‘Islamic State is avoiding Europe/telling fighters to avoid Europe’: headlines and stories along these lines circulated in many media outlets in the middle of March. Supposedly, Islamic State (IS) was issuing these guidelines in response to the coronavirus pandemic. In reality though, this was a clickbait extrapolation based on a colourful infographic that was featured in issue 223 of the group’s newsletter al-Naba’ and gave some general ‘Shari’i directives’ on dealing with epidemics. Among those directives, which were based on the hadith literature, was the idea that those who are healthy should not enter the land of the epidemic while the afflicted should not leave the land.
But even taken on its own, this directive does not mean the group was somehow steering its members and supporters from conducting attacks in Europe. From IS’ perspective, any supporter who conducts an attack against the disbelievers in the name of the group by pledging allegiance to it counts as a ‘soldier’ of the Caliphate. Therefore, it is still possible at the present time for supporters who are still inside Europe to carry out operations.
In any case, understanding IS’ perspective on the pandemic requires a broader look at the group’s output in the al-Naba’ issues. Like the rest of the world, group had been following news of the spread of the coronavirus. While IS appeared to express glee in its summarising of news reports about the spread of the virus within China, a lengthy article subsequently appeared in issue 220 of al-Naba’ titled ‘The force of your Lord is strong’. In the article, it was cautioned that one should not hasten to the certain judgment that the spread of the virus was a punishment from God against China for persecution of Muslims, even as the article did not deny that the epidemic was the will of God somehow. Citing the historical precedent that plagues have afflicted Muslims before such as the one that struck many of the Prophet’s companions in Syria, the article warned that the virus could infect both Muslims within China and beyond the country’s borders, and thus Muslims should take precautions to protect themselves against infection. The precautions were similar to those that subsequently appeared in the infographic in issue 223: understanding that infection, if it occurs, is ultimately the will of God, but also taking practical measures like avoiding those infected, avoiding what could result in transmitting the virus to others, not entering the land of the epidemic, and even encouraging efforts to find a vaccine.
As the virus spread across the world and places such as Iran and Europe became epicenters of the pandemic, the group issued editorial articles that both reinforced its basic doctrinal ideas and took a firmer line on the explanation behind the pandemic. First, in issue 223, the group’s editorial attacked the idea of visiting shrines and tombs as examples of idolatry (a teaching the group has emphasized ad nauseam in its output), and cited the specific case of the Shi’a and the shrines in the city of Qom in Iran (without mentioning the city by name). Noting the spread of the virus and the advice given against public congregations in the shrines, the editorial argued there was an irony that people were now being told to keep away from shrines to avoid spreading the virus when previously they would visit those shrines to seek healing from afflictions. Perhaps, then, this would lead some of them to realize the error of these idolatrous practices and turn to proper monotheism.
The article that really showed the error of the popular media claims about IS and the pandemic was the editorial that appeared in issue 224, a week after the infographic on directives in an epidemic. Entitled ‘The Crusaders’ worst nightmare’, the article portrayed the pandemic as something of God’s ‘painful torment’ that He has brought down on His creation, primarily the disbelievers. Citing the various measures Western countries were undertaking to prevent the spread of the virus and the negative ramifications of the pandemic on their economies and stability, the group noted with glee the fear these countries had that the group should make any territorial gains in any parts of the world at a time like this. Further, noting the hopes of some that IS would somehow take a respite from launching attacks, the group argued to the contrary that members and supporters should exploit the current weaknesses of their adversaries and show no mercy in trying to conduct prison breaks and launch attacks, just as the group’s enemies supposedly showed no mercy to the Muslims amid their sufferings when they were besieged in places like Mosul, Sirte and Baghuz.
Therefore, far from somehow calling off attacks on the West, IS actually sees the pandemic as an opportunity to exploit the divisions and weaknesses among its enemies that have arisen because of its pandemic. This is the group’s policy on the matter and it is no way inconsistent with the group issuing general health guidelines to its followers on trying to avoid infections, though how far the pandemic translates to tangible gains for the organisation on the ground in various parts of the world remains to be seen.