Covid-19: How extremist groups in East Africa have capitalised on crisis

By Kalina Dmitriew

From intrastate conflicts to interstate wars, peace and security challenges have for a long time posed an obstacle for development in East Africa. Radicalisation and extremism have been especially potent in inhibiting progress towards greater stability, security, and peacebuilding across the region. Over the last year, violent extremist groups have taken advantage of the disruption caused by Covid-19 and leveraged the climate of distress and uncertainty to further their own narratives and garner support.

In Kenya, the government’s attempts to curb the spread of the virus through the implementation of measures such as lockdowns, curfews, and the closure of businesses have enhanced socioeconomic inequality by driving up unemployment rates and reducing household incomes. Combined with foreign aid budget cuts and a significant reallocation of resources from counterterrorism operations towards health services, economic instability has created fertile ground for violent extremist groups to exploit fears, exacerbate tensions and mobilise supporters. One such group is al-Shabaab; based in neighbouring Somalia and infamous for waging deadly attacks across East Africa since its emergence in 2006, it has made continuous attempts to capitalise on the pandemic. To ensure peace and security is not further compromised both in Kenya and throughout the wider region, greater attention must be given to building the capacities of local programmes, structures, and organisations that address the root causes of radicalisation and build community resilience against violent extremism.

Exploitation of existing grievances

In its efforts to propagate divisive and radicalising narratives, al-Shabaab has harnessed existing discontent and grievances around the Covid-19 response, as well as strategically targeting vulnerable groups, such as Kenya’s youth and Muslim minority population. For example, through online propaganda, extremists have seized upon public health measures, such as the closure of mosques, or the partial lockdowns of Nairobi’s Eastleigh district and Mombasa’s Old Town (predominantly Muslim neighbourhoods), to advance jihadist narratives of Muslim subjugation in East Africa by ‘Christian’ governments. Such narratives have built upon existing grievances related to the marginalisation of Muslim communities, who have been subjected to arbitrary arrests, extra judicial killings and enforced disappearances in the country.

Kenyan police in Nairobi, 2014. Kenyan Defence Forces have been recalled from patrolling borders to impose social distancing and curfew in cities like Nairobi, leaving border towns more vulnerable to extremist groups. Police brutality has also escalated during lockdown. Photo credit: Shutterstock

Deep-rooted grievances stemming from a history of discrimination by law enforcement and security forces have also made Kenyan youth a key target for al-Shabaab’s radicalisation and recruitment efforts. The disproportionate level of police brutality and human rights abuses against youth in the enforcement of curfews and other Covid-19 security measures has created opportunities for extremists to exploit youth vulnerabilities, as well as offering a sense of group-based identity and belonging.

Attempts to increase perceived legitimacy

Historically, violent extremist groups have sought to advance their agendas and ideologies by challenging government legitimacy and undermining public confidence in state institutions. Where a state’s presence is already weak or contested, opportunities exist for extremist organisations to become alternative service providers, gaining favour with local communities through the delivery of essential services or social care.

Indeed, following the WHO’s declaration of a global pandemic, al-Shabaab asserted its leadership by forming a special committee to manage the Covid-19 response across its controlled territories. Comprised of doctors, scholars and scientists, the prevention and treatment committee has been advising the public about coronavirus symptoms and hygienic best practices. In Somalia, al-Shabaab established a Covid-19 treatment facility complete with a fleet of vehicles to transport patients using the centre’s round-the-clock hotline. By providing a service delivery role, the group has sought to exacerbate a pre-existing trust and legitimacy deficit between communities and the state, garner support, and build credibility with sympathisers. Yet the effect is far from localised; through burgeoning online extremist ecosystems, such as al-Shabaab’s affiliated radio stations, social media channels, and news sites, information can reach marginalised Kenyan youth, or other vulnerable individuals, thereby playing an instrumental role in the recruitment and radicalisation process. As more time is spent indoors under Covid-19 lockdown restrictions, online propaganda has become a critical tool in inspiring violence and extremist ideologies.

Strengthening resilience against violent extremism

The Kenyan government must work with grassroots organisations to address longstanding structural vulnerabilities faced by minorities and marginalised youth. Training young people with practical skills, such as masonry, IT, and commercial agriculture, could go a long way in disrupting extremist recruitment efforts. Likewise, education initiatives focused on nurturing critical thinking skills could help vulnerable individuals identify disinformation and challenge exploitative recruitment narratives. Local solutions informed by a rich and nuanced understanding of radicalisation trends in specific contexts are most effective in shaping community interventions. For example, in response to Covid-related school closures across Kenya, students in Dadaab refugee complex (a key site targeted by al-Shabaab recruiters) have been able to continue their learning via classroom sessions conducted over radio stations. Such initiatives highlight the resolve to harness the power of education in thwarting the appeal of violent extremism among vulnerable individuals. Going forward, policy makers and grassroots organisations must use lessons learnt from the Covid-19 pandemic to inform sustainable, long-term strategies that address the structural vulnerabilities at the heart of the radicalisation process and promote resilience in the face of crisis.

A young man practices plumbing in a vocational training centre in Kakuma refugee camp, Kenya, 2018. Photo credit: Shutterstock

Kalina is an MSc Emerging Economies and International Development graduate from King’s College London with an interest in conflict, security, and global geopolitics. 


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.

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