Argument

Yesterday’s Terrorists Are Today’s Public Health Providers

Insurgents around the world are using the pandemic to win new converts and weaken their enemies.

Hezbollah medical workers
Hezbollah medical workers stand in front of ambulances during the coronavirus outbreak in Beirut on March 31. Daniel Carde/Getty Images

In October 2015, a magnitude 7.5 earthquake rocked South Asia, killing around 400 people, many of them in Pakistan. On the front lines of the response to this tragedy were thousands of volunteers of Jamaat-ud-Dawa, an Islamic charity that serves as a front organization for a militant jihadi group with al Qaeda ties, Lashkar-e-Taiba. In the aftermath of the natural disaster, Jamaat-ud-Dawa—and by extension Lashkar-e-Taiba—won widespread praise for its efforts to help provide support and distribute aid to Pakistanis impacted by the earthquake.

The coronavirus pandemic has opened up similar opportunities for a range of terrorists, insurgents, and criminal organizations. Across the world, they are already seeking to acquire political legitimacy through the provision of public health services, especially in countries and regions where the government has been either unwilling or unable to help.

In Afghanistan, the Taliban have promised safe access to health care workers crossing through territory it controls, while the group’s members have begun a public health campaign to inform Afghan citizens of the dangers of the virus, providing information on how to remain safe from its spread. As of early April, Afghanistan has a reported 367 cases of the coronavirus, although, given the country’s inadequate health infrastructure, this number seems remarkably low. Perhaps in an effort to prove it can be a responsible stakeholder in a future Afghan government, the Taliban even offered to implement a cease-fire in parts of Afghanistan especially devastated by the outbreak.

In Lebanon, the Shiite militant group Hezbollah has offered a fleet of dozens of ambulances and dispatched members of the Islamic Health Society to spray disinfectant in public spaces. Lebanon has reported 541 cases of the coronavirus, and the government is struggling to deal with the spread of the pandemic. Hobbled by corruption and economic malaise, Lebanon’s government, which includes Hezbollah, will need all the help it can get to respond to the crisis. Hezbollah has offered its health-related resources to the government, perhaps in an effort to ensure that its efforts are not perceived as strictly sectarian, thus increasing the group’s appeal across all sectors of Lebanon’s political establishment.

In war-torn Syria, the militant group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham cited guidance from the World Health Organization in the March edition of its newsletter, Ebaa, offering advice on how Syrians could protect themselves and their families from getting sick. The group is capable of printing thousands of copies of its newsletters per day, and its primary distribution is thought to be throughout northwest Syria in rebel-controlled territory. The number of reported coronavirus cases in Syria is currently less than two dozen, although few expect transparency from Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, who belatedly adopted measures to assist Syrians living in areas still controlled by his regime.

In Somalia, where the number of reported cases is currently low but which would be ravaged by a significant coronavirus outbreak, the al Qaeda-linked al-Shabab has disseminated propaganda linking the virus to so-called crusader forces in an effort to blame Western troops.

And it is not just terrorist and insurgent groups taking advantage of the crisis to demonstrate an effort toward effective governance. In the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, drug trafficking organizations and criminal gangs have worked assiduously to enforce a curfew in the notoriously ungoverned slums where they operate.

In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, the term “ungoverned spaces” entered the popular lexicon when discussing areas that terrorist groups sought out in which to train, plan, and conduct operations. Areas that few in the West had ever heard about—South America’s Tri-Border Area, the Sahel in North Africa, and Southeast Asian archipelagos—were all tagged with this label.

But the term itself is an unfortunate misnomer. No area is truly ungoverned. Rather, nonstate actors and substate groups provide alternative forms of governance to people in these places. And, more often than not, they do so through provision of services that reinforce their social status and lend them a sense of political legitimacy that governments in faraway capital cities lack altogether.

None of this should be surprising in the least. Nonstate actors see themselves in a battle for public opinion, often with governments that struggle to provide public goods to their citizens. By exploiting governance gaps, terrorists and insurgents gain valuable propaganda victories. The disparity in how a group is perceived can be jarring. In Northern Ireland, dissident republican groups have threatened to execute drug dealers for peddling narcotics in Catholic neighborhoods. In Somalia, the al Qaeda-linked al-Shabab might be best known for its deadly bombing attacks that often result in large numbers of dead civilians, but the group also thought it important to show it understands the dangers posed by plastic to the environment. In July 2018, al-Shabab announced it would ban the use of plastic bags in areas under its control.

In order for their efforts to be well received in local communities, terrorist and criminal organizations need to have an intimate familiarity with what issues actually resonate on a parochial level. Groups can use their platforms to highlight their efforts to improve the health and welfare of their citizens. (Of course, this is ironic, as these same groups espouse the use of violence to effect policy change, and their attacks often leave significant collateral damage.) For the most part, with the exception of the most well-endowed groups, violent nonstate actors generally lack the resources to provide higher-end assistance such as medical equipment. However, by launching public health campaigns and dispensing information and advice on how to avoid being infected, terrorist and insurgent groups can position themselves as a trusted voice on these issues. Al Qaeda and other jihadi groups have used the pandemic to highlight the ineptitude of Western governments’ responses, suggesting deliberate negligence and a lack of concern for their own citizens.

By failing miserably in the response to the coronavirus pandemic, governments throughout the world—local, state, and federal—have provided openings and opportunities for violent nonstate actors to fill the void. The implications could be long-lasting, helping terrorist groups to cement a reputation as competent public servants, even as these groups’ primary raison d’être remains pursuing armed violence. At a tactical level, the coronavirus has forced U.S. special operations forces commandos to begin withdrawing from conflict zones throughout the world.

Governments worldwide spend trillions of dollars to combat the threat of groups like the Taliban, al Qaeda, and the Islamic State. Most of that money has gone toward counterterrorism efforts. One major takeaway from the coronavirus pandemic, however, may be that the best return on investment would come through focusing on strengthening the vulnerable states those groups oppose. Good governance and competent public administration are the best medicine for pandemics and insurgencies alike.

Colin P. Clarke is a senior research fellow at the Soufan Center and an assistant teaching professor in the Institute for Politics & Strategy at Carnegie Mellon University. Twitter: @ColinPClarke

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