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Al-Shabaab believes that COVID-19 is a divine punishment for Europe, America and China for their treatment of muslims

In a Friday sermon at an unidentified mosque in al-Shabab-held territory in early April, Sheikh Fuad Mohamed Khalaf, also known as Fuad Shongole, said the coronavirus is “a punishment from Allah to the infidels for their evil, and for standing against sharia implementation in Muslim lands.” He added that “jihadists’ prayers have been accepted by Allah,” and that “God is taking revenge on the infidels who disobeyed his wishes.”

Somalia, the base of operations for the al-Qaida-affiliated extremist group al-Shabab, is no exception. It announced its first COVID-19 case on March 16 and currently has just over 580 cases, with 28 confirmed deaths from the disease.

In response, the Somali government in Mogadishu has announced a raft of measures to try and curb the virus’s spread, including the suspension of all international flights arriving or leaving the country, a dusk-to-dawn curfew in Mogadishu and the closure of schools and universities. Citizens are being urged to pray at home, not at mosques.

However, there are large swaths of the country’s territory where Mogadishu’s edicts have little effect. Al-Shabab militants control much of the countryside as well as several towns in southern and central Somalia, including some areas close to the capital, and the group’s leaders have made little effort to implement containment or social distancing measures.

On the contrary, al-Shabab has disregarded public health warnings from the government, which the group views as illegitimate, and has resisted shutting down the vast networks of crowded mosques and Islamic schools that it operates in areas under its control.

Al-Shabab’s military operations have also been largely unaffected by the global pandemic. It has not carried out any spectacular, mass-casualty bombings or shootings in the past month, but its constant, almost daily attacks against Somali security forces, government officials and civilians have continued unabated, putting an extra strain on the fragile Somali government. US military airstrikes against the group have likewise continued, as American forces and their Somali partners conducted close to a dozen during March and April.

To better understand al-Shabab’s approach to the coronavirus pandemic, I have spent the past few weeks monitoring the group’s media outlets and propaganda networks. Al-Shabab broadcasts inside Somalia through two radio networks, known as radio al-Furqan and radio al-Andalus. It also reaches an audience outside Somalia through its followers on social media and through affiliated news sites, including Calamada and SomaliMemo. All told, the group’s media outlets reach hundreds of thousands of people in the Horn of Africa and around the world.

Al-Shabab’s message, delivered through these platforms, portrays the pandemic as a divine punishment from Allah, meted out to the nonbelievers across the world for their “evil deeds” against Muslims and jihadists.

Al-Shabab’s rhetoric frames the virus primarily as a European and American problem, as well as a Chinese one, and high-ranking al-Shabab officials and leading ideologues mostly belittle the threat it poses in their public comments. This makes the group’s territory particularly vulnerable to a major outbreak of COVID-19.

 

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