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A Side Effect of COVID Lockdowns: Less Violence in Middle East

UMD Researcher’s Study Tracked ISIS Attacks in Egypt, Iraq and Syria

By Rachael Grahame ’17

Deserted street in downtown Cairo at night

A street near Cairo's normally packed city center stands deserted because of a government-imposed curfew to limit the spread of COVID-19 in March 2020. UMD researchers found that violence caused by the group ISIS declined in Egypt and elsewhere when COVID restrictions were put in place.

Photo by Hadeer Mahmoud/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

Lockdowns intended to rein in the spread of COVID-19 appear to tamp down another threat to public safety—acts of violence by non-state actors, according to a new study from a team that includes a University of Maryland researcher.

In a paper published today in the journal American Political Science Review, government and politics Professor Jóhanna Birnir and her colleagues, Yale University Senior Lecturer Dawn Brancati and Qutaiba Idlbi, non-resident senior fellow and Syria Project lead at the Atlantic Council, collected data on the number and location of violent events linked to the terror group ISIS that occurred in Iraq, Syria and Egypt between Dec. 31, 2018 and June 28, 2020.

They compared and contrasted acts of ISIS violence before and after the pandemic began, noting each area’s implementation of two lockdown measures: curfews and travel bans.

“It's very rare that you get these sorts of comprehensive travel bans in a whole country that are instituted for a short period of time and then taken away, allowing us to get this very clean treatment of comparable data—when there are no travel bans just the year before, to a period where there are travel bans everywhere,” Birnir explained.

The researchers’ models of ISIS violent events in Iraq and Syria in 2019 versus 2020 showed a decrease in attacks coinciding with the pandemic. Lockdowns in Syria were associated with an approximate 15% overall reduction in violence, while in Iraq, the overall decline was around 30%. (Meanwhile, in Egypt, existing non-COVID related lockdowns aimed at constraining terror attacks had a nearly identical effect, making it difficult to isolate a COVID-related signal in the data, they said.)

Beyond the change in the volume of ISIS violent acts, Birnir and her colleagues were intrigued by the pandemic’s impact on the location and timing of violent incidents.

“It seemed that curfews made it more difficult for ISIS to carry out violent events in heavily populated areas because of the difficulty of moving around when there's a curfew,” she said. “And so, our empirical tests showed that there was a reduction in the number of violent events in urban areas, and less of a decrease or even an increase in the number of violent events that took place in rural areas.”

In Iraq, for instance, Baghdad's huge population meant that its decrease in ISIS attacks of 11% from the previous period more than offset stasis or small rises in attacks in rural areas like Diyala, the group's base of operations, contributing to the national decline of about 30%.

The research comes at a critical time, as policymakers and counterterrorism experts debate a sustainable anti-ISIS strategy that depends less on active foreign use of force, the authors said.

Though beyond the scope of the study, one phenomenon Birnir and her colleagues were interested in was whether curfews and travel bans would influence citizen sentiment toward their governments to ISIS’ potential advantage.

“The measures did increase negative feelings toward some local authorities,” explained Idlbi. “However, ISIS was not in a position to capitalize on this sentiment because the measures impeded its ability to communicate and utilize resources.”



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