UN: Report of the Secretary General on the Threat posed by ISIL (Da'esh)

This report from the United Nations is the most recent document summarizing the state and current activities of Da'esh (a.k.a ISIS or ISIL). Click here for the full reading: https://undocs.org/Home/Mobile?FinalSymbol=S%2F2020%2F774&Language=E&DeviceType=Desktop


"Introduction 1. In adopting its resolution 2253 (2015), the Security Council expressed its determination to address the threat posed to international peace and security by Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as Da’esh) and associated individuals and groups and requested that I provide an initial strategic-level report on the threat, followed by updates every four months. In its resolution 2368 (2017), the Council requested that I continue to provide, every six months, strategic-level reports that reflect the gravity of the threat, and the range of United Nations efforts in support of Member States in countering the threat.

2. This is my eleventh report on the threat posed by ISIL to international peace and security. The report was prepared by the Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate and the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team,3 in close collaboration with the Office of Counter-Terrorism, other United Nations entities and international organizations.

3. Against the background of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, the report highlights a surge in ISIL activity in Iraq and the Syrian Arab Republic and among some of its regional affiliates. ISIL has not been able to reconstitute its external operations capability, and the measures of Member States aimed at reducing the spread of the virus appear to have temporarily reduced the risk of terrorist attacks in many States outside conflict zones. However, the pandemic’s impact on ISIL propaganda, recruitment and fundraising activities remains unclear. Socioeconomic fallout from the crisis could exacerbate conditions conducive to terrorism and increase the medium- to long-term threat, within and outside conflict zones.


Threat assessment A. Overview of threat 4. There is no clear indication of a change in the strategic direction of ISIL under its new leader, Amir Muhammad Sa’id Abdal-Rahman al-Mawla (QDi.426), a.k.a. Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurashi, although he is expected to adapt to external events, including the COVID-19 pandemic. Command and control arrangements between the ISIL core and its remote “provinces” were already loosening prior to al-Mawla assuming leadership, and this is expected to continue or even accelerate in the current circumstances. The ISIL core continued to consolidate in some of the areas previously under its control and to operate increasingly confidently and openly. A comparison between early 2019 and early 2020 reveals a significant increase in the number of attacks by ISIL in Iraq and the Syrian Arab Republic.

5. The dire and complex situation of individuals with suspected links to ISIL, especially women and children, stranded in camps or being held in the north-east of the Syrian Arab Republic continues to require urgent action on humanitarian, human rights and security grounds. The September 2019 directive of the group’s former leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (QDi.299), regarding efforts to release ISIL fighters and dependants is assessed to remain in place. The impact of COVID-19 has further destabilized holding arrangements and put stress on de facto authorities. 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 to repatriation. 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.

6. The impact of the pandemic on the threat posed by ISIL has been multifaceted. States’ curfews and travel restrictions have complicated terrorist planning and operations, making it harder for terrorists to move, recruit, raise funds and mount attacks. Measures taken to safeguard public health have also reduced the number of potential terrorist targets such as crowded streets, public transport and venues. ISIL lacks the external operational capability to direct sophisticated attacks against other targets, while the impact of actors inspired to act alone tends to be less severe.

7. While the threat of terrorism appears to have temporarily decreased in non-conflict zones, the pandemic could compound the threat in fragile and conflict-affected States, where Governments face challenges in asserting their authority, especially in remote areas and border regions. The pandemic has strained government resources, and travel restrictions have further hampered the provision of services to local populations.

8. ISIL propaganda and media output have been sustained at 2019 levels since the onset of the pandemic. The group has diversified its outlets following disruption by the operation coordinated by the European Union Internet Referral Unit in 2019 to take down terrorist content. In April and May, Member States observed the use of smaller platforms and file-sharing services.

9. ISIL has labelled the pandemic as “divine punishment” for its enemies and stressed the opportunity to mount attacks while their resources and defences are stretched. The group has also recommended caution regarding the risk of infection among its members, advising physical distancing and the avoidance of travel. While ISIL propaganda shows it is alert to the possibility of using the COVID-19 virus as a crude, improvised form of biological weapon, Member States report that the group does not appear to have advanced any plans to do so. In conflict zones, ISIL has continued with its “war of attrition” propaganda campaign, most recently from 14 to 20 May.


10. ISIL has benefited from a largely captive audience of people confined at home owing to COVID-19. If the group’s propaganda efforts are successful, it is possible that a spate of inspired attacks could occur as public mobility and assembly resume and targets once again present themselves. Yet, ISIL communication efforts have so far not gained the same traction as the April and September 2019 broadcasts by al-Baghdadi. Al-Mawla has yet to communicate directly; Member States believe that he is cautious about the associated risk of being killed or captured. Nevertheless, with ISIL eclipsed in the news by COVID-19, there is a risk of appearing irrelevant. This could present additional motivation for ISIL to accelerate the revival of its external operations capability.

11. The issue of foreign terrorist fighters associated with ISIL remains a cross- cutting challenge for Member States in their efforts to mitigate the future threat. As States release growing numbers of returnees in the coming months and years, it will be vital to address this issue alongside terrorist radicalization in prison, rehabilitation, reintegration, probation and other related challenges. COVID-19 is complicating detention in overcrowded prisons around the world, with infection rates high; the resulting anxiety is complicating efforts to maintain order. Member States have to balance these concerns against the imperative of avoiding the premature release of dangerous inmates.

12. ISIL financial reserves are assessed by Member States to total 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. Appeals to assist ISIL fighters and their families in camps are seen regularly across social media platforms. Some stores of cash are believed to remain buried in the core conflict zone or to be kept with trusted custodians and couriers.


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Observations 86. The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the ways in which our world is transforming and the challenges we face in eliminating the threat of terrorism, including that posed by ISIL. Conflicts have changed in nature but continue to divide Member States and people while they need to unite to confront common challenges. Inequalities within and between countries have been laid bare, with the most vulnerable hit the hardest. Human rights are infringed upon and distrust is growing, while ignorance and anxieties surge into hate and xenophobia. Life in all its facets is disrupted by new technologies, which can be used for tremendous good and criminal purposes alike. All these challenges, accelerated and magnified by the pandemic, have the potential to feed into a vicious circle of destabilization and violence that ISIL is keen to exploit and exacerbate.

87. The international community needs to stay attuned to how the threat of ISIL continues to evolve during and after the pandemic to adjust its response. Recent months have highlighted strong regional disparities in the threat trajectory. In non- conflict zones, it appears to have declined in the short term. Progress in intelligence, law enforcement and criminal justice efforts and cooperation among Member States have sustained an encouraging reduction in international attacks while ISIL has still not been able to reconstitute its external operations capacity. Yet, there is also a continued trend of attacks by individuals inspired online and acting alone or in small groups, which could be fuelled by ISIL propaganda efforts during the pandemic. In conflict zones, the threat has increased, as evidenced by ISIL regrouping in Iraq and the Syrian Arab Republic and its affiliates increasing their reach and staging bold attacks. ISIL and others seek to gain advantage from the strain on national capacities caused by the pandemic and to go on the offensive.

88. It is vital, therefore, that Member States remain vigilant about the threat posed by ISIL and continue working together and with the United Nations to strengthen international counter-terrorism cooperation and provide assistance to the most affected countries. United Nations Global Counter-Terrorism Coordination Compact entities expanded their tools to continue supporting requesting States in comprehensively addressing the threat.

89. In particular, urgent action is needed for the repatriation, in line with international law, of women, men and children, including those with suspected links to ISIL, stranded in the conflict zone. I call on Member States to meet their obligations under international law towards these persons.

90. Preparing for terrorism, like for public health emergencies, requires institutional and social resilience, as I underscored shortly before the onset of the COVID-19 crisis in my report to the General Assembly on the activities of the United Nations system in implementing the United Nations Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy (A/74/677) for the seventh biennial review of the Strategy. In doing so, people should be put first and the rights and needs of victims of these tragedies should be upheld. In anticipation of the review of the strategy, the virtual counter-terrorism week organized by the Office of Counter-Terrorism from 6 to 10 July provided inputs regarding how Member States, United Nations entities, international and regional organizations, civil society and the private sector can work together to sustain and integrate counter-terrorism efforts in recovering together better from the pandemic."


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