Pandemic politics: Fighting extremist groups during COVID-19

A medic wearing protective gear stands inside a tent facility set up by Hezbollah to test for coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in al-Ghaziyeh, southern Lebanon March 31, 2020. Picture taken March 31, 2020. REUTERS/Ali Hashisho

Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.

Editor's note:

This post is the sixth in the Pandemic Politics series. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has sparked a debate over how to deal with extremist groups in the Middle East that are capitalizing on global instability to expand their power.

Radical groups have adopted varying strategies. The Islamic State (ISIS), for example, is advancing militarily in Iraq and Syria. Yemen’s Houthis, by contrast, have established clinics in their territories, testing centers, and a help hotline. In doing so, the armed group is attempting to deflect attention from its role in escalating the war while blaming the Saudi-led coalition for allowing the virus to spread. Meanwhile, Hezbollah in Lebanon is offering medical facilities and services that other government factions have failed to provide.

Extremist groups have a long history of pursuing their objectives more forcefully during crises. Online propaganda campaigns present the virus’ impact in the West as a punishment from God. In its Al Naba newsletter on March 19, ISIS announced a strategic plan titled “Crusaders’ Biggest Nightmare,” urging lone actors to seize the moment.

Such advances and mobilization tactics raise urgent policy questions. If regional governments are unable or unwilling to act against extremists, should Western states attempt to protect local populations from having to depend on radical groups during the pandemic? Jason M. Blazakis argues that the United States should “rekindle the key partnerships that were fundamental to the success of evicting ISIS from its territory.” Hassan Hassan, on the other hand, contends that “the chances for further Isis recovery are increasing as the odds decrease for a tougher crackdown led by the US.” From 2014 to 2015, the United States cooperated with Iraqi forces and Shiite militias to defeat ISIS in cities such as Mosul. Now, as Hassan notes, the Western nation is withdrawing military support and is far less politically engaged in the country.

As governments in the Middle East face multiple crises, international action may prove necessary. Although the United Nations has scaled back peacemaking missions, Western countries could establish diplomatic back channels with peaceful, non-state actors to combat extremist groups. And while the United States historically has been opposed to such engagement, European states have not.

Below is a selection of commentary for more on this debate.

“… jihadist forces tend to ‘exploit disorder’, gaining territory and adherents where conflicts already exist or weak states face social turmoil. ISIS, for example, used the post-2011 chaos in Syria to gain a level of power that would otherwise have been impossible. … Conversely, those groups – such as al-Shabaab in Somalia – that control significant swathes of territory could, like governments, face a surge of public discontent if they cannot keep COVID-19 in check.— International Crisis Group. COVID-19 and Conflict: Seven Trends to Watch, March 24, 2020.

“I call it an extremist buffet. Because it’s allowed groups across the ideological spectrum to all take advantage of it at once. Everybody is able to use this event [COVID-19] in order to frame it in their own world view.” — Colin Clarke, Senior Research Fellow at the Soufan Center. Quoted in Robert Williams, ‘An extremist buffet’ — COVID-19, bioterrorism and increasing anti-authority sentiment, June 19, 2020.

ISIS is more likely to take advantage of the instability in failed states than to actually depend on the spread of COVID-19 to project its strength. The pandemic makes for a strong talking point for the group, but it probably is not anything more than that.” — Jason M. Blazakis, Professor of Practice at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies. Is the threat from ISIS really more significant because of COVID-19?, May 13, 2020.

“As Isis establishes a foothold, it soon becomes hard to weaken it without deeper international engagement. Renewed tactical operations might force it underground but it will not dismantle its networks, because that process requires a patient counter-terrorism strategy that seemed to exist a year ago.” — Hassan Hassan, Director of the Non-State Actors and Geopolitics program at the Center for Global Policy. Islamic State is back and this time the west is ill-prepared to take it on, May 24, 2020.