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More attacks or more services? Insurgent groups’ behaviour during the COVID-19 pandemic in Afghanistan, Syria, and Somalia

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Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, service-providing insurgent groups have responded differently, with some initiating more attacks amid ongoing destabilisation while others have immediately veered towards precautionary measures such as initiating public awareness campaigns and setting up quarantine centres. What drives these divergent responses? Relying on publicly available and semi-private sources, this article examines how the Taliban in Afghanistan, Ha'ayt Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) in Syria, and Al-Shabaab in Somalia have operationalised their responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. The findings reveal that the divergent responses are rooted in the framing of the pandemic discourse. The Taliban and HTS both interpreted it as a calamity that needs responding to and repurposed their activities accordingly by stepping up their attacks against combatants while concomitantly exploiting the humanitarian vacuum created by the pandemic by delivering health services. However, as the pandemic surged, the two groups gradually scaled down their combatant targeting and prioritised delivering health services to bolster their legitimacy and build popular support for their proto-states. By contrast, Al-Shabaab labelled the pandemic as a Western and Chinese ‘problem’, and made no visible changes to their operations in response to the crisis, only belatedly beginning to offer health services as the pandemic worsened.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages24
JournalBehavioral Sciences of Terrorism and Political Aggression
Early online date8 Dec 2020
Publication statusEarly online - 8 Dec 2020


  • Postprint

    Rights statement: This is an Accepted Manuscript of an article published by Taylor & Francis in Behavioural Sciences of Terrorism and Political Aggression on 08.12.2020, available online:

    Accepted author manuscript (Post-print), 1.7 MB, PDF document

    Due to publisher’s copyright restrictions, this document is not freely available to download from this website until: 8/12/21

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