As Somalia begins vaccinating its population of 16 million against COVID-19, a new player has emerged on the frontline of the Horn of Africa nation’s coronavirus disinformation war: Al-Shabaab.
Capitalising on recent announcements over the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, the Islamist insurgent group is calling on Sunni Muslims in Somalia, who make up 99 percent of the nation’s population, to “reject” the AstraZeneca vaccine.
In the UK, vaccine regulators have said people under-30 should be offered an alternative vaccine if one is available over concerns about extremely rare blood clots – there have been 79 reports of blood clotting cases out of 20 million people in the UK. Meanwhile, the European Union’s drug regulator has said that blood clots should be listed as a very rare side effect of the vaccine, but has not recommended its use be restricted by age.
Al-Shabaab has seized on such comments and public advisories in European nations to baselessly assert that the vaccine is “deadly” and “unsafe” for the Muslims of Somalia. Instead, the militant group prescribes “black seed and honey” to people suffering from COVID-19 in Somalia, as the nation battles a deadly second wave of coronavirus infections.
“In light of the vaccination campaign launched by the apostate Somali regime in the capital Mogadishu, Harakat Al-Shabaab Al Mujahideen’s Office of Politics and Wilaayaat warns the Muslims of Somalia against using the AstraZeneca vaccination,” said a statement which was issued by the militant group and posted on Twitter.
“Do not allow your family to be used as subjects in the experimentation of the safety of the Astra-Zeneca vaccine”, says Al-Shabaab.
This is the first time that Al-Shabaab has spoken on coronavirus vaccines, and the statement comes as Somalia’s Ministry of Health kick-started the first phase of COVID-19 vaccinations after receiving its first consignment of vaccines from the COVAX facility.
Somalia, which received 300,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, is urging priority groups, such as frontline workers and persons with underlying health conditions, to take the vaccine as the nation's COVID-19 death toll rose to 576. However, experts in the region fear that the militia’s strong anti-vaccine messaging, which is laced with religious undertones, could inflame anti-vaccine sentiments, threatening to reverse the government’s efforts to dispel misinformation and vaccine hesitancy.
“Al-Shabaab’s anti-AstraZeneca narratives are peddling the idea that the use of any COVID-19 treatment or vaccine other than ‘black seed and honey’ is un-Islamic”, an analyst at the HORN Institute for Strategic Studies - a Nairobi-based policy think-tank - told VICE World News.
“Despite losing territorial control in Somalia, Al-Shabaab remains a key aspect of Somalia’s political, social and economic fabric. The group’s influence has continued to permeate these spheres. As such, its ideology has remained strong as they resonate with many in the society who see the group as a viable alternative to the current government in Villa Somalia. Interestingly, Al-Shabaab is using research by so-called ‘disbelievers’ of Islam from the West to argue against the Astra-Zeneca vaccine, whilst simultaneously pinning responsibility for Somalia’s COVID-19 situation on ‘western disbelievers’ in Somalia.”
Al-Shabaab has been fighting to oust the Somali government and establish an Islamic state: resorting to deadly violence to achieve its ideological and political aims. Foreign and national interventions to quell the jihadist fundamentalist group, which has pledged allegiance to Al-Qaeda, have fuelled a grizzly long-running conflict that has exacerbated the nation’s humanitarian crisis, and left Somalia with one of Africa’s most emaciated health systems as it fights the coronavirus pandemic.
As Somalia launched its vaccination drive on the 16th of March at Mogadishu’s Martini Hospital, Somali Health Minister, Dr Fawziya Abikar Nur, reassured the nation that authorities are working to distribute COVID-19 vaccines country-wide. But speaking in parliament a day after Al-Shabaab’s statement on the Astra-Zeneca vaccine, Dr Nur expressed concern that “some health workers have refused to get the COVID-19 vaccine” – sounding the alarm that anti-vax sentiments, which are being fanned by the militant group, are emerging from Somalia’s fringes.
Listed as one of the 20 countries which are “likely to be among the last” to achieve widespread COVID-19 vaccination, Somalia is projected to achieve extensive access to vaccines by “the start of 2023 or later,” according to the Economist Intelligence Unit. As Al-Shabaab continues to launch attacks in Somalia, concerns that the militant group’s activity could compound access constraints to the rural areas in central and southern Somalia which it controls have also emerged.
“What we’re hearing from communities tormented by violent conflict is even more worrying when you look at the timetable for access to COVID-19 vaccines,” says Tjada McKenna, Chief Executive Officer of Mercy Corps. “By the time vaccination efforts reach communities in fragile contexts…vaccine refusal may be high and compliance with public health guidelines may be low, further prolonging the spread of the virus and fuelling protracted waves of conflict and economic disruption.”
In June 2020, Al-Shabaab announced on its own radio station that it had opened a COVID-19 treatment centre. “International health organisations said COVID-19 is terribly spreading in countries of Africa continent,” said the group in a broadcast. However, treatments that the militia group administers to its COVID-19 patients remains unclear.
As of the 8th of April, Somalia has reported administering 75,234 vaccine doses of the Astra-Zeneca vaccine. It is yet to report any incidents of blood clots linked to the AstraZeneca vaccine.