We shouldn’t let counter-terrorism guard down

Thursday, April 23rd, 2020 12:00 |
World Health Organisation. Photo/Courtesy

Edward Mwachinga

A few days ago, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned that Covid-19 pandemic poses a great risk to global peace and security and called for “heightened solidarity” to defeat the crisis and prevent it from “potentially leading to an increase in social unrest and violence that would greatly undermine our ability to fight the disease.”

Guterres cautioned that as the international community focuses on battling the pandemic, terrorist groups could see “a window of opportunity to strike.”

He painted a grim scenario of violent extremists potentially taking advantage of unpreparedness of many countries to respond to coronavirus to unleash “bio-terrorism” attacks.

As the world focuses on Covid-19, there is a real risk of terrorists exploiting the prevailing crisis to launch attacks against nations and communities considered soft targets.

Violent extremists are also likely to take advantage of the fact that many countries’ resources are stretched.

And considering the harsh socio-economic impact of the pandemic on vulnerable communities, extremists may exploit local grievances to recruit and radicalise new members.

Already, terror groups such as al-Qaeda, Islamic State (IS) and Taliban have publicly avowed the coronavirus pandemic as an opportunity to further their extremist agenda.

Extremist groups operating in various parts of Africa have in fact escalated attacks on security and civilian targets.

In the last month alone, Boko Haram killed 92 soldiers in Chad; an extremist group linked to IS raided a port in Mozambique, while an Al-Qaeda affiliate killed 29 soldiers in Mali.

This is a warning that the perceived lull in terror attacks since the onset of Covid 19 outbreak should not lead us into a false sense of security. Extremists are known to be calculating, always waiting to strike at an opportune moment.

We, therefore, need to be vigilant and step up efforts in preventing and countering violent extremism (PCVE) as part of the general response to Covid-19.

Having borne the brunt of terrorism over the years, our focus as a country should not be limited to preventing direct attacks, but also taming radicalisation.

According to Foundation for Dialogue, a Kenyan NGO engaged in PCVE, while preventive measures against Covid-19 have led to less crowding thus dissuading terrorists from launching direct attacks, restrictions on religious worship and other social activities could motivate extremists to radicalise vulnerable youth.

Experts also caution that extremists could capitalise on the prevailing socioeconomic impacts of Covid-19 and create narratives denouncing the secular state order as ineffective in addressing the needs of vulnerable communities.   

Hence, the need for enhanced vigilance to suppress violent extremism by cutting off the oxygen of grievances that feeds it at community level.

Various studies have shown that among factors that make people most susceptible to radicalisation are perceptions of social injustice.

Organisations and groups involved in PCVE should, therefore, focus their efforts on community awareness and sensitisation on violent extremism to target narratives directed at vulnerable groups, particularly those seeking to prey on the latter’s sense of despondency in this time of uncertainty.    

Additionally, PCVE agenda should be integrated into Covid-19 national response framework, first with in the National Strategy to Countering Violent Extremism and second, at the county level, integration with County Action Plans on PCVE. 

In identifying Covid-19 response parameters, counties should also map out risk factors that violent extremists may exploit to push their agenda.

Priority should be accorded to efforts that prevent social unrest from perceived exclusion taking root in our communities.

However, we must always bear in mind that ultimately, all prevention strategies must begin with the individual.

As we adhere to laid down guidelines on Covid-19 prevention, we should all be alive to the fact that the agents and sympathisers of terrorism lurk in our midst.  

We should always be guided by the words of the great American statesmen Thomas Jefferson: “Let the eyes of vigilance never be closed.” —The writer is an Advocate of the High Court of Kenya

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