Yaoundé, Cameroon – Africa’s escalating coronavirus pandemic is raising concerns that terrorist organizations could exploit the situation to expand their murderous campaigns, particularly across the Sahel.

While terrorist attacks have been steadily increasing in countries such as Mali, Niger and Burkina Fasso, Moussa Dominique Bangre, country representative for Catholic Relief Services in Mali, believes the impact of COVID19 could weaken the country’s “capacity to respond to jihadist attacks.”

“COVID-19 has badly impacted the global economy, and Mali certainly isn’t an exception. There is a serious strain on public resources, and COVID-19 will further impact the country’s capacity to respond to growing violence and needs of displaced people and host communities,” he told Crux.

UN Secretary General António Guterres recently warned jihadist groups are already exploiting the frailties created by the COVID19 to wreak havoc.

“Terrorist groups are taking advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic to intensify their attacks and to challenge state authority throughout the sub-region,” said Guterres.

He said the problem is particularly acute in the border zone between Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso, known as the Liptaku-Gourma triangle.

“Evidence suggests there is increased coordination and cooperation between some of the terrorist groups operating throughout the Sahel, from Mauritania to the Lake Chad basin,” he said.

“The dire situation in the Sahel region is further compounded by the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, with terrorist groups exploiting it for both propaganda and action purposes, with potentially grave impact on the region,” Guterres added.

As if confirming the Secretary General’s warnings, Islamic gunmen on Saturday stormed several villages in Niger, killing at least 20 people, looting shops, stealing cattle and ordering inhabitants to flee.

Guterres said it will be critical to assess the impact of COVID19 on the capacity of the 5,000-strong “G5 Joint Task Force” and international forces to conduct operations in the coming months.

The Secretary General’s report stated that the death toll in the Sahel has increased five-fold since 2016, with over 4000 deaths reported last year alone. There were just 770 deaths in 2016.

Since 2012, a surge in violence throughout Africa’s Sahel region has displaced 3.5 million people, including more than 200,000 in Mali alone, according to the United Nations.

“Tensions are high and can only have escalated since the recent attack,” says CRS’ Bangre.

The sense of loss here is unimaginable.

“Displaced people have left everything behind. Many of their homes and communities have been destroyed.  They often rely on the generosity of organizations like CRS. Desperation is clear,” Bangre told Crux.

Annika Hammerschlag, a reporter with CRS, details the story of Fatoumata Minta who fled a March 2019 attack in the village of Bankas in Mali, leaving behind her husband.

Now living in a camp for displaced people some 100 miles away in the small town of Mopti, Fatoumata said she cries every day, having lost her husband in the attack.

“My heart, my back, my head — everything hurts,” she’s quoted as saying between tears.

“I can’t sleep at night or during the day. When I was with my husband in the village, I didn’t have these problems.”

“I miss my husband. This doesn’t feel right…This is why I’m sick. This is why I cry all the time.”

Lamine Diallo, director of CRS’ emergency response program in Mali, said, “Families have lost their homes. Children have lost their childhoods. People have lost everything.”

Across the Sahel, the CRS is implementing an emergency response and development program, including Burkina Faso, where the number of displaced people has multiplied more than ten times over the last year to almost 800,000.

CRS is providing displaced people – and communities that are hosting them – with emergency aid like food, water, shelter and cash grants,” Bangre told Crux.

Responsibilities have increased with the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“At the onset of the pandemic, CRS program staff worked quickly to secure protective equipment, adding masks, thermometers, hand sanitizer and educational materials to our distributions,” Bangre said.

“We assembled hand-washing stations at remote sites and partnered with local health organizations to provide wellness screenings and teach appropriate hygiene practices. During distributions, our staff wears masks, use hand sanitizers and maintain six feet of distance.”

Just as the COVID-19 outbreak has the potential to escalate terrorist attacks, so too does it worsen the realities in internally displaced people across the Sahel.

“The arrival of COVID-19 in Mali and across the Sahel region has added a layer of danger to the everyday realities facing displaced people. They face not only food shortages, but also the risk of becoming infected with the virus,” Bangre told Crux.

“Families need our support now more than ever,” he said.