This briefing examines how Boko Haram has been responding to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Like other Salafi-jihadi groups across the world, Boko Haram has used the pandemic to spread misinformation and has indicated a willingness to take advantage of the pandemic to further its operations and ideological goals.
The group’s continued cross-border activities may exacerbate the spread of the disease in the Lake Chad region and will likely impede responses to containing the pandemic, making Boko Haram both a public-health risk and a security threat.
Borno state, where Boko Haram routinely operates and disrupts government services and has in the past targeted health workers, is now one of the largest centres of the virus in Nigeria, with internally displaced persons camps affected.
Both factions of the group have the influence and reach into local communities to meaningfully disrupt and damage public-health responses to the pandemic. Although the group lacks community support, it has successfully bullied villages into bowing to its demands in the past, and its misinformation on the virus could feed widespread misconceptions about Covid-19. This could affect communities’ compliance with prescribed public-health measures.
As observed from the group’s messaging, Boko Haram’s response to the pandemic is looking to undermine public-health responses and government measures to combat the spread of the virus.
An area of particular concern is Boko Haram’s continuing cross-border activities. The group remains operational in countries across the Lake Chad region and has disregarded public-health warnings about the spread of the virus, which could lead to the group becoming transnational transmitters of Covid-19.
From 17 February, when Nigeria reported its first coronavirus case, countries around the Lake Chad region have seen a spike in confirmed cases of Covid-19, with more than 10,000 reported cases and over 400 deaths as of 18 May. While the figures appear to be relatively low, these are only the official statistics, which bear little resemblance to what frontline workers and residents have reported. Particularly in northern Nigeria, Boko Haram’s stronghold, there have been reports of mass “mysterious deaths” – both in Kano, Nigeria’s second-largest city, and Yobe, one of the states worst hit by Boko Haram’s insurgency. While officials have sought to suggest other causes for the deaths, doctors and researchers say a significant portion of the victims showed Covid-19 symptoms.
Covid-19 struck first in Borno state, the epicentre of the Boko Haram insurgency, on 18 April when it killed a health-care worker in an internally displaced peoples (IDP) camp hosting 60,000 Boko Haram survivors, highlighting the risk of the spread of the virus in severely crowded camps. Since then, Borno has become one of Nigeria’s worst-hit states. While specific information on the affected areas is not available, given the profile of the index case in Borno state, it is highly likely that there are positive cases in at least one IDP camp.
Across the border, Cameroon’s official count of nearly 3,500 cases is thought to be grossly below the reality on ground. Human Rights Watch has accused the government of “using the pandemic to settle scores and punish the opposition”. If this allegation is true, it will severely undermine the country’s public-health response to the virus. Niger and Chad have officially reported even lower numbers and death tolls. Grossly inadequate testing capacity and a lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) for health-care workers, as well as the premature easing of restrictions on public gatherings, may affect the ability of governments in the Lake Chad region to effectively track this pandemic and curb its spread.
Defeating Boko Haram, an extremist group claiming to fight for Islam, has eluded Lake Chad countries for over a decade now. With an estimated 5,000 to 7,000 fighters between its two main factions, Boko Haram lost its self-declared caliphate in 2015–2016 but has since maintained a semi-territorial presence in the Lake Chad’s marshy landscape and dense forestry where the porous borders of Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon and Chad meet. In addition to frequent attacks on military formations, the group has targeted mosques and religious schools in fringe communities and enclaves, with members moving around border communities across the affected countries to proselytise, deliver basic services including health care, and enforce their version of Sharia law.
Until last month, Boko Haram had not released any official communications regarding the Covid-19 pandemic, possibly because the virus was not reported in areas where the group has been active. However, as confirmed cases of the virus in the countries of the Lake Chad region continue to surge, both main factions of Boko Haram have released statements showing how they are reacting to the global outbreak. While one faction framed the virus as Allah’s punishment and stated that it would not comply with social-distancing measures, the other sees it as an opportunity to step up efforts and make more gains.
On 15 April, one faction of Boko Haram, Jama'atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda'awati wal-Jihad (People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet's Teachings and Jihad, abbreviated as JAS), released an hour-long audio message detailing its position on Covid-19. Its leader, Abubakar Shekau, described the virus as divine punishment for the world for indulging widespread fornication, sodomy, usury, non-payment of mandatory charity (zakat) and said repenting to Allah was the only cure. He went further to claim that non-Muslims and hypocrites (Muslims who do not subscribe to the group’s exclusivist worldview) are using the outbreak as a pretence to stop Muslims from practicing their faith – stopping congregational prayers and the pilgrimage to Makkah – and asserted that the health advice to hydrate frequently was given to prohibit Muslims from fasting during Ramadan. Shekau concluded by saying that the cure for the virus is the opposite of prescribed health measures – congregational prayer, Friday prayer services and other social interactions – all of which he said would continue.
JAS’s defiance of social-distancing measures risks spreading the disease in its area of operation. The misleading theories the group peddles about the virus may influence how some communities in its area of operation respond to public-health guidelines and hamper containment efforts. While community support for the group is very limited, the fact that its narrative feeds into widespread scepticism about the coronavirus may make its position on social distancing appealing to regular residents. Furthermore, the group’s movement across communities and interaction with residents for preaching, tax collection and other activities raises the very credible risk of militants contracting the virus from one community and transmitting it to others, even across borders, acting as transmitters of Covid-19.
Meanwhile, an editorial piece in ISIS’s weekly Arabic-language newsletter, al-Naba, published on 19 April, gave an insight into what the group’s affiliate in West Africa, Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP), is up to amid the pandemic.
While the piece did not go into ISWAP’s position on the origins of the virus and potential cures, it indicated that the pandemic was an opportunity for the group. It celebrated recent attacks in the Lake Chad region and said the virus and subsequent economic downturn would divert government attention, weaken capacity and increase fragility. This, it said, is an opening to step up efforts and expand activities.
ISWAP will likely adopt and leverage ISIS central’s narratives on the origins of the virus and its cure. In several issues of al-Naba, ISIS has described the pandemic as Allah’s punishment against his enemies and retribution for their siege against its self-declared caliphate; the group called on its supporters to not show mercy towards disbelievers suffering from the virus, calling on followers in the West to exploit the outbreak to carry out attacks. ISWAP will likely adopt a similar approach where applicable.
Both ISWAP’s and JAS’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic and their ongoing activities in the Lake Chad region will hurt containment measures. Their continued attacks on both military and civilian targets will divide governments’ attention and will negatively affect Covid-19 containment measures. At the same time, intensified efforts to combat the virus risk diverting attention and resources away from the fight against Boko Haram, giving the group more room to operate. Governments in the Lake Chad region must consider both Boko Haram and Covid-19 as deadly foes, not allowing increased pressure on one to distract from the other. Both must be confronted at the same time.
Furthermore, Boko Haram’s violence may affect health interventions in the most remote areas of the Lake Chad region. The group sees individuals working with governments or international organisations, including Muslims, as enemies and spies worthy of death. In 2018, ISWAP executed two female health workers of the International Committee of the Red Cross. This, in the context of Boko Haram’s record of targeting health workers on polio vaccination programmes, may make it difficult to effectively respond to the pandemic in the remote areas of the Lake Chad region. Clearly, Boko Haram is now more than just a security threat; it poses a public-health risk too.
Policymakers should consider:
Strengthening border surveillance and security to restrict cross-border activities.
Maintaining military capacities and capabilities to fight Boko Haram while at the same time taking measures to contain Covid-19.
Providing additional security and protection for health-care workers engaged in responding to Covid-19 in and around Boko Haram strongholds.
Working with traditional and religious leaders to expand public-health messaging about Covid-19 around the Lake Chad region to counter Boko Haram misinformation.