Over the past several months, the Islamic State (IS) has continuously exploited the COVID-19 pandemic to propagate a myriad of disparaging narratives. Its recent information operations (IO) campaign shows mixed messages – some aimed at protecting its soldiers from the virus, others conveying a goal of weaponizing the virus against enemies.

This intelligence brief leverages the Zignal Media Intelligence Cloud to highlight the Islamic State’s global narratives around COVID-19, and analyze how it uses the current public health crisis to enhance its recruitment and incite decentralized attacks. Analysts and researchers can employ this information to increase their situational awareness of violent extremist organizations (VEO) and the online modus operandi of VEOs to spread disinformation and extremism.

Key Takeaways

  • The Islamic State is capitalizing on the COVID-19 pandemic to increase its recruitment propaganda, primarily rallying behind the narratives that:
    • Fighters are not susceptible to the virus due to their allegiance to Islam
    • COVID-19 must be weaponized to infect infidels
    • Instability from the pandemic should be used to initiate attacks

Clustered Target Locations

(Figure 1: Clustered Target Locations, February 1 – September 1, 2020)

This Zignal Influence Intelligence graphic highlights the volume of COVID-19-related mentions of IS by country. Aside from western nations concerned with IS, activity from India dominates a large part of the conversation due to the dissemination of IS materials regionally. Nigeria is also within the top ten countries by volume of mentions, as the Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP), an IS affiliate, has recently escalated attacks near the Lake Chad Basin and exploited regional disarray caused by the pandemic. [1]

Popular Tweets

(Figure 2: Popular Tweets, February 1 – August 27, 2020)

Figure 2 shows the most popular tweets on the Islamic State’s COVID-19 narrative. The most prominent stories claim that true Muslims are immune from the virus, that it only infects infidels, and that the virus must be weaponized to “annihilate disbelievers.” The tweet on the right portrays the spread of this ideology by IS women in a Syrian refugee camp.

Hashtag Interactions Map Visualization

(Figure 3: Clustered Target Locations, February 1 – September 1, 2020) Analysis of hashtags to uncover which topics are most pertinent in the discussion of IS and COVID-19.

In the above image, Zignal Influence Intelligence visualizes connections used by accounts with automation scores between 50-100. [2] This hashtag interactions map demonstrates how users are discussing IS and COVID-19, and which topics are the most pertinent, such as #ppe, #muslims, #daesh, #india, and #corona, to highlight a few.  The most used hashtag between June 1 and September 1 of this year (#isis) is the central hashtag in this intelligence visualization and connects to a multitude of the Islamic State’s disinformation narratives. Stories shared by these accounts include IS devising a Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) scam site to finance its operations, as well as the release of a special “lockdown edition” of an IS-supported magazine, which encourages the weaponization of COVID-19 in Delhi and urges Muslims to initiate jihad during the lockdown.

Word Cloud

(Figure 4: Word Cloud, February 1 – September 1, 2020) Zignal’s Word Cloud shows the prevalence of language about the pandemic in online mentions related to IS and COVID-19.

Zignal’s Word Cloud module displays the most frequently used words we encountered in our Islamic State research. The previously discussed themes of calling for jihad, the killing of infidels (“kaffir”), and Islam protecting from the virus are highlighted above. A key insight to note is how Tablighi Jamaat is mentioned in the word cloud. Tablighi Jamaat, an Islamic missionary movement, appears above because the IS praised the movement for spreading COVID-19. This connection indicates that IS narratives have extended into non-terrorist elements.

Why This Matters to Analysts and Researchers

Experts will not be surprised that there is an overlap between public health and terrorism. Analysts and researchers can use this data to:

  • Pinpoint the themes and topics that violent extremist organizations (VEO) like IS can manipulate and distort during a pandemic
  • Prioritize which extremist IO campaigns to counter
  • Identify the areas most affected by an IO campaign
  • Deploy assets to mitigate VEO recruitment in those areas

For other insights and analysis of timely topics, read our other Intelligence Briefs on our Reports page.

[1] https://www.thedefensepost.com/2020/07/09/is-africa-covid-19/

[2] Automation scores are calculated on a scale of 0-100. The higher an account’s automation score, the more likely it is that that account is automated or otherwise inauthentic.