Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, service-providing insurgent groups have responded differently, with some initiating more attacks amid ongoing destabilisation while others have immediately veered towards precautionary measures such as initiating public awareness campaigns and setting up quarantine centres. What drives these divergent responses? Relying on publicly available and semi-private sources, this article examines how the Taliban in Afghanistan, Ha'ayt Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) in Syria, and Al-Shabaab in Somalia have operationalised their responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. The findings reveal that the divergent responses are rooted in the framing of the pandemic discourse. The Taliban and HTS both interpreted it as a calamity that needs responding to and repurposed their activities accordingly by stepping up their attacks against combatants while concomitantly exploiting the humanitarian vacuum created by the pandemic by delivering health services. However, as the pandemic surged, the two groups gradually scaled down their combatant targeting and prioritised delivering health services to bolster their legitimacy and build popular support for their proto-states. By contrast, Al-Shabaab labelled the pandemic as a Western and Chinese ‘problem’, and made no visible changes to their operations in response to the crisis, only belatedly beginning to offer health services as the pandemic worsened.
The author wishes to thank the two anonymous reviewers for their constructive comments and the editor for her review of the manuscript.
No potential conflict of interest was reported by the author(s).
1 Abu Mariya al-Qahtani [of Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham, published on 23 March 2020 on Twitter].
2 Halane is a heavily guarded compound that is situated near Aden Abdulle International Airport in Mogadishu and is home to UN workers, international diplomats and the AMISOM.
3 Al-Shabaab blocked aid deliveries in areas under their control during the 2011 drought and famine. The resulting deaths of over a quarter million people during the 2011–12 famine sapped much of Al-Shabaab’s legitimacy.
4 The number of violent incidents recorded during this week stands at nine events, which is comparatively low compared to the preceding (103) and subsequent weeks (165). This sharp drop in violence is attributed to the formal negotiations between the US and the Taliban which resulted in the 29 February peace deal signing.
Notes on contributors
Mohammed Ibrahim Shire
Mohammed Ibrahim Shire is Lecturer in Security Risk Management at the Institute of Criminal Justice Studies, University of Portsmouth.