah wa-al-Jama’ah, also known as Ansar al-Sunna, has launched several major attacks on towns in recent weeks, raising the IS black standard and reaffirming the group’s allegiance with the Islamic State in Central Africa Province (ISCAP). IS is believed to have entered Mozambique in April 2019 in an alliance with Ansar al-Sunna. Since then attacks in Cabo Delgado have increased in sophistication. Further, a concerted media campaign has emerged leaking footage of militants temporarily seizing towns and villages, a decided break from Ansar al-Sunna’s historic secrecy and in line with IS’s typical approach.
On 23 March 2020, militants attacked Mocimboa da Praia temporarily seizing the town, and later conducted a similar attack on nearby Quissanga. The group has launched several attacks since then, including two in the Muidumbe district on 6 and 7 April. The frequency and sophistication of the attacks shows that Ansar al-Sunna and ISCAP are growing in strength and capacity in the province and could potentially pose a threat to the city of Pemba, which is set to be the hub of the nascent oil and gas industry in the province.
However, as the militants increase capacity, the Mozambican state is having to divert resources to address the coronavirus pandemic. As of 9 April 2020, Mozambique had 16 confirmed cases, likely significantly less than the real number given the virus’s two-week incubation period and the country’s limited capacity to test and trace those infected. It is also clear that Mozambique is in the early stages of its outbreak and cases will likely go up. This will force the country to implement further preventative measures including a possible lockdown of key areas, if not countrywide. This will require financial, logistical and even security force resources, diverting capacity from the campaign against the militants in Cabo Delgado.
In the same vein, if the virus spreads to Cabo Delgado, authorities will be virtually powerless to stop the spread of the coronavirus. This is because ISCAP/Ansar al-Sunna controls significant territory and will prevent state health officials testing and treating people in these areas. The internally displaced people (IDP) crisis in Cabo Delgado also creates containment and treatment challenges. The more communities that are displaced by the violence the harder it will be to contain the coronavirus epidemic should it reach Cabo Delgado.
Similarly, IS’s affiliate, the Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP), comprised mainly of Boko Haram, is also continuing to conduct attacks in Nigeria, Cameroon, and Chad.
On 23 March ISWAP/Boko Haram fighters attacked a military base in Chad’s Lac region, killing at least 92 soldiers in the deadliest attack by the group against Chad to date. In response, Chad has launched a major offensive to combat the group. However, the country is also trying to enforce travel and operating restrictions in N’Djamena and several surrounding regions to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, again limiting capacity. Chad also does not have the financial resources for a protracted lockdown and a prolonged conflict.
Boko Haram’s ability to attack across borders into Nigeria, Chad, and Cameroon underscores the porous nature of the region’s poorly policed borders – a further concern if a widespread coronavirus outbreak occurs. As seen during the 2014-2016 Ebola outbreak, disease can spread rapidly in these easily permeable areas and the presence of ISWAP makes it too dangerous for a substantial disease prevention operation to take place.
Africa has comparatively been less affected by the coronavirus than other regions in the world, likely due to its limited connectivity to international travel, combined with testing limitations. However, the virus is now entrenched and spreading throughout the continent and could become a major epidemic that most African states are poorly equipped to face.
This would place a substantial strain on governments and state resources. Security forces will be needed to enforce lockdowns and even deal with possible civil unrest. This will provide opportunities for militant and terrorist groups operating on the continent. The possibility of the outbreak spreading through armed forces, incapacitating entire brigades, can also not be discounted.
The existence of these groups, particularly as some such as ISCAP, ISWAP, and Somalia’s al-Shabaab, hold actual territory, limits the ability of national governments to control the spread of the virus. In fact, as these groups operate across borders, they could facilitate the spread of the coronavirus themselves. The fact that most operate in a cell structure could help here, as there is already limited contact between the different groups of fighters and leaders.
As the coronavirus spreads and state resources and focus are consumed with addressing the pandemic there is a strong possibility that militant terrorist organisations will take advantage of the disrupted focus to launch more attacks and seize territory. Such attacks are most likely to occur in countries with active militant and terrorist organisations such as Cameroon, Chad, DRC, Mali, Mozambique, Nigeria, and Somalia.