Terrorist Group, Armed Militia, or Public Health Provider? In a Pandemic, the Lines Get Blurred.

On this episode Sarah talks with Jori Breslawski, a Postdoctoral Fellow at Watson and expert on one type of organization that’s been on the front lines in the fight against Covid-19: armed non-governmental groups. That means groups like Boko Haram, Hezbollah, and the Islamic State, as well as gangs in countries like Brazil, El Salvador, and South Africa. While ‘emergency healthcare provider’ might seem like a surprising role for these types of groups, Jori explains how, once you understand how they operate in society, it's not surprising at all.

You can read Jori's article about how armed groups are responding to Covid in 'The Conversation' here.

You can learn more about Watson’s other podcasts here.


SARAH BALDWIN: From the Watson Institute at Brown University, this is Trending Globally. I'm Sarah Baldwin. There are certain groups you expect to be involved in stopping the spread of COVID-- humanitarian organizations, hospitals, and religious organizations.

JORI BRESLAWSKI: To do things like pre-quarantine facilities, handwashing stations, taking people's temperature.

SARAH BALDWIN: That's Jori Breslawski, a postdoctoral fellow at Watson and an expert on another kind of organization that's been helping fight COVID. Examples include--

JORI BRESLAWSKI: Boko Haram, Hezbollah, gangs in Brazil and in El Salvador. The Islamic State was distributing newsletters about how to avoid getting COVID-19.

SARAH BALDWIN: Jori studies armed, non-governmental organizations. She recently wrote a paper about how some of these groups have taken the lead in their communities to stop the spread of COVID-19. It's a vivid, timely example of the complex roles these organizations play, especially when it comes to responding to crises from natural disasters to pandemics.

To someone outside Jori's field of study, it's sort of a confusing world to make sense of. There are lots of overlapping yet distinct subsets of organizations-- gangs, terrorist groups, rebel groups, militias. So we started by just defining a few of these terms, including the one that best encompasses them all-- armed groups.

Jori, thank you so much for talking with us today.

JORI BRESLAWSKI: Yeah. Thanks so much for having me. I'm happy to be here.

SARAH BALDWIN: So before we get into what these groups are doing to fight COVID-19 and what it says about their roles in society, let's talk about what and who we mean by, quote, "armed groups."

JORI BRESLAWSKI: Yeah, sure. So when we talk about armed groups, we're usually referring to non-state armed groups. So this is any kind of group that's using violence to achieve a certain goal that's not part of the state.

SARAH BALDWIN: So it can be like criminal gangs.

JORI BRESLAWSKI: Exactly. These are also groups that are frequently referred to as terrorist groups. And we can talk about it later on in the interview, but terrorist groups may use terrorist tactics, but they might be equally likely to govern as well. And so these are groups that we may not expect to be taking part in actions that we view as a good thing. So groups that we call terrorists, like Boko Haram, Hezbollah, criminal groups like different drug cartels in Mexico or in other parts of Central America, but then we see that they're actually reacting to COVID-19 and also governing in other ways as well.

SARAH BALDWIN: Yeah, which is so interesting and unexpected. So just to back up in the first place, why is understanding armed group's reactions during the COVID-19 pandemic important? Why is this an opportunity? What are we going to learn from this?

JORI BRESLAWSKI: So the thing about armed groups is that they control a lot of territory in our world today. The International Committee of the Red Cross estimates that they control about 66 million civilians. And so any conversation about how we're reacting to public health crises, natural disasters has to, by definition, also take into account those civilians that are living under the control of armed groups. And while those civilians may be out of reach to the government, they're not out of reach of these different natural disasters and pandemics that can take place. And so understanding the opportunities and the challenges that these armed groups present in reaching those civilians to deliver humanitarian relief is a really important conversation to be having.

SARAH BALDWIN: Right. Because they're doing it where more, sort of recognized governments are either weak or absent. Right?

JORI BRESLAWSKI: Exactly. These are areas that the government's either unwilling or unable to reach. And so understanding who these actors that are controlling these areas, their motivations, their ability is important in understanding how we can reach those civilians.

SARAH BALDWIN: Why would a quote unquote "legitimate government" refuse to provide aid?

JORI BRESLAWSKI: So there's some civilian populations that the government either sees as an enemy, because of their ethnicity or their religion, and so there's certain areas of the country that the government may not see as their responsibility or they may even view it as more of a predatory sense that they're intentionally not serving these civilians.

SARAH BALDWIN: What was the first militant group that you saw or heard of proactively doing this kind of work? Like, how early on in the pandemic do you think this kind of work started?

JORI BRESLAWSKI: So I think I first read about this in April, about a criminal group in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil. And I think that the reason that this probably hit the papers first is what we've been kind of talking about is this idea that, wow, criminal groups are enforcing these closures and helping civilians out.

But we can think of all sorts of groups that may surprise us initially. The Islamic State was distributing newsletters-- known for their brutality and cutting people's heads off-- was distributing information about how to avoid getting COVID-19. The Taliban in Afghanistan reacted in many areas prior to the government. These groups have websites. They are active on Twitter. They spread the message through WhatsApp. And one of them even has a hotline that civilians can call to get information about COVID.

And so we're seeing really diverse methods being deployed for armed groups to get the message out to civilians on the best actions that they can take to avoid getting the virus. And the thing too is that one of the reasons that we probably see this being the most frequent reaction from armed groups, this promoting preventive measures is that a lot of them don't have the resources to be taking other strategies.

SARAH BALDWIN: Like to provide quarantine facilities or face masks?

JORI BRESLAWSKI: For instance. And so we do see some groups doing that. But one group, for instance in Myanmar, actually said that the reason we're promoting this knowledge about COVID is because we don't have the resources to hand out face masks. We don't have the resources to spray sanitizer places. And so this is kind of the first line of response that armed groups can take, that doesn't require a whole lot of resources.

SARAH BALDWIN: And what are some other actions that other groups are taking?

JORI BRESLAWSKI: So we also see certain armed groups placing restrictions. And so this is-- again, similar to our own governments, closing down businesses at certain hours, regulating how many people can be in certain shops, having curfews that people have to be back home at a certain time. And we see some armed groups kind of just putting out these guidelines without the threat of violence. But we see other armed groups enforcing these rules very violently. And so, for instance, some of the gangs in Brazil and in El Salvador have been tagged as beating civilians who don't comply with these regulations.

In conjunction with that, in terms of placing restrictions, we see some of the more established armed groups that really have firm control over territory regulating who can come in and out of that territory. So only letting in individuals that they consider citizens of that area, making certain visitors quarantine for two weeks or not letting them in at all. And so this is just another way that we can really see these groups acting like states in the areas that they control territory firmly.

Another thing that we see armed groups doing is making promises to humanitarian organizations that they will protect them and honor their mission. And so the humanitarian space in areas defined by armed conflict has really shrunk in recent years. And so we see more and more attacks on humanitarian workers with every passing year. And so armed groups recognize this and have also been making a conscious effort to put the message out there that they won't be attacking humanitarians. Whether that promise is kept or not is another question. But we do see armed groups recognizing that this is a fear, and so to try to put the message out there that they would be respectful of humanitarians operating in that territory.

SARAH BALDWIN: I wonder what you would say to people who might balk at the idea of humanitarian organizations working hand in hand or in some form of cooperation with these groups? Does that legitimize them in some way?

JORI BRESLAWSKI: So this is a big fear. So there's an ongoing conversation within the humanitarian and policy community, what to do about these areas that are under the control of armed groups? Is it legitimizing groups to be, I don't want to say collaborating and collaborating, that may be too strong of a word, but to at least get those security guarantees from armed actors to deliver aid inside the territories.

And I'll just add that there have been times that humanitarian organizations have noted that armed groups have been incredibly helpful in delivering aid to civilians inside their territory. So it was noted that in the wake of the tsunami in Sri Lanka that the LTTE, the Tamil Tigers that were fighting there at the time were incredibly helpful in getting aid to civilians. Because again, they are often operating in areas that the government can't reach. And so while these armed groups can be predatory in some sense, they can also be helpful in having those connections to civilians and distributing aid and others.

SARAH BALDWIN: Right. Except that it's not always just pure benevolence. Right? Don't they have a vested interest in appearing both to these communities and to the world at large as, you know, being a positive force?

JORI BRESLAWSKI: So, yeah, that's the question. And so I think that the consensus amongst the humanitarian community is that they need to get aid to these civilians no matter what. But it is a conversation that is ongoing about, how do you deliver aid inside these territories without armed groups taking credit for it or gaining legitimacy? So it's definitely a tricky question.

SARAH BALDWIN: Well, and I suppose there are generalities that can be made, but it's also, every group is different and every situation is different. Like, some groups are prone to violence and they want political control. Some groups are secessionist and they just want their territory. And so, doesn't it kind of depend on a case by case basis?

JORI BRESLAWSKI: It's difficult to say, because armed groups are always going to have different relationships with the civilian population that they interact with. And like you said, depending on their goals, that influences the way that they would capitalize on that humanitarian aid or work with humanitarian groups. And so I think what's important to keep in mind is just for humanitarian organizations to be aware of those goals and the behavior that comes along with them.

SARAH BALDWIN: Could you talk about what your findings reveal about the link between taking action around COVID and the level of violence that a group is associated with?

JORI BRESLAWSKI: Yeah. So actually one of the initial tests that I did was, I was curious as to what types of groups are responding. And I wanted to know if armed groups that use more violence against civilians, were they are less likely to respond with these more benevolent measures of helping civilians avoid getting the disease? And perhaps initially surprising is that groups that were using violence against civilians at high levels were just as likely to respond to COVID as groups that were using violence against civilians at much lower levels.

And so this kind of goes hand in hand with some newer research that is coming out that armed groups that govern are just as likely to use terrorism as armed groups that don't govern. And we can think about this because the areas the armed groups are governing may be different than the areas the armed groups are using terrorism.

So Hamas, at the same time as its governing people in Gaza, it's flinging missiles at Israel. And so just because an armed group is governing, doesn't mean that it's not using significant amounts of violence against civilians. And so I think that that may be one of the more counter-intuitive findings. But when you start to think about more examples it makes sense.

SARAH BALDWIN: Were you surprised to see gangs in Mexico and South Africa and terrorist groups in other places embracing the science, I guess, more than non-armed groups in some cases, and sort of having this public health impulse?

JORI BRESLAWSKI: Yeah. That's a really interesting question to bring up, that they would just kind of latch on to these scientific recommendations when we see so much of our own population not following them. I will say a couple armed groups that follow a more Islamist ideology put out explanations to the crisis that followed more Islamist views of how to explain the virus. And so people who aren't following the religion well are more likely to get the virus and that sort of thing. But honestly, it was a super small minority. And in the vast majority of cases we see armed groups actually following the recommendations put out by the World Health Organization very carefully.

SARAH BALDWIN: That's so interesting. So what steps or what services they provide to civilians depends on their resources, but also on their goals.

JORI BRESLAWSKI: Yeah. So we see some armed groups were actually able to do things like pre-quarantine facilities.

SARAH BALDWIN: Can you give an example?

JORI BRESLAWSKI: Yeah. So one of the groups, that KIL in Myanmar did a lot to build quarantine facilities. They actually built them, just these little bamboo huts that people stayed in when they came back into the territory. They built handwashing stations. They were taking people's temperature. And I know Hezbollah was also working diligently to build quarantine facilities, or at least I think they were transforming hotels into quarantine facilities.

And so you can see these groups that particularly are older and have been around for a longer time usually have had the time to build up those resources and capital. So I'm not an expert on Hezbollah, but I imagine they have certain connections with hotel owners and things along those lines. And so these groups that are more integrated into the community that have been around for a long time and have not only the economic resources but the political resources are more likely to be able to respond with these more robust types of measures.

SARAH BALDWIN: Speaking of robust measures, you write that in some cases entire medical corps are sort of established and provided. So my question is, the physicians or the health care workers in those cases, are they already aligned with these groups or are they being coerced?

JORI BRESLAWSKI: It really depends. There's of course the civilians that have lived in an area their whole life and are medical professionals. There's also medical professionals who come as humanitarians and then end up being accused of working for armed groups. I believe there was just a case of a doctor being on trial in Australia for working for ISIS and he was a humanitarian worker and happened to be in ISIS-controlled territory.

And we had this conversation in the rebel governance circles quite a bit is, you can't really tell in a war what is due to coercion and what's not. So we can look at civilians paying taxes to armed groups. We can look at civilians giving food or shelter to armed groups. Is that voluntary or is that coercive? It's really difficult to say. Because if the soldier comes to your door and happens to have a gun slung over his shoulder and says, "Can I have some food," and you give him food, is that because you're scared of getting shot or because you support the cause? It's really difficult to say.

And so it's the same case with these doctors that happen to be operating in areas controlled by armed groups. And in Afghanistan there is a lot of cases that humanitarian organizations have employees at these hospitals that Taliban kind of comes in a performatory manner, kind of claims as their territory, and they kind of like check up and make sure that everything's going OK. And so I don't think these humanitarians are working for the Taliban, but they happen to be very much on a day to day basis talking to them and exchanging ideas. And so it's really difficult to say.

SARAH BALDWIN: What surprised you, Jori, most about the findings when you analyzed all this data?

JORI BRESLAWSKI: So I think that what initially surprised me-- we touched on this at the beginning of the interview-- but the criminal groups. And as I mentioned, they aren't typically studied in the political science literature, and are kind of considered separately because they're not trying to overthrow the state or secede and form their own state.

So I guess when I first saw that criminal groups were handing out food and medicine to people and enforcing these different restrictions on their communities, I was initially surprised. But we can actually think of a number of reasons that this isn't so surprising. So just like a lot of politically motivated armed groups, these criminal groups have long time horizons. So they anticipate that they're going to be in this community for an extended period of time.

And so doing things-- like a number of them told civilians they don't have to pay taxes to them this month or they can pay them later and things like that. And so you think, wow, what is this group that's purely economically motivated doing saying that you don't actually have to pay me this month? But they're really investing in the long run. So they want to appear legitimate to those communities so they can continue collecting taxes from civilians and imposing their interests in the long run.

SARAH BALDWIN: But they're also accruing goodwill. Right?

JORI BRESLAWSKI: Yeah, exactly. And so in civil war it's not just the material resources that people are interested in, that groups are interested in, but also the information that comes along with appearing legitimate to civilians. And not that these criminal groups are fighting a civil war, but that information is still incredibly important because they're still at odds with the government in a lot of cases.

And then another reason that we can think of as why these criminal groups would be promoting these measures is that they don't want the police coming into their neighborhoods. And so, so far in a lot of cases, the police are kind of leaving the enforcement to the criminal groups. But I can imagine the criminal groups are worried that if things get out of control that the police would have more of a reason to come in and enforce COVID measures themselves.

SARAH BALDWIN: Are you going to continue to follow armed group response to the pandemic?

JORI BRESLAWSKI: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, we are just scratching the surface now. Everything is so new and all of the research so far has for the most part been descriptive. And so we're looking at what are armed groups doing and which armed groups are doing it, but we can think of all sorts of ways that we can use this information to better understand a lot of the questions that we still have about rebel governance more generally.

And so even though we have a good sense now in recent years of how armed groups are controlling these territories day to day, we still don't have a whole ton of information on how armed groups respond to crises. So there is some research on how armed groups respond to tsunamis or earthquakes, but of course by nature those are just one place at one time. And so we can only observe how one armed group is reacting.

But COVID is kind of this chance for us to really observe across all these different armed groups, how these armed groups are reacting. And I think that we can speak a lot to-- it can give us a lot of information about how these armed groups are interacting with the civilians inside their territory and kind of how their motivations drives that response.

SARAH BALDWIN: Jori, who do you hope will read your analysis?

JORI BRESLAWSKI: I think that I'm most interested in the public knowing about this type of research. This reaction to COVID-19 is no surprise to people that study rebel governance, and it's also not a surprise to the humanitarian community. So humanitarians have been working with armed groups for decades. And so they won't be surprised that armed groups are responding in this way.

But I think that the public was really surprised when they hear that criminal groups and terrorist groups are building quarantine facilities and passing out groceries and medicine to civilians. And I think that it's part of a broader lesson that I hope that people learn is that we live in a world that's very dominated by states being the legitimate authority. And a lot of times states don't take care of their populations. And perhaps in some cases, armed groups are doing a better job at governing certain areas than the states are. And so I just think that more broadly, non-state actors need to be taken seriously as an entity in our world today.

SARAH BALDWIN: Well, I'm so glad, Jori, that we got to have you on the show. It's been such a pleasure to talk about and your work. Thank you very much.

JORI BRESLAWSKI: Yeah. Thanks so much for having me.

SARAH BALDWIN: This episode was produced by Dan Richards and Elena Coleman. Our theme music is by Henry Bloomfield. I'm Sarah Baldwin. You can subscribe to us on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify, Google Play, or wherever you listen to podcasts. And if you like the show, leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts. It really helps others find us. For more information about this and other shows, go to Watson.Brown.Edu. Thanks for listening and tune in two weeks for another episode of Trending Globally.

About the Podcast

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Trending Globally: Politics and Policy
The Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs

About your hosts

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Sarah Baldwin '87

Host, Trending Globally
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Dan Richards

Producer and Co-Host, Trending Globally.