Friday April 12, 2024

Terror in a pandemic

By Shahzada Sultan
May 03, 2020

The pandemic rages on. It has infected more than two and a half million individuals worldwide, of which more than 186,000 have lost their lives. No cure or vaccine is in sight yet. The gasping deaths are attended by acute suffering, scare and utter helplessness. Most of these have occurred in some of the most developed countries of the world like the US, the UK, Holland, Spain, France and Italy, leading to populations shutting up in homes, with business, amusement and all the vestiges of a happy and normal life grinding to a halt.

The global economy is threatened to shrink, registering a long-term impact. With an unprecedented public health nightmare, rising unemployment, and shrinking growth, the world finds itself in a deep crisis; fear seems to have gripped mankind by the scruff of their soul. This crisis can be an opportunity for terrorists and extremists who can turn the crisis to their benefit in a number of ways.

The first use of the crisis that they are already making is in spreading a narrative of divine nemesis. Pretending to be the champions of a divine cause, they are claiming credit for the present crisis: something they are not responsible for. Playing on the psychology of fear, extremists are interpreting the pandemic and its appalling death toll as an example of the divine retribution visited upon rich and powerful nations as punishment for their misdeeds.

Unable to completely suppress their schadenfreude, terrorists are gloating over the visible helplessness of the governments they oppose. In a six-page statement issued by Al-Qaeda, ‘The Way Forward: A Word of Advice on the Corona Virus Pandemic’, Al-Qaeda addresses the Western world saying that ‘this pandemic is a punishment from the Lord of the Worlds for injustice and oppression committed against Muslims specifically and mankind generally by the governments you elect.’

The statement invites the Western world to embrace Islam, the hygiene-oriented religion that teaches principles of prevention to protect people from all forms of disease. Yes, they are mixing faith with the scientific lure of hygiene. Al-Qaeda, in the same statement, designates the Covid-19 virus as ‘Allah’s invisible soldier,’ almost crowing that the pandemic has exposed the ‘brittleness of a global economy dominated by the US.’ The statement cleverly synthesizes a narrative of grievances and high moral ground.

In the same vein, Isis in an editorial of its newsletter ‘Al-Naba’, published in March declared that the current pandemic is an example of ‘God's torment’ which has mostly struck ‘the idolatrous nations.’

In addition to building a narrative, terrorists see the present crisis as an opportunity to recruit and mount attacks because world governments are busy fighting the virus, and thus terrorist organizations can capitalize on their distraction to attack them. Isis has already made its intentions clear saying that it will not pity ‘the crusaders’, for their suffering but rather use their tribulations as an opportunity to recruit more fighters and launch attacks on their cities and unguarded prisons that hold the mujahideen. On the one hand, it advises its followers to take precautions for their protection but at the same time gives them the good news that if killed by the virus they will be regarded as martyrs.

The two brazen attacks by Isis in Afghanistan in March are consistent with their declared intentions. On March 6, 32 persons were killed in a mass shooting in Kabul, while on March 25, a suicide attack on a gurdwara in Kabul left 25 people dead.

Inside Pakistan, terrorists are on the backfoot, but extremism continues to persist. Hence, extremists will feel revived by the narratives of divine wrath developed from the Covid-19 pandemic. It is imperative for law-enforcement agencies, the Provincial Counter Terrorism Departments (CTDs), and the PTA to keep cyberspace and the social media under close watch so that the extremist propaganda is immediately spotted and countered, and the nemesis narratives are blocked or taken down.

The law has banned the unnecessary use of loudspeaker; it is suggested that local police and law-enforcement monitor closely the situation to ensure the strict implementation of this law to nip the potential relay of pro-jihadist narratives. The government should also stick to a policy of not giving in to such demands from various sections of society that clearly violate the public health advice given by public health professionals. In a crisis like this, precedence must be given by all to the professional findings rather than other considerations.

Lastly, in a crisis like this, terrorist outfits and proscribed organizations can revive their social work and charity operations if not closely monitored. Great vigilance has to be practised by the administration, police and CTDs to prevent proscribed organizations from raising funds under the garb of helping the poor and the destitute. These terrorist outfits engage in such activities to win the hearts of people, and to demonstrate their executive ability to carry out large operations like state institutions. They seek to rival the state in its functions, and aim for creating a state within the state.

There are 73 organizations proscribed by the Ministry of Interior (MoI) in the country’ a number of them have had a long history of charity and social work. Pakistan has implemented a model charity law in order to combat terrorist financing in the country, and to put an end to the charity complexes developed by the banned outfits in the past.

The fund-raising operations of these outfits have been significantly demolished and their funding sources choked since early 2019. Hundreds of their members, including some key leaders, have been convicted and awarded heavy sentences to curb their terror funding operations. This momentum must be maintained so that they do not use the present crisis to sneak back into raising money and engaging in social service activities.

The writer is a senior police officer, currently a director general at Nacta, Islamabad.