Whilst most states have implemented actions to restrain the spread of Covid-19, the pandemic and containment measures are likely to have a far-reaching impact on fragile and conflict-affected countries. In such context, the pandemic does not only have long-term health and economic consequences for communities, but it also exacerbates situations of insecurity and political instability. This is particularly the case in regions facing a violent extremist threat, as extremist groups seek opportunities to exploit the crisis and prevention efforts are sometimes hindered by the political measures taken to decelerate the spread of the virus.
The root causes and drivers of violent extremism are multiple, complex and context-specific and they emerge from a confluence of push factors, such as the lack of socio-economic opportunities, political marginalization and discrimination, poor governance and violations of human rights, but also from individual backgrounds and motivations, collective grievances and victimization stemming from domination and oppression, as well as distortion and misuse of beliefs, ideologies and differences.
The current pandemic situation affects most of the issues listed above and therefore has the potential to significantly exacerbate vulnerabilities to violent extremism among impacted communities. In fragile contexts, access to health, security and reliable information is made more difficult, especially for those with limited socio-economic resources and for those undergoing marginalization and discrimination. In many cases, this provides the opportunity for violent extremist groups to take advantage of a deteriorated situation, either by exploiting grievances or by filling the void created by the incapacity of state institutions to respond to the crisis appropriately. Considering the foregoing, this note examines what implications the quickly evolving Covid-19 crisis has for the security sector in fragile contexts affected by violent extremism, considering issues such as the degradation of the socio-economic environment, recruitment and radicalization, youth marginalization, gender-based violence and communication. Moreover, it aims to gain insights on perspectives for the international community to support security sector governance and reform (SSG/R) whilst seeking to address the root causes and drivers of violent extremism under current circumstances.
Adopting a conflict-sensitive approach to prevent violent extremist groups from taking advantage of the crisis
In contexts of fragility, violent extremist groups have already demonstrated their ability to take advantage of crisis to weaken state institutions and to enhance recruitment amongst vulnerable communities. It is established that the emergence and spread of violent extremism is more common in contexts where the legitimacy of the state has been eroded or where public services and the rule of law are limited. Groups like the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) already started to capitalize on the crisis through providing health and travel information to communities and discrediting the leadership of governments in that matter.
It is therefore of primary importance for actors involved in the response to the pandemic to understand the root causes of fragility and to adopt a conflict-sensitive approach to avoid implementing new measures that can potentially ignite or exacerbate vulnerabilities and provide space for violent extremist groups to use existing grievances. In terms of prevention in such exceptional circumstances, it remains critical for state security actors to comply with good governance standards, as bad practices are likely to hinder state and security institutions’ legitimacy. Examples of poor governance practices that particularly apply to State’s response to a health and economic crisis include arbitrary decision-making, lack of accountability, unjust or poorly applied laws, executive abuse of power, and unengaged civil society. On the other hand, ways to reinforce legitimacy under such circumstances could be to prevent human rights violations, stimulate public support through better transparency in the allocation and management of resources, to encourage public and civil society involvement and to enhance accountability through the implementation of oversight mechanisms. This means that security sector governance is even more relevant than in normal circumstances in orientating security forces towards addressing the security needs of the entire population and serve the community as a whole.
Those governance-related issues do not only concern the response from national security institutions. In the context of the pandemic, many international actors supporting security sector governance and reform had to adjust their activities to adapt to a new quickly changing environment. Whilst many of their activities were left in abeyance due to Covid-19, there is a risk that violent extremist groups exploit the vacuum created by diminishing international support to increase their legitimacy. Whilst one risk is that countries providing support shift their attention and resources to their domestic needs, it is critical for the international community to continue supporting governance processes in contexts of concern to avoid violent extremist groups from capitalizing on short term decisions taken in the midst of the state of emergency. However, when adapting programs and measures in the context of the pandemic, the international community must rely on conflict sensitivity to avoid negative side-effects. This requires understanding the conflict context as well as the interaction between the intervention and that context in order to adapt strategic choices.
A community-based approach to build trust and address the marginalization of young people
In a confinement or curfew situation, members of the family and local communities are likely to be the first responders to address extremism. Consequently, it is a priority to establish a trust-based relationship between communities, authorities and actors of the security sector. For state and international actors, it is necessary to empower “backbone” local partners. A community-based approach to preventing violent extremism in the context of the pandemic must include youth, women, ethnic minorities, community leaders and religious actors in the response to the spread of the virus and the violence. Such an approach to health and security is a way of ensuring that all groups of the community are involved and informed during all stages of the state response. This is most important to build or maintain the social contract and national and local authorities to be trusted by populations. In a state of emergency, when executive state institutions have extended power and the risk of abuse is high, a community-based approach ensures all stakeholder understand and buy in the processes and their objectives. In many contexts, civil society has an experience in working on program preventing conflict and violent extremism, with the advantage of being locally rooted and have access, legitimacy and influence. In such cases, civil society can often provide space for vulnerable groups and individuals to address demands and grievances.
In violent extremism contexts, building trust and providing safe spaces is even more crucial during a pandemic to enable early warning mechanisms to be effective. Community policing programs aim to contribute in building that trust and effective partnerships between the state and the population. When possible, the police should continue providing an ongoing two-way dialogue at the local level to develop an understanding of communities’ needs, risks and threats in relation to both the health and security situations. In doing so, it is most important to engage youth to build an understanding of vulnerabilities and grievances.
Gender-based violence and movement restrictions
Movement restrictions that were implemented in many regions of the world to curb the spread of the virus also resulted in a rise in domestic violence, including in fragile and conflict-affected countries. The consequences of this escalation are even more dramatic in contexts affected by violent extremism, as it is established that gender-based violence (GBV) and the subordination of women and girls are more frequent. On top of this, extremist groups often strategically rely on a patriarchal and gender unequal ideology. As an example, groups such as ISIS and Boko Haram are known for committing systematic GBV, mostly on women, girls and boys as part of their control and recruitment strategy. While populations are still required to stay at home in many countries, it also means that increasing GBV is likely to remain invisible to law enforcement authorities in most cases.
Even before the outbreak of the pandemic, counterterrorism and countering/preventing programs were often oblivious to the gender-specific dimensions of violent extremism, with a tendency of oversimplifying women and girls’ role as victims or perpetrators. As for other security-related threats, violent extremism is a gendered phenomenon that may be experienced differently by women, girls or gender minorities than by men and boys (be as victims, perpetrators, or those working to prevent or counter the threat). Government strategies to respond to Covid-19 in violent extremism contexts and international support should therefore integrate a gender perspective. A comprehensive approach to GBV during the pandemic must cover prevention, recovery and accountability, to ensure that the conditions enabling GBV are addressed, that victims have access to the help they need and that perpetrators are prosecuted and are held accountable.
For national state actors and international actors supporting security sector governance and reform, a strategy could be to support police and justice actors to provide adapted services when movements are restricted. Most importantly, it is crucial to ensure that reporting is possible even when public services like police and justice are disrupted, as it is anticipated that the increase of domestic abuse will have severe consequences in places where it was already widespread. It must also be clear that law enforcement actors will not tolerate impunity in the context of Covid-19.
Detention conditions in prisons and reintegration of returnees in the society
Studies have shown that ill treatment in prison, such as inhumane detention conditions, corrupt prison staff, lack of security or overpopulation, can play an important role in the recruitment of large numbers of individuals by extremist groups. The Covid-19 pandemic therefore creates serious concerns in places where penitentiary conditions were already not meeting international standards. Those aspects must be taken into account when examining measures to prevent recruitment and radicalization within prisons from occurring.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, several reports have been published by human rights organizations worrying about the consequences of the spread of Covid-19 to ill-equipped and overcrowded prisons. The issue of detention conditions during the health crisis does not only apply to fragile contexts, but to all countries affected by the virus. In March 2020, the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT) published a statement reminding that “an inadequate level of health can lead rapidly to situations falling within the scope of the term “inhuman and degrading treatment””.
It is also equally important that measures taken to slow the spread of the virus do not hinder the processes designed to prepare prisoners for reintegration into civilian life. That includes the involvement of various actors in society so that former combatants continue to receive help after their release, but also to prepare victims and populations for the return of prisoners within their community.
Provide accurate and transparent communication
The pandemic has spread rapidly and unpredictably while the scientific communities as well as political leaders continue to lack understanding about the virus and its long-term consequences, leaving significant space for uncertainty. Moreover, as the result of social distancing and containment measures, individuals have limited interactions with people challenging their ideas and sharing different information and views. Worldwide, this has proved to be a particularly strong breeding ground for misinformation and conspiracy theories.
As mentioned above, violent extremist groups have long developed strategies to dispute the legitimacy of states, often providing social welfare or adopting state functions. They are also heavily relying on effective propaganda and miscommunication. Rapidly, groups like Al-Shabaab, al-Qaida, ISIS or Boko Haram tailored their general message to the pandemic, both to discredit governments and the international community and to enhance recruitment and public support. This represents a most serious threat in fragile contexts in which authorities are unable to make collective decisions and provide basic public services.
As part of their communication strategies, national security institutions and international actors must be careful not to instrumentalize counter narratives to fight violent extremism propaganda, as it can be counter productive when communities do not trust those institutions in the first place. Hence, counter narratives must provide factual and verified information to populations on the pandemic, economic and security issues and to ensure that there is a space for inclusive dialogue. In such contexts, communication must aim at reducing vulnerabilities by sharing accurate messages to inform communities. Given the issues at stakes, it is required for actors involved in the response to Covid-19 and in the prevention of violent extremism to include communication campaigns in their prevention efforts. Locally, law enforcement actors can play a significant role through community policing and increasing information aimed at protecting communities.
Equally important, whilst governments and security actors tend to have extended powers in a state of emergency, national authorities must enable the media and civil society to investigate activities and abuses by security sector institutions independently without being pressured. These points are of primary importance in a time of crisis during which the trust and credibility of information providers are crucial. When communicating, national security sector and international actors must define specific goals, assess the context, target audience and the media sector, and identify strategies to find the best way to reach out to the audience, enabling to build trust and confidence in governments.
Further reading on violent extremism and the pandemic: