May 13, 2020

Forecast: The African Salafi-Jihadi Movement After COVID-19

Key Points

  • The COVID-19 pandemic will have potentially devastating health and economic effects on African countries.
  • Poor governance was a preexisting condition across much of the continent. The Salafi-jihadi movement, which seeks to replace governance with its draconian interpretation of Islamic rule, was already benefiting from existing conflicts and grievances and was positioned to expand.
  • States’ responses to (and exploitation of) the COVID-19 pandemic will worsen governance and heighten grievances in many African countries, expanding opportunities for the Salafi-jihadi movement’s consolidation and expansion in the coming months.
  • Economic crises and worsening repression increase the likelihood of revolutions and state collapse across Africa, including in states currently seen as stable. Such collapses could destabilize regions and would fuel conflict and extremism.
  • The US should work with allies and partners to help African states manage the pandemic and its economic fallout while deterring human rights abuses and power grabs during the crisis. This engagement can also be a starting point for aligning the US with likeminded states in the intensifying competition with China.

The COVID-19 pandemic has reached Africa, but it is not yet clear if the continent has largely dodged the disease or if the worst is yet to come. However, the downstream implications of the global economic crisis and the mishandling or exploitation of pandemic responses may prove more dire than the disease itself. The consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic may trigger a widespread crisis of governmental legitimacy in Africa that will likely strengthen the Salafi-jihadi movement and, in the worst case, fuel state collapses, conflict, and extremism with global implications.

The COVID-19 pandemic will have potentially devastating health and economic effects on African countries. COVID-19 reached Africa later than much of the world, and the scale and shape of the crisis are still emerging. The potential public health effects range from serious to devastating. The economic fallout will almost certainly be ruinous, even if African governments succeed in preventing the pandemic’s worst potential health outcomes.

Some experts and analysts warn that the disease is spreading rapidly in Africa and will have a severe impact on the continent’s 1.2 billion people. The UN warned in early May that the pandemic may not peak in poor countries for three to six months. The World Health Organization warned of a 43 percent jump in positive COVID-19 tests in Africa in one week in late April (with limited testing likely only capturing a fraction of infections).

Should the pandemic take hold on a large scale, African states’ weak health care systems will be overwhelmed; some countries have fewer intensive care beds than an average American hospital does. Insufficient access to clean water hinders preventative measures such as handwashing in some places, though remoteness may shield some of these areas from the disease’s spread. Large urban areas and displaced populations are at particular risk.

Finally, stay-at-home orders are simply not viable for the nearly one-fourth of Africans (250 million people) who rely on informal urban employment to buy daily necessities. (Algeria, Egypt, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, and South Africa have already begun to ease restrictions in response to economic effects.)

But there is also reason for optimism. African countries had time to prepare for COVID-19’s arrival, and many governments, companies, and communities have taken aggressive early action to prevent its spread. The continent’s relatively young population may mitigate the disease’s worst effects, even as widespread underlying conditions such as malnutrition, HIV, and tuberculosis bring other risks. COVID-19 may, like other droplet-borne diseases, simply spread relatively slowly in Africa, due in part to a warmer climate, dispersed rural populations, and less frequent travel. Several African states also bring hard-won experience, infrastructure, and expertise from beating back Ebola. Luck is also a factor.

But even with the most optimistic health outcomes, Africa faces devastating economic consequences from the dual crises of the global pandemic and bottomed-out oil prices. Nearly half of all Africans could lose their jobs (leaving more than 500 million people unemployed). The World Health Organization estimates that some 30 million Africans will fall into extreme poverty. The World Bank forecasts Africa’s first recession in 25 years, with particularly sharp blows to the continent’s largest economies and those reliant on oil production, tourism, and remittances. High foreign debt burdens are a strain, and African leaders seek relief to free up funds to counter COVID-19 and cushion the economic blow. (Here, too, there are pitfalls, particularly if China seizes African states’ strategic assets as collateral.)

The historic plummeting of oil prices compounds the economic crisis for many key states. Nigeria’s growth will drop even if it escapes the worst of the pandemic; oil accounts for 60 percent of its government revenue and 90 percent of foreign exchange. One forecast warns that Nigeria’s growth will drop close to zero in the best-case scenario of global pandemic control; in all other scenarios, growth reverses.

Algeria—Europe’s third-largest natural gas supplier—is another hydrocarbon-reliant giant now facing an economic nightmare. Forty percent of government revenue comes from oil and gas. Years of low oil prices have already gutted the Algerian economy, and the government is running on an austerity budget that depends on oil prices double the current rate.

The dual health and economic crises threaten mass hunger. Food production and distribution are breaking down. The World Food Program estimates that the number of people in the world facing acute food insecurity will double this year, to 265 million, with much of this hunger crisis concentrated in Africa. The pandemic is disrupting supply chains, causing both domestic and international production and transport links to break down.

Sub-Saharan Africa, the world’s largest rice-importing region, faces crucial shortages as the world’s largest rice exporters, in Asia, halt exports to safeguard their domestic supply. Disruptions in seed distribution will cause subsequent shortages. The situation is worsened by a generational locust plague in East Africa that will return in ever-larger waves because the pandemic has disrupted mitigation measures.

These crises are crashing into an already poor governance environment across much of the continent. The Salafi-jihadi movement, which seeks to displace existing governance, was benefiting and positioned to expand before COVID-19 hit. African countries comprise 23 of the 31 countries ranked “alert” in the 2019 Fragile States Index. Casualties caused by political violence on the continent had increased from 2018 to 2019, with Nigeria among the states that suffered the highest number of casualties and Libya and Burkina Faso among those with the greatest increase in the number of political violence events.

Poor governance—defined as governance that is illegitimate and unresponsive to some segment of the population—is a broad category and the catalyst for many dangers, among them ethnic-based violence (in the extreme, genocide), civil wars, state fragmentation or collapse, the co-optation of conflicts by external powers, and the rise of non-state armed groups, including extremist groups. The pandemic will likely accelerate existing trends toward poor governance and reverse fragile progress, creating favorable conditions for the expansion of these dangers.

The Salafi-jihadi movement is one beneficiary (and driver) of poor governance in Africa. While the movement is most associated with suicide terrorism, such attacks are tactics serving the movement’s overarching goal: displacing current governments and installing by force its fringe interpretation of Islamic law. The Salafi-jihadi movement draws its strength from the ability to connect to aggrieved and vulnerable Sunni Muslim populations. The pandemic and accompanying crises will likely push more communities into this category.

The Salafi-jihadi movement already had several well-established insurgencies in Africa and was positioned to expand and deepen its presence before the pandemic. Salafi-jihadis are pursuing experiments in governance in West and East Africa; they have largely discouraged Western presence and are now working to transform societies in areas where they operate. They have the intent and international connections required for international attacks and have been developing the capability. Local crises are the incubators for the Salafi-jihadi movement and can become the bases for future attacks against the US and its allies.

The centers of Salafi-jihadi activity in Africa are the western Sahel, where al Qaeda– and Islamic State–linked militants are taking de facto control of northern and central Mali and contributing to the rapid collapse of Burkina Faso; the Lake Chad Basin, where an Islamic State–linked group is establishing a statelet and challenging regional military forces; and the Horn of Africa, where al Qaeda affiliate al Shabaab controls much of southern Somalia and is building its ability to attack neighboring countries and international targets.

A new hot spot has recently emerged in northern Mozambique, where a rudimentary insurgency has grown more sophisticated and threatens to establish a branch of the Islamic State’s caliphate. And conditions are also set for a Salafi-jihadi comeback in North Africa, where militants have suffered setbacks in recent years. Libya’s civil war, reignited on a large scale in April 2019 and not approaching resolution, continues to fuel grievances and preserve a security vacuum. Salafi-jihadi terrorism activity is also trending upward in Algeria and Tunisia, signaling efforts to resume attack campaigns despite years of heavy counterterrorism pressure in those countries.

Many conditions underpin these insurgencies, but there are unifying themes. These include ineffective and biased governance, human rights abuses committed by state security forces, political instability, and natural or man-made crises that disrupt normal societal function. The persistence of these conditions allows Salafi-jihadi groups to recover time and again after suffering what appear to be catastrophic military and leadership losses.

The COVID-19 pandemic and related responses will worsen governance in many African countries. These conditions will accelerate the growth of the Salafi-jihadi movement by the end of 2020. Pandemic responses, both well- and ill-intentioned, are heightening existing tensions and will likely reopen old wounds and create new grievances. These will last; aggrieved populations will remember how they were treated during the pandemic, even if the disease itself has a limited effect. The Salafi-jihadi movement is well positioned to exploit this dangerous combination of grievance and existential threat.

Lockdowns have led to security force abuses and instances of police brutality. Nigerian security forces have been accused of biased enforcement of lockdown measures and have been implicated in a majority of attacks on civilians related to the pandemic. Kenyan and Somali police stand accused of killing civilians while enforcing curfews. Militaries’ involvement in pandemic response measures will likely contribute to abuses, as many are not trained to maintain public order. States’ use of emergency powers to target already marginalized groups will also deepen preexisting grievances. And an environment of fear of authority will only worsen the pandemic itself by discouraging patients and professionals from sharing accurate information about the disease’s spread, as is already happening in Somalia.

Such security force abuses are a key driver of support to Salafi-jihadi groups. In the Sahel region, security force abuses against civilians push vulnerable communities to tolerate Salafi-jihadi groups as a means of defense. An al Qaeda–linked group based in Mali has made such abuses a propaganda centerpiece and claims revenge attacks against Malian Army forces for alleged attacks on civilians. An uptick in human rights abuses during the pandemic will reinforce Salafi-jihadi groups’ ability to coerce its support base by claiming to protect it from existential threats coming from its own governments.

Salafi-jihadi groups will likely benefit from disrupted counterterrorism operations as they seek to exploit opportunities presented by the COVID-19 crisis. Local security forces must turn their attention to large-scale lockdown operations over sustaining counterinsurgency operations. Disruption of international efforts, such as Interpol’s monitoring of militant and criminal activity in East Africa, will also lift pressure.

International coalitions, such as the African Union force in Somalia and French-led and UN forces in Mali, are also vulnerable to disruptions, including temporary lockdowns that interrupt operations, the delayed or canceled deployment of new forces, and the need to return to home countries, particularly if domestic circumstances worsen. Such disruptions would reinforce the preexisting erosion of support for international coalitions in both host and troop-contributing countries.

Salafi-jihadi groups may exploit reduced pressure to increase their rate or scale of attacks in the near term. The Islamic State organization tends to surge attacks globally during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Salafi-jihadi groups capable of overrunning military bases—such as the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara in Mali and Niger—may do so. The pandemic may alternately reduce visible Salafi-jihadi activity due to a lack of targets. Prohibitions on large gatherings limit the available targets for suicide bombings. And the redeployment or overstretch of security forces may reduce the need for Salafi-jihadi groups to sustain current operational campaigns.

Unfortunately, Salafi-jihadi groups may leverage this period of relative quiet to delegitimize state and local governance while building themselves as a viable alternative. Where governmental legitimacy is already limited or nonexistent, the COVID-19 crisis will only bolster the arguments of anti-government armed groups including Salafi-jihadis. Al Shabaab, al Qaeda’s East African affiliate, is blaming foreign forces for the outbreak to present itself as a legitimate governing force for Somalis. In Mali, where Salafi-jihadi groups recently undermined the country’s parliamentary elections, a poor pandemic response will only be another argument in favor of the jihadist’s own rule (no matter how flawed their own response). This group is now blaming the West for coronavirus, reinforcing its ongoing effort to pressure the Malian government to expel French forces as a precondition for negotiations.

Salafi-jihadi groups may attempt to cultivate support directly by providing a degree of humanitarian aid. Al Shabaab took this strategy during a 2017 drought; this signaled a shift toward a more population-centric approach after the group suffered backlash for denying the 2011 famine. The group has allowed limited humanitarian medical support for past cholera outbreaks in areas under its control. However, it continues to prohibit and target Western aid agencies and forego the cancellation of large gatherings. A significant COVID-19 outbreak in al Shabaab areas could erode the group’s support.

Salafi-jihadi militants may also attempt to leverage backlash to pandemic responses to bolster their claims to religious legitimacy. The pandemic is intersecting with the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which began in the fourth week of April. Many governments are working with religious authorities to secure public support for the disruption of observances, but the closure of religious institutions may antagonize more conservative communities or drive a wedge along confessional divides. Salafi-jihadi groups have criticized mosque closures as a new cudgel in their claim to religious legitimacy.

When the immediate fog of COVID-19 begins to lift, possibly this fall, the African Salafi-jihadi landscape will be more dangerous than it was before the disease arrived. In West Africa, the al Qaeda–linked groups based in Mali will be stronger, having disrupted the country’s elections (and stoking long-running tensions in its restive north) and maybe even winning a temporary cease-fire from the Malian government and its international backers to pursue negotiations. There will be a de facto area of Salafi-jihadi influence and emerging governance reaching from the borders of the Gulf of Guinea countries to the southern border of the Maghreb states (an area roughly three times the size of Texas). In the Lake Chad Basin, Salafi-jihadi groups will continue to consolidate their control of populations and terrain, particularly if security forces are drawn away.

Al Shabaab in Somalia will similarly exploit the pandemic to consolidate control and demonstrate the ineffectiveness of the Somali Federal Government. It will likely sustain its attack campaign in Mogadishu and attempt to recapture positions recently lost to African Union forces. The pandemic’s strain on neighboring Kenya and Ethiopia may create opportunities for al Shabaab to expand its operations outside Somalia. The group had already intensified its operations inside Kenya in the past year. An incipient Salafi-jihadi threat will also emerge in southeastern Africa. Islamic State–linked militants in northern Mozambique may take control of a city and declare it part of the Islamic State’s caliphate, which the group has already promised.

Security will also decline in the Maghreb. Libya’s war will grind on, making the country increasingly into a Syria-esque catastrophe on the Mediterranean. The chaos will enable the slow recovery of Salafi-jihadi groups from years of losses, quietly marshalling strength in Libya’s south and likely re-infiltrating urban areas behind the front lines. Security forces in Tunisia, Algeria, and possibly Morocco will struggle to sustain counterterrorism efforts while also managing the pandemic, allowing networks to consolidate and possibly increasing attacks on government targets.

Economic crises and worsening repression are increasing the likelihood of an unprecedented governance collapse across Africa that will destabilize key states, fueling conflict and extremism. The most likely near-term outcomes for the Salafi-jihadi movement are daunting but unsurprising; they are the result of the acceleration of trends visible pre-pandemic. But perhaps the greatest mid- to long-term consequences may be the destabilization of states whose stability we now take for granted. The strain of the pandemic and economic crises increases the likelihood of catastrophic state collapse, a most dangerous case that may affect not only weak states but also the high-population countries that are cornerstones of the continent’s stability.

One risk is the failure and reversal of reforms and revolutions. The crisis has raised constitutional challenges for the Tunisian government (the lone democracy to emerge from the Arab Spring), which has also faced criticism for botching its initial pandemic response. In Ethiopia, the postponement of high-stakes elections is already raising political and ethnic tensions that threaten the state’s cohesion as it transitions away from minoritarian rule. Algeria’s leaders are trying to consolidate power and both appease and quash dissent following more than a year of anti-government protests; protests will likely reemerge when pandemic restrictions lift, however, including in response to new targeting of the press. And in still-transitioning Sudan, the COVID-19 crisis has sparked some violence and may open the door to counterrevolution.

States that appear to have overcome periods of unrest, such as Egypt, Kenya, and Nigeria, are also at risk. Economies are being gutted by stay-at-home orders, falling oil prices, and the cessation of tourism. Governments may simply be unable to cope. Anti-government protests may emerge as the pandemic wanes. And in autocratic systems, the pandemic may break the social contract that many have made with repressive governments: stability for acquiescence.

Some such states are attempting to foreclose this possibility by using the lockdown to shore up their power. These efforts will likely cause more backlash when restrictions lift. Many have cracked down on journalism, suppressing pandemic-related news to protect leaders’ reputations while silencing or punishing critical voices under the guise of protecting public health. Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al Sisi extended the country’s perma-state of emergency, and parliament granted him broader powers to counter the pandemic (echoing Hungarian President Victor Orbán’s power grab). People may submit to heavy-handed governance for now due to the scale of the crisis. But states’ inability to deliver value to their citizens may well bring a tipping point in at least one country, raising the potential for significant and possibly destabilizing backlash against recalcitrant governments once the current crisis wanes.

Some key factors are difficult to predict. Governments across Northern Africa and the Middle East are partnering with religious institutions to shape the public’s response to public health measures. This integration, depending on how it is handled, could increase the state’s legitimacy in some cases, but it also opens a door to the co-opting and surveillance of religious institutions that can drive support to more fringe and extremist iterations.

The future role of external players in African affairs is also in question. External actors are shaping the trajectories of many African states—overtly in the case of Libya’s proxy war and more subtly with political influence and economic involvement across the continent. A funding crunch could constrain such states’ foreign policy efforts, for example Middle Eastern patronage of religious institutions across Africa. Alternately, domestic instability could encourage some states with already bold foreign policies (such as Russia, the UAE, and Turkey) to double down on external interests and foreign adventurism. Instability in Africa would create more opportunities for external players to enter and expand conflicts.

And unfortunately, instability—up to and including state collapse—is likely. Take two potential scenarios.

Algeria (population of 42 million) has reached tenuous stability after more than a year of protests that ousted longtime president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika. Protesters are not satisfied with the lack of substantive reforms, but the pandemic has temporarily closed down the street protests. The government has removed some regime figures but is also using the pandemic as an opportunity to crack down on journalists and increase its control over the media environment. A new wave of instability, brought on by these crackdowns and the drastic worsening of Algeria’s already fragile oil-based economy, could come after pandemic restrictions lift.

Should the government mishandle its response and fail to make substantive reforms, the fallout could be dire. Algeria has been a bulwark of stability (at a cost to openness) in a volatile region and serves, in part, as a cork on the flow of Salafi-jihadis from the Sahel to other Maghreb states and Europe. A destabilized Algeria, and particularly a civil war, would rapidly become a battleground for regional competition a la Libya. It could also collapse neighboring Tunisia, which is integrated with Algeria in security and other sectors, and set off tensions with neighbor and rival Morocco. A crisis in Algeria will threaten a key source of energy for Europe, possibly increasing Russian leverage. It could also set off mass migration, particularly to France.

Additionally, consider the case of Ethiopia (population of 109 million). The election of reformist Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in 2018 raised hopes for the end of minoritarian rule in the East African powerhouse. But Abiy’s push for rapid change has ignited some ethnic tensions, including violence.

There also remains potential for counterrevolution—members of the ancien regime attempted a coup in June 2019. August 2020 parliamentary elections would have been a key high-stakes step in the country’s transition, but they are now postponed due to the pandemic. Opposition parties have supported the postponement thus far but warned against the government using them to accumulate power. Political progress and the country’s much-needed economic liberalization are stalling. Political uncertainty and economic crisis together could halt Ethiopia’s forward progress and allow simmering tensions to come to the surface.

Serious instability in Ethiopia would reverberate regionally. Any conflict inside Ethiopia would attract involvement—diplomatic, economic, and probably military—from the many states with interests in Ethiopia’s trajectory, among them the Gulf states, Russia, and China. Conflict would also open opportunities for the Islamic State and al Shabaab, which plotted separate thwarted attacks in Ethiopia in the fall of 2019 and would be prepared to make inroads from their havens in neighboring Somalia. Ethiopia’s destabilization also has implications for its fragile peace deal with Eritrea, its relationship with regional rival Kenya, and contentious negotiations with Egypt over a Nile dam.

The collapse of any medium or large state would have ripple effects across Africa and the world, far worse than those caused by the collapses of Libya (population of 6.7 million) and Mali (population of 19 million). Humanitarian disasters would worsen and new ones—including mass hunger—would emerge. States would destabilize or collapse, and this instability would spread to neighbors, risking a cascading effect through whole regions. External players would enter the fray, turning civil wars into regional conflicts as they have elsewhere.

In these worst-case scenarios, there would be mass migration on an unprecedented scale, risking overwhelming immigration systems in countries just making their shaky recovery from COVID-19. Such a migration wave would intersect with the pandemic-accelerated turn toward nationalism and protectionism in the West, tearing countries’ social fabric and fueling the parallel growth of far-right extremism.

These conditions taken together would supercharge the Salafi-jihadi movement. Salafi-jihadi groups widened their reach dramatically after 2011 because of the conditions created by the Arab Spring; the COVID-19 pandemic and accompanying economic fallout could do so on an even larger scale. The collapse of one or more African states, on top of Salafi-jihadi groups’ existing positions, would allow Salafi-jihadi groups to develop unprecedented safe havens to enable a renewed wave of terror attacks around the world. These would also be the basis for large-scale governance projects where they enforce draconian governance and indoctrinate a next generation of fighters.

The US should help African states avoid the worst-case scenarios. American policymakers must be prepared to engage in a deteriorating situation in parts of Africa, focused on addressing the humanitarian crisis and countering the Salafi-jihadi movement. Many Americans’ instinct is to withdraw further from the world, especially in the aftermath of COVID-19. But one lesson drawn from the pandemic, and applicable to other crises, is the value of early recognition and preemptive action. The US should work with its allies and relevant international organizations to help African states manage the pandemic and its economic fallout while mobilizing the international community to deter human rights abuses and power grabs during the crisis.

This necessary effort in Africa need not detract from the US strategic focus on countering China. The Chinese government’s response to African countries’ requests for debt relief could endanger its influence-building and economic and military expansion on the continent. This backlash opens a window of opportunity for the US and its allies to provide a positive alternative to reliance on China.

The “Quad” security dialogue, now a centerpiece of US strategy in the Asia-Pacific, originated as a coordination mechanism for humanitarian and disaster response. Such an initiative in Africa could stave off the worst outcomes caused or accelerated by COVID-19, including stunting a nightmare counterterrorism scenario, while laying the groundwork for enduring partnerships in the escalating contest with Beijing.