In time of coronavirus, ISIS shows method in its murderous madness


Dark shadows. An October 2019 file picture shows men, accused of being affiliated with the Islamic State (ISIS) group, sit on the floor in a prison in the northeastern Syrian city of Hasakeh. (AFP)

ISIS urged its followers to avoid Europe like the plague.

The unfolding coronavirus crisis has elements of the surreal, one of which is the extremist group Islamic State’s “travel advice” to its members.

In its al-Naba newsletter, the Islamic State (ISIS) urged its followers to avoid Europe like the plague. Literally. The “healthy should not enter the land of the epidemic and the afflicted should not exit from it,” the group said, in trademark apocalyptic vein.

The advisory prompted some hilarity because ISIS normally reserves fire and brimstone as a warning for what the West has coming to it, at the hands of ISIS. Indeed, it does seem ludicrous that ISIS, which often incites followers to carry out suicide attacks on the West, should issue an advisory restricting travel to Europe and that ISIS, branded a “death cult” by former British Prime Minister David Cameron, appears to fear its followers could die if they set foot in Europe.

One British tabloid columnist suggested that, if ISIS leaders “had any imagination, they would have claimed responsibility for the virus.”

Richard Littlejohn, who is known for his controversial fulminations, wrote in the Daily Mail: “They could have instructed their jihadists to contract it (the novel coronavirus) as soon as possible and become super-spreaders throughout the West. Beats the hell out of blowing yourself up on a bus. And, if the predictions of mass casualties are to be believed, a lot more effective.”

In a bizarre sort of way, that makes sense, especially when it comes to ISIS, a jihadist group that has long pursued a corporatist management model, which professionalised terrorism with the precision use of suicide attacks. Whether it was car bombers, activists detonating suicide vests, random stabbings in world capitals or coordinated assaults in Paris, Brussels, Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula and elsewhere, the whole point of ISIS has been its celebration of death. It calls its cohort of suicide attackers “death admirers, the knights of martyrdom.”

It wasn’t too long ago that Olivier Roy, the French professor considered an expert on political Islam, noted that ISIS had changed the terrorist’s death from mere possibility or an unfortunate consequence of his actions to a central part of the plan. For ISIS jihadists, said Roy, “suicide attacks are perceived as the ultimate goal of their engagement.”

So, what’s with the travel advisory on Europe, the epicentre of the virus, as stated by the World Health Organisation?

There could be two possible reasons. First, ISIS is nothing if not methodical. That’s been clear since 2013, when it started its rise to prominence, going from a wannabe caliphate to holding territory that comprised about one-third of Syria and 40% of Iraq.

In late 2015, approximately 340 official documents, notices, receipts and internal memos of the Islamic State ruled by ISIS showed the extent to which the jihadist group was obsessed with creating a bureaucratic structure to buttress its state-building exercise.

The documents came to light via Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, a young researcher in Cardiff in Wales, who compiled primary source material about the state that ISIS was attempting to build. It was Tamimi, incidentally, who translated ISIS’s travel advisory on Europe and blogged about it in English.

The documents gathered by Tamimi about the now-defunct caliphate stated that ISIS created rules and regulations for everything including fishing, dress codes, the sale of counterfeit brands and university admissions. Even though ISIS lost its state and 95% of its territory and revenue sources by December 2017, there is nothing to suggest it has lost its pragmatic gene.

This brings us to the second possible reason for ISIS’s travel advisory on coronavirus-affected Europe. Might it be a recognition that there is no particular reason to terrorise a region that is already so fearful about its very existence? ISIS might sense that richer pickings in harvesting fear and control are to be had beyond Europe.

Could it signal that ISIS is rebalancing? Loss of territory, revenue, operational capacity and manpower the past three years changed the group’s focus. While ISIS claims it is resurgent in Iraq — a new propaganda video boasts of a series of guerrilla attacks in northern Iraq — the growth area for the group in recent times has been the Sahel, from Senegal to Sudan.

Once it controlled most of Syria’s oil fields and crude was the militant group’s biggest single source of revenue. Now, the International Crisis Group said, ISIS is focused on gold mines in the Sahel, particularly in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger. It seems to be the region that ISIS sees as a viable host for its own particular virus.

Originally published in The Arab Weekly