Al-Shabab’s Territory in Somalia Is a COVID-19 Powder Keg

Al-Shabab’s Territory in Somalia Is a COVID-19 Powder Keg
A man wearing a surgical mask and gloves in Mogadishu, Somalia, March 18, 2020 (AP photo by Farah Abdi Warsameh).

NAIROBI, Kenya—The novel coronavirus arrived relatively late to Africa, where the first case was confirmed only in mid-February. Since then, COVID-19 has swept across the continent, with more than 37,000 cases confirmed thus far. Experts point out that the true number of cases is higher than the official tally in many African countries, though, given their limitations in testing.

Somalia, the base of operations for the al-Qaida-affiliated extremist group al-Shabab, is no exception. It announced its first COVID-19 case on March 16 and currently has just over 580 cases, with 28 confirmed deaths from the disease. In response, the Somali government in Mogadishu has announced a raft of measures to try and curb the virus’s spread, including the suspension of all international flights arriving or leaving the country, a dusk-to-dawn curfew in Mogadishu and the closure of schools and universities. Citizens are being urged to pray at home, not at mosques.

However, there are large swaths of the country’s territory where Mogadishu’s edicts have little effect. Al-Shabab militants control much of the countryside as well as several towns in southern and central Somalia, including some areas close to the capital, and the group’s leaders have made little effort to implement containment or social distancing measures. On the contrary, al-Shabab has disregarded public health warnings from the government, which the group views as illegitimate, and has resisted shutting down the vast networks of crowded mosques and Islamic schools that it operates in areas under its control.

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