The COVID-19 pandemic sweeping across the globe is reshaping dynamics in fragile states and conflict zones. In this video, part of our #COVIDandConflict series, Kateira Aryaeinejad and Bethany McGann examine the pandemic's impacts on violent extremism: how extremist groups are exploiting the crisis, whether it is impacting recruitment, and how it complicates efforts to counter violent extremism.
Bethany McGann: Hi, I'm Bethany McGann, and I serve as a research and project manager for the RESOLVE Network. And they're a national network of individual experts and organizations based at the U.S. Institute of Peace working to connect research policy and practice to address violent extremism.
Kateria Aryaeinejad: And I'm Kateira Aryaeinejad. I'm also a research and project manager for the RESOLVE Network and an associate director of RESOLVE's research advisory council.
Today, we're responding to some of your questions about the intersections between the coronavirus pandemic and violent extremism. This situation is reshaping peace and conflict dynamics around the world and we're here to reflect on some of your questions about its intersection with violent extremism.
McGann: Now, it's important to note that many of the issues we are seeing in the media of poor service delivery and institutional capacity, weak health infrastructure, security sector abuses and the like, have presented governance challenges and driven grievances against the state for decades. COVID is exacerbating these and other potential drivers of violent extremism.
Conflict entrepreneurs, extremist organizations, predatory elites, criminal and corrupt entities and other actors will seek to take advantage of desperation, fear, uncertainty and the critical need for services and trusted information. COVID is perhaps more likely to change how these actors go about their business than the nature of the business itself, but even that is hard to tease out and something we will better understand as time passes. So with that in mind, let's go to some of the questions from social media.
Margaret Murphy on LinkedIn asked, "How might access to water sanitation and hygiene services during COVID-19 have an impact on violent extremism?" Kat, do you have a thought?
How might access to water sanitation and hygiene services during COVID-19 have an impact on violent extremism?
Aryaeinejad: Thank you for your question, Margaret. While issues surrounding access to water and sanitation around the globe are nothing new, the crisis is highlighting some of the notable gaps in water infrastructure and hygiene that are instrumental in warding off the virus, with dire consequences. Today, beyond the grievances and despair that lack of clean water and basic sanitation and hygiene services may present in light of COVID-19, it's easy to imagine a situation in which violent extremists actors step in to address some of the gaps government infrastructures and responses have left, including around water, to provide for local health needs and provide for the needs of the local populations.
In fact, we're already starting to see non-state and violent extremist groups shift their messaging and actions to provide information about hygienic best practices and actual services like the provision of medical facilities, soap and face masks to combat the viruses in parts of Africa, the Middle East, South Asia and the Americas. This type of service provision can have the effect of increasing the legitimacy of, or reliance upon, violent extremists in environments with limited resources. Although, the extent to which that is going to last is, as of yet, unclear.
We also had a question about Al-Shabaab. Joy Carter Minor on Instagram asked, "Considering the nomadic culture in the Horn of Africa and the instability prior to COVID-19, has there been a decline in attacks by Al-Shabaab, and how is the spread being tracked and maintained, particularly in Somalia?" I'm gonna hand this over to Bethany given her expertise in African relations.
Has there been a decline in attacks?
McGann: Well, I am immediately about to say, for more country and regional level context from the Horn, I'd like to refer the questioner instead to USIP's Africa team. In particular, the director of those programs, Susan Stigant, just did a video in the #COVIDandConflict series where she might cover some of those, but otherwise use them as a great resource.
That said, you do bring up a good point about how we assess COVID's impact on violent extremist organizations and non-state armed group tactics and behaviors. So Kat brought this up in the previous section, but perceived legitimacy is one of the greatest currencies for any armed group seeking to hold territory, and relying on community support to conduct its operations and house its organization. We should be cautious in reading too much into a perceived decrease in operational tempo as being directly related to COVID without more data, and even more cautious about reporting on armed actor positive contributions to pandemic response as a sign of maturity and their objective to be a legitimate governance alternative to the state.
Rebel and insurgent governance has proven inherently brittle, and there's little evidence beyond, that beyond the social crisis response rhetoric and turf enforcement that we've seen in places like Latin America in the Middle East, that the extent to which these groups will be able to actually manage civilian needs over time. And similar to state actors, these groups run the risk of over-selling their capacity to respond, resulting in a decrease in perceived legitimacy and trust, which of course impacts their ability to recruit or otherwise coerce communities into supporting their broader agenda.
In short, it's difficult to draw a straight line from COVID to changes in group behavior, especially at this time. If you look into some of the conflicts in the Sahel, there's perhaps more evidence that the pandemic has driven little to no change in group behavior. So more time and better information will help bring clarity to the short and long term impacts of COVID on armed groups.
To some of the next questions... So, Zeidan Majd on Instagram asked, "In what ways could the spread of COVID-19 be used for recruitment by extremists?" Kat?
In what ways could the spread of COVID-19 be used for recruitment by extremists?
Aryaeinejad: I'm glad to answer that. So I think that it's important to note as we kind of open this up with, that as with any crisis, be it political, economic or the outbreak of conflict, violent extremist actors are highly likely to take advantage of and instrumentalize instability to further their own narratives and achieve their goals.
A few things that are specific to COVID-19, however, are somewhat unique and worthy of greater attention. Central to each of these is fear. The lack of definitive answers that's currently plaguing all of us and the restrictions that we are now confined to and confronted with every day. So in particular, one main issue is the fact that in socially distancing ourselves to prevent the further spread of the disease, we're also socially distancing ourselves to some extent from the reality of the COVID-19 threat and the social dynamics that would otherwise present viewpoints different to our own. Namely, we're not necessarily interacting with people who have ideas other than our own and who might challenge our beliefs or present us with different information.
When we're at home, it's that much easier to self-select who we listen to and who we don't, what information we choose to have access to and what information choose to drown out. This lack of exposure to other points of view, thought and everyday realities, makes it really hard to discern fact from fiction and can leave us more susceptible to narratives that present easy or superficially comforting solutions to otherwise incredibly complex issues like COVID-19.
This is particularly troubling in light of the narratives, conspiracy theories and misinformation that we're now seeing amongst, being distributed amongst, violent extremist groups today and that contextualize the crisis in racial or ethnic battles, and "us" versus "them" mentalities, or as a means to place blame for the crisis or promote false narratives of invincibility for in-group members advocating for retribution and honor in action against the state, so-called oppressors or specific ethnic populations perceived to be at fault for the virus itself.
This is obviously feeding into the narratives that we're seeing and obviously could have the potential to feed into some of the actions, but as of yet, drawing a straight line from the reactions in these narratives and social distancing broadly to radicalization to violent extremism is something that we should be a bit wary of.
McGann: Definitely cosign there. You know, you are correct in highlighting the increased fragmentation and opportunism in the information environment is one potentially significant change that COVID-19 has brought, I would note that, you know, the pre-existing trust and legitimacy deficit between communities and certain states and the way that pandemic responses have the potential to aggravate, rather than address and close, these deficits is another key concern.
You know, we've seen a lot of reporting about security sector abuses and what's being termed "authoritarian backsliding." You know, using crisis management to close political space and further marginalize opposition movements and vulnerable populations in places that were already fragile. The necessary shutdowns to address and slow down COVID-19's spread have had a terrible impact on livelihoods, especially for those in the informal market sector who rely on daily economic activity, and security responses targeting the poor and indigent are already leading to violence and non-COVID related deaths.
The potential for immense discontent with government responses, paired with that lack of government capacity necessary to combat the virus, could be a significant driver of political violence and producing a dividend for violent extremists who will take advantage of that. Now, as much as ever, it's important to support human rights and civilian protection across all responses, from CT, counter terrorism, to COVID-19.
Then the last question I think we'll take for this segment is from Madelyn McEllen who asked, "What new challenges does COVID-19 pose to peacefully resolving violent extremism?" Your thoughts, Kat?
What new challenges does COVID-19 pose to peacefully resolving violent extremism?
Aryaeinejad: A great question, very difficult to answer as we're all still trying to grapple with moving from in-person efforts and interventions to the virtual space. I would say that it's important to note in this respect that a lot of the different programs that are geared towards countering or preventing violent extremism also have different corollaries and benefits outside of the specific violent extremism space. CVE programs have borrowed heavily from peacebuilding efforts and development efforts that are all of immense use in terms of combating, again, some of the misinformation, some of the societal grievances and some of the, you know, gaps and key governance issues that are appearing today and are kind of elevated by this crisis.
One issue that I think is really deserving is, how might we better support the CVE efforts that are ongoing already, especially as they transition to the virtual space? So as these efforts continue, as COVID continues, you know, the threat of violent extremism isn't just going to, going to go away. Violent extremism will outlast the crisis and potentially have significant impacts beyond the crisis itself, in terms of, further marginalization of different communities and further hate speech that might lead to radicalization to violence. So investing in a better infrastructure and aligning some of the CVE priorities, or CVE outputs, with COVID priorities is particularly salient at this time, but will prove difficult given the fact that we can't meet in person anymore.
McGann: On that note, we've come to the end of our session. Thanks to everyone who submitted questions on social media. If you're interested in learning about RESOLVE Network, check us out at our website, you can find that online, and for more videos and resources on the peace building response to the pandemic, head over to www.usip.org. Thank you.