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Jihad in the shadow of the coronavirus

As the coronavirus pandemic spread across the world, some radical Islamic clerics believe the virus was perhaps sent by Allah because of the disobedience and sins of mankind. Other clerics claimed that the pandemic is edging the world closer to the Day of Judgement.[1]  

Some Shia clerics, find in the pandemic signs that are expected with the emergence of the return of the Mahdi – the Muslim savior, including widespread economic issues, deaths and all-round chaos.

Scientific studies show that conspiracy theories have a tendency to arise in relation to periods of crisis and uncertainty in society. These are the same conditions produced by virus outbreak, which explains the spread of conspiracy theories in relation to coronavirus.[2]

The global coronavirus outbreak gave Islamists a new opportunity to spew antisemitism and conspiracy theories about their perceived enemies. Even though the virus has hit the United States and Israel, many Islamists insist on seeing a conspiracy behind everything.[3]

But, leaders and military commanders of terror groups are pre-occupied by the coronavirus crisis and the need to take care for their people’s health and well-being.

In the coronavirus’ shadow, Islamic terror group’s leaders had to change priorities and to act on a presumption that the priority must now be given to the war against the coronavirus and suspend temporarily terror attacks.                                                 

Hassan Nasrallah the leader of Hezbollah said in a speech that “today we are facing an enemy whose threat is clear, large and wide. This threat does not stop at borders, but rather involves the world. We are in midst of a warfare, it’s a global war being fought by people and exposing world governments as a priority to be handled.”                                                          Nasrallah added that “in any battle, there’s a target and an enemy, the problem in this battle is that the enemy is “coronavirus” which is anonymous in all its aspects. Its threat has become obvious to all people.” [4]


The Islamic State

The Islamic State lauded the spread of the deadly coronavirus in its official al-Naba newsletter.

The Islamic State has previously seized upon natural disasters as supposed proof that God is supporting them in targeting their adversaries, and also has used naturally occurring events in attack suggestions — impressing upon followers that if a natural calamity causes this much suffering, jihadists can bring about similar destruction using manmade methods.[5]

The Islamic state noted that the coronavirus broke out in Wuhan, China, and that the Chinese government is repressing Uyghur Muslims.             “The power of God strikes upon China that declared war on Islam and Muslims and persecuted our brothers Uyghurs.…. illnesses do not strike by themselves but by the command and decree of God.”[6]

After the World Health Organization (WHO) announced “the global coronavirus pandemic”, the Islamic State (IS) group has changed its attitude and issued instructions for how to deal with the coronavirus.

The group’s latest al-Naba newsletter highlighted “growing concern about the spread of the infectious virus,” adding that “this could push the World Health Organization into an emergency.”[7] The instructions published in the latest al-Naba newsletter, were almost identical to the rest of the world, from handwashing to avoiding travel to Europe.

The terrorist group has offered new directives for its members to follow like:[8]

  • Washing their hands frequently and “cover the mouth when yawning and sneezing.[9]
  • A travel advisory to avoid traveling to Europe because of the coronavirus, described it as “the land of the epidemic.”
  • It advises the healthy not to enter coronavirus-stricken areas and “the afflicted should not exit from it.”[10]
  • Islamic State members should maintain their faith in God and “put trust in God and seek refuge in Him from illnesses.” It described coronavirus as a “torment sent by God on whomsoever He wills”.


Somalia – Al Shabaab

The Ministry of Health of Somalia confirmed on March 16, 2020, its first case of Covid-19, identifying the patient as a Somali citizen who returned from China. In a bid to curb the virus’s spread, the Somali government has announced suspension of all international flights arriving or leaving the country.[11]

The Somali government faces challenges to its authority in several parts of the country. Large swaths of the country are in the hands of the al-Qaeda-linked armed group, al-Shabaab, which has not allowed any information to emerge from those areas with regards to the spread of COVID-19.

Al Shabaab’s leader, Abu Ubeida, announced that the group suspended all activities following the corona outbreak. Abu Ubeida, noted that the corona outbreak may affect the group and territories under its control.[12]

According to the infectious disease vulnerability index (IDVI) created by RAND, which is an indicator of a country’s ability to cope with the outbreak of an infectious disease, Somalia ranks the worst prepared country to deal with the deadly coronavirus.[13] An outbreak of coronavirus could be catastrophic in Somalia, where decades of violence and lawlessness have left the country with an almost nonexistent health care system.



Lebanon’s coronavirus outbreak is the latest crisis to hit a country in ongoing political turmoil, mass anti-government protests and severe economic crisis.

Iran is dealing with one of the world’s deadliest outbreaks from the virus but until March 13, 2020, the Iranian regime and Hezbollah ignored the epidemic and until then, their priorities were on military operations rather than the Iranian and Lebanese people’s wellbeing.[14]

The problem for Hezbollah became the Shia community. Many in Lebanon were complaining, including the Shia themselves, about the Iranian flights coming to Lebanon, leading to the spread of the virus, but Nasrallah did not explain the Iranian flights.[15]

The first case of the coronavirus was reported in Lebanon on February 23, 2020, when a 45-year-old woman tested positive after flying from the Iranian city of Qom.[16]

Many in Lebanon believe that these flights were not only bringing Lebanese back to Lebanon, but also Iranians infected with the virus to be treated at Hezbollah’s private hospitals. The fact that the media were not allowed to enter the airport when these flights arrived, indicated that Hezbollah was hiding something, or someone.[17]

Hezbollah’s Secretary General, Hassan Nasrallah, stressed that the world is before a battle against an enemy called “Coronavirus” and everyone is held responsible to confront it, but promised that we shall triumph in this battle. “Responsibility vis a vis coronavirus is comprehensive. The virus can be defeated if everyone takes responsibility and plays their part,” he said. Nasrallah gave some instructions to the Lebanese people:[18]

  • Nasrallah said this stage needs prayers to Allah “as our most effective weapon in the current battle”. But he urged people to pray in their homes and not to go to mosques and churches.
  •  Nasrallah underlined the importance of staying home (self-isolate) by Lebanese citizens in order to prevent the spread of the disease.[19]
  • Nasrallah called on people to be transparent if they have any symptoms, adding that it is a religious duty to abide by the instructions of the health authorities.
  • Nasrallah pointed to the need for social solidarity to prevent any imbalance in social security, calling on banks to act responsibly.

In Lebanon, the government, security forces and Hezbollah are working hand in hand to contain the disease. Lebanon as part of the measures against the virus has closed educational institutions, restaurants, nightclubs, pubs, cafes, exhibitions, parks, cinemas, malls and other gathering venues. Lebanon has also banned flights from eleven hardly hit countries including Iran, with critics lamenting that the decision came too late. Hezbollah froze all visits to Iran and imposed a quarantine in Syria on a group of students who were returning to Lebanon via Damascus airport. 

Nasrallah said that ” We are before a humanitarian battle par excellence. We have the Chinese experience which indicates that the pandemic can be contained.” He added that until the world discovers a cure for this pandemic, the objective must be to limit the spread of the virus as well as human losses.


The Hamas in the Gaza Strip

The Hamas controlled Gaza Strip is a densely populated area (more than 2 million people), where the coronavirus could spread very quickly and that could result in a humanitarian crisis. Israeli officials expressed fear that it is only a matter of time before the coronavirus reaches the Gaza Strip.

The recent relative calm on Israel’s border with Gaza Strip is a result of Hamas leadership’s fear of the spread of the coronavirus in the Gaza Strip and the dependence on Israel and Egypt in dealing with the pandemic.

Hamas and the other terrorist factions in Gaza are also worried that in the case of any rocket attacks launched from the Gaza Strip against southern Israel, arson balloons, or violent clashes on the border, Israel would take advantage of the world’s focus on the coronavirus  outbreak to carry out massive airstrikes in Gaza, and possibly assassinate terrorist leaders. Hamas officials say that Hamas will maintain the calm with Israel and that this is not the time for clashes at the Gaza border.[20]

The “Ministry of Health” in the Gaza Strip, confirmed on March 22, 2020, the first two cases of COVID-19 in Gaza Strip. They were placed in quarantine upon arrival from Egypt in a field hospital in the border town of Rafah.[21]

The Hamas-controlled Health Ministry said that its central laboratory is fully equipped with medical professionals and equipment to test samples of suspected coronavirus cases.

The Hamas authorities  have set up a temporary hospital with 30 beds and 8 intensive care rooms at the Rafah crossing. The hospital is designed to treat coronavirus patients entering the Gaza Strip through Egypt. The ministry said that tests conducted on 19 Palestinians who returned to the Gaza Strip through the Rafah border crossing with Egypt were negative.

The Hamas-controlled Health Ministry announced on March 14, 2020, that 2,667 Palestinians are in home isolation as a precautionary measure to prevent the outbreak of the coronavirus in the Gaza Strip.[22]

It is in Israel’s utmost interest to ensure that the disease does not hit Gaza and, Israel delivered 200 coronavirus test kits to the Gaza Strip as part of an effort to prevent an outbreak. On March 22, 2020, Israel announced that all crossings into Israel from Gaza have been closed.[23]

The Hamas government said it closed Gaza’s border crossings with Israel and Egypt for travel, excluding life-threatening cases that required medical treatment outside the Strip.

Hamas restricted obligatory prayers in the mosques, encouraging people to perform prayers at home, and it has closed women’s prayer rooms. Gatherings would be limited to 100 people and schools were to remain shut through March.[24]

The World Health Organization (WHO) has warned Gaza’s healthcare system would not be able to deal with an outbreak, given that the hospitals are overstretched and under-sourced and would not be able to cope with a large number of infected patients.[25] 

Palestinian health officials expressed concern that if and when cases of coronavirus are detected in the Gaza Strip, local hospitals would not be able to cope with a large number of infected patients.                                      The officials warned that if the virus reaches Gaza, thousands of Palestinians may try to force their way into Israel or Egypt.[26]                                


The Houthi rebels in Yemen

Residents in Sanaa and other Houthi-held areas live in a state of great fear and anxiety caused by the rapid spread of the virus both regionally and internationally.

The Houthi militias have seized new coronavirus outbreak as an opportunity to achieve material and political gains.                                           Mohamed Ali al-Houthi, a member of the Houthi Supreme Political Council, tweeted on March 16, 2020, that the Saudi-led coalition is to blame for any spread of coronavirus in Yemen as the alliance has “deliberately taken no precautionary measures” to confront the pandemic. He added that “We, from now, point the Yemeni people in the direction of their actual killer, saying: coronavirus is made in US, and the coalition is responsible for any consequences,” the Houthi official said.[27]

The Iran backed Houthi rebels are currently trying to project an image that they are keen on preserving the health and lives of Yemenis in their areas of control. They have taken precautionary measures on March 16, 2020, closing entry points between rebel-held and government-controlled territory around the country and the rebels also suspended passengers’ flights in and out of Sanaa airport.

The Houthis suspended schools and universities in fear of the spread of the coronavirus. But Houthis have exploited the virus to boost recruitment under the pretext that joining the group’s ranks is the only way not to contract the disease. The militia is carrying out extensive recruitment campaigns among school and university students in Sanaa, under the pretext of saving them from getting infected by the new coronavirus.[28]

The Houthi militias have forced more than 1,000 Yemeni travelers into so-called quarantine in the al-Bayda governorate where they are being kept in unsanitary conditions. The Houthis claimed that they would force travelers into a 14-day quarantine period.[29]


The Taliban in Afghanistan

The coronavirus pandemic came as Afghanistan grapples with multiple crises: an increase in Taliban violence that has thrown a supposed peace process into turmoil and a political feud that has seen two men claim the presidency.

The US and the Taliban signed in February 2020 a deal under which all foreign forces are supposed to leave Afghanistan within 14 months, but only if the Taliban begin peace talks with the Kabul government and stick to various security commitments.

The US-Taliban deal said the Afghan government, which was not a signatory, should release 5,000 Taliban prisoners before “intra-Afghan” talks start. But President Ashraf Ghani had agreed to release 1,500 captives with the remaining 3,500 to be freed as negotiations begin. But the Taliban rejected the offer and the government’s release of prisoners did not begin.[30]

The commanders of the Taliban who control about half of the country are very serious about coronavirus pandemic. They enforced different measures to contain the pandemic:[31]

  • They held gatherings to raise awareness about coronavirus and asked elders and local leaders to take precautions against its spread.
  • They are asking all returning refugees and those coming from outside the country to get themselves checked.
  • The Taliban has promised safe passage to international healthcare organizations and humanitarian workers who are fighting against the coronavirus.[32]

The Taliban have voiced concern about the coronavirus’s spread in government prisons. It urged international organizations and agencies to help prevent an outbreak in prisons and also asked its jailed members to follow the World Health Organization guidelines to prevent the spread of the virus.[33]

Taliban have stepped up attacks on Afghan forces since the February 29 2020 agreement, even though Afghan troops had unilaterally cut offensive operations, but the coronavirus has not stopped the Taliban from continuing fighting.

European Union special envoy for Afghanistan Roland Kobia called for a full ceasefire in view of the growing coronavirus threat. The Taliban should commit to a ceasefire as a way of tackling the novel coronavirus.



The corona epidemic has caused most terrorist organizations, including the most radical, such as the Islamic State, to adopt an informal unwritten understanding to maintain a de facto “coronavirus cease fire”.

In the coronavirus’ shadow, all parties act on a presumption that the priority must now be given to the war against the coronavirus and neither the Hezbollah nor Hamas have the motivation to initiate violence, but the current cessation of violence is temporary and once the virus is defeated, all the terror groups will return to the violence and fighting.                                                        

Regardless of the source of the coronavirus pandemic, wild bats or exotic meat market in China it is now a source of inspiration for future bioterrorism. The coronavirus pandemic is a perfect case study to learn about the threats and effects of non-conventual asymmetric warfare:

  • All the countries are vulnerable for bioterrorism.
  • The damage is quick and enormous (can be global).
  • The responses are predictable and ineffective (at least at the phase of the outbreak of the disease).

The coronavirus pandemic reminding the terror groups how death by pandemic doesn’t distinguish between religions, ideologies and borders. This understanding can deter hybrid terror organizations like Hezbollah and Hamas from using bioterrorism but not the most radical groups like the Islamic state.

Israel has to learn carefully the lessons from the coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19) and to be prepared to deal with the threat of future bioterrorism.

[1] “Iranian, Saudi clerics believe coronavirus outbreak signals the ‘near end of time’,” The New Arab, March 17, 2020.

[2] “Coronavirus is a breeding ground for conspiracy theories – here’s why that’s a serious problem,” The Conversation, February 28, 2020.

[3] Hany Ghoraba, “Islamists Call Coronavirus a Zionist-American Conspiracy,” The Algemeiner, March 17, 2020.

[4] “Sayyed Nasrallah: Our Battle Today is with Coronavirus, We Shall Triumph, Almanar News, March 15, 2020.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.