With Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Da’esh) and other terrorist groups attempting to exploit the COVID-19 pandemic for their own ends, the international community must respond with stronger collective action and cooperation, the top UN counter-terrorism official said on Monday.
Vladimir Voronkov, Head of the UN Office of Counter-Terrorism, said the global coronavirus crisis underscored the challenges involved in eliminating terrorism, as he presented the UN Security Council with the latest report on ISIL’s impact on international peace and security.
“This pandemic environment raises several strategic and practical challenges for counter-terrorism, which we discussed during the Virtual Counter-Terrorism Week organized by my Office last month,” he told Council members during video-teleconference briefing.
“#ISIL & other terrorist groups seek to exploit the far-reaching disruption & negative socio-economic & political impacts of the pandemic. Strengthening collective action & intl #counterterrorism cooperation must remain a priority during & after the pandemic”, USG Voronkov https://t.co/mTI3Fl82Kf pic.twitter.com/sJ0qjPdfZw— United Nations Office of Counter-Terrorism (@UN_OCT) August 24, 2020
Since the start of this year, the threat has grown in conflict zones, as seen by the regrouping and increased activity of ISIL and some of its affiliates in Iraq and Syria, he explained.
ISIL expands ‘opportunistic propaganda’ efforts amid pandemic
In non-conflict areas, the threat seems to have decreased in the short term, with COVID-19 lockdowns and restrictions apparently lowering the risk of attacks.
However, “opportunistic propaganda efforts” by ISIL could be fuelling an ongoing trend of attacks by individuals and small groups, he said.
Unclear, he added, is how the pandemic is affecting ISIL’s recruitment and fundraising efforts, or whether there is a change in strategic direction under its new leader, Amir Muhammad Sa’id Abdal-Rahman al-Mawla. His predecessor, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was killed during a US military operation in Syria in 2019.
Putting a spotlight on regional developments, Mr. Voronkov said that ISIL continues to consolidate its position in some parts of the Middle East previously under its control, “operating increasingly confidently and openly”.
More than 10,000 ISIL fighters are estimated to be active in Iraq and Syria, moving freely in small cells between the two countries, he said, adding that 2020 has seen a “significant increase” in ISIL attacks in both States compared to 2019.
COVID-19 and suspected terrorists
The COVID-19 crisis has further complicated the already dire and unsustainable situation of several thousand people – especially women and children – with suspected links to ISIL. Some countries are still repatriating children, but there has been only limited progress on overcoming legal, political and practical hurdles to repatriation, he said.
“The global threat from ISIL is likely to increase if the international community fails to meet this challenge,” Mr. Voronkov warned, calling for decisive action from Member States on humanitarian, human rights and security grounds.
Turning to Africa, he described Islamic State in West Africa Province and its 3,500 members as a “major focus of ISIL global propaganda” as it reinforces its links with Islamic State in the Greater Sahara – “the most dangerous group in the tri-border area of Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger”.
While ISIL has only a few hundred fighters in Libya, it is exploiting tensions between ethnic groups and represents a portent threat capable of broader regional impact, he said, adding that ISIL could potentially expand its activities if the conflict in the North Africa nation escalates.
In Europe, the main threat comes from Internet-driven homegrown terrorist radicalization, he said. Acute concerns surround the release of prisoners with terrorist background and connections, while the rise of right-wing violent extremism means that intelligence services in some European countries are shifting their priorities away from ISIL.
Looking towards Asia, he said that ISIL’s affiliate in Afghanistan, Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant-Khorasan, remains capable of high-profile attacks - despite territorial losses and the arrest of its leaders - as it seeks to use the country to spread its influence across the region and to attract fighters who oppose the peace agreement between the Taliban and the United States.