New York. UN Security Council President Dian Triansyah Djani of Indonesia presided over a meeting on the threat posed by terror network Islamic State to international security and peace on Monday. Indonesia holds the rotating presidency of the Council for the month.
The video-teleconference discussed a recent report by Secretary-General António Guterres regarding the issue and UN efforts in support of member states in countering the threat.
Vladimir Voronkov, the head of the UN Office of Counter-Terrorism, told Council members that the Islamic State and other terrorist groups continued to pose a serious threat to the global security during the Covid-19 pandemic.
“Since the start of the year, we have seen contrasting regional disparities in the threat trajectory. In conflict zones, the threat has increased, as evidenced by ISIL’s regrouping and increasing activity in Iraq and the Syrian Arab Republic, and among some of its regional affiliates,” Voronkov told the conference, using another acronym of the terror network.
“However, in non-conflict zones, the threat appears to have decreased in the short term. Measures to minimize the spread of Covid-19, such as lockdowns and restrictions on movement, seem to have reduced the risk of terrorist attacks in many countries,” he added.
“Yet, there is a continued trend of attacks by individuals inspired online and acting alone or in small groups, which could be fueled by ISIL’s opportunistic propaganda efforts during the COVID-19 crisis,” he warned.
It remains unclear how the pandemic is affecting IS’ 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, Voronkov said.
The previous IS leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was killed during a US military operation in Syria in 2019.
Voronkov warned that the IS 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 IS 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 IS attacks in both countries compared to 2019.
“The global threat from ISIL is likely to increase if the international community fails to meet this challenge,” Voronkov said.
What does the Secretary-General report say?
The 17-page report of the Secretary-General said that while coronavirus-related curfews and travel restrictions “have complicated terrorist planning and operations making it harder for terrorists to move, recruit, raise funds and mount” in many countries, there is “a surge in ISIL activity in Iraq, the Syrian Arab Republic and some of its regional affiliates”.
It cautions that “terrorist groups see the uncertainty created by the pandemic as a tactical advantage and a window of opportunity to strike while the attention of most governments is turned towards the pandemic.”
The report cites an estimate that the IS financial reserves stood at around $100 million.
“The group continues to fundraise through different avenues, including kidnapping for ransom, private donations, and some extortion of commercial activity. Funds are also believed to accrue through crowd-sourced, online fundraising,” it says.
“Appeals to assist IS fighters and their families in camps are seen regularly across social media platforms.”
The impact from the Covid-19 pandemic could lead to humanitarian crisis related to individuals with suspected links to IS, especially women and children, who are stranded in camps or being held in the northeast of Syria.
“Member states report concern among detainees and camp residents about contracting the virus, adding to the existing problem of escapes and other uncontrolled departures. Only limited progress has been made in overcoming legal, political and practical hurdles for repatriation,” the report says.
“The pandemic has diverted limited resources to address related issues and further complicated access to and transport from holding facilities. The global threat from ISIL is likely to increase in the medium- to long-term if the international community fails to meet this challenge.”
Many countries are against the repatriation of IS fighters and their dependents from Syria, but Indonesia is “working to facilitate the return of orphaned minors”, the report says.
In Southeast Asia, Indonesia and the Philippines have maintained pressure on IS activities through counter-terrorism operations, many of which have succeeded in disrupting planned attacks at early stages, the report says, warning that IS affiliates continue to operate and find safe haven in the southern Philippines.
In January, Indonesia hosted a regional meeting on “Gathering admissible evidence in high-risk situations in order to bring terrorists to justice before national criminal courts” arranged by the Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate (CTED). The meeting was attended by participants from Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand.
In the following month, CTED and Indonesia convened experts from Southeast Asian member states to share regional good practices and identify gaps and challenges in developing comprehensive and tailored prosecution, rehabilitation and reintegration strategies.