The Unlikely Virus Fighters: Islamic Militias
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
The pandemic has given designated "terror" groups a chance to win hearts and minds.
- Hamas in Gaza, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Taliban in Afghanistan are all donning public health roles amid the pandemic.
- Islamist groups like the Ennahda party in Tunisia and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt are part of this pattern.
- For these groups, spraying disinfectants, enforcing lockdowns and distributing masks are ways to build or regain legitimacy.
“Hamas” is Arabic for “Islamic Resistance Movement” against Israel. But it took the militant group only a day to ban Friday prayers and other public gatherings after the first coronavirus case in Gaza in March. Hamas deployed its military wing to sanitize the streets, and the group has since built two quarantine facilities.
They might seem like unlikely public health warriors. But a growing number of Islamist militias and political groups — many of them banned as terrorist organizations in the West — are publicly fighting the pandemic from South Asia to North Africa.
Clad in hazmat suits, Hezbollah in Lebanon raced in the early days of the crisis to get 100 ambulances — some with respirators — ready to assist patients. In Beirut, their fighters have been spraying disinfectant. Over in Afghanistan, Taliban fighters dressed in personal protective equipment are conducting workshops on preventing the spread of the virus, circulating educational videos and distributing soap and masks.
In Tunisia, the Islamist Ennahda party has pledged “total solidarity with all state institutions” in fighting the virus. And in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood has launched an initiative called “One People” aimed at assisting Egyptians enduring the economic repercussions of the pandemic.
It’s a great opportunity to say: Look how badly the government is doing — we are better.
Ashley Jackson, Overseas Development Institute
For these groups, the coronavirus crisis is an opportunity to regain or build legitimacy where they’re dominant. Their public health efforts serve to bolster their propaganda, suggests Ashley Jackson, co-director of the Centre for the Study of Armed Groups at the London-based Overseas Development Institute.
“Governments of even the most well-prepared countries in the world are struggling,” says Jackson. “So in fragile states, it’s a great opportunity to say: Look how badly the government is doing — we are better.”
That message is on display with the Taliban. In a Twitter video posted by Taliban spokesperson Zabiullah Mujahid that’s digitally gone viral, PPE-wearing fighters hand out sanitizer to anyone approaching them, while a voiceover assures listeners that the militant group has dedicated teams “working home-to-home and village-by-village” to combat the virus. Afghanistan has reported more than 20,000 COVID-19 cases and 360 deaths.
Away from Asia, violent gangs in Mexico and Brazil have also helped enforce lockdowns when their governments were reticent to do so. But the contrast between their militant images and public health roles is most stark with Hamas and Hezbollah — both designated as terrorist organizations by the U.S. — and with the Taliban, which a U.S.-led international coalition has fought against for two decades.
Yet experts on the region say it isn’t entirely surprising. These groups have over the years proliferated where the state is either non-existent or is weak. So, “they are service providers, they have welfare networks … through which they have built allegiance and support,” says Imad Salamey, a political scientist at the Lebanese American University in Beirut. Common knowledge that disobeying them can have violent consequences makes them even more effective. Through foreign sponsors like Iran and Turkey, these groups also have access to the cash they need to deliver services, Salamey adds.
Of course, in some cases, these groups are the state. Hamas has been in power in Gaza since ousting rival Palestinian Fatah officials in 2007. “So they have to do their work as the government,” observes Omar Shaban, founder and director of the Gaza-based think tank PalThink for Strategic Studies. But he concedes there’s politics at play, too. “They want to prove that they are capable and are able to deliver what is expected from them,” he says.
While each of these Islamist groups is different, they’re bound by the fragility of the state where they’re influential, Jackson says. “And that’s just the kind of weakness these insurgent groups can capitalize on.”