Counter-Terrorism: Open VTC
Tomorrow morning (24 August), Security Council members are scheduled to hold an open VTC on the Secretary-General’s 11th biannual strategic-level report (S/2020/774) on the threat posed by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or Da’esh) under the agenda item “Threats to international peace and security caused by terrorist acts”. Under-Secretary-General Vladimir Voronkov, the head of the UN Office of Counter-Terrorism (UNOCT), and Assistant Secretary-General Michèle Coninsx, the Executive Director of the Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate (CTED), are expected to brief.
In his report, the Secretary-General states that during the last six months, ISIL’s activity, including that of some regional affiliates, has surged. On 31 October 2019, the group confirmed the death of its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi near Barisha, Syria, during a raid conducted by US special forces. The report says that the group’s strategic direction appears to have stayed the same under Amir Muhammad Sa’id Abdal-Rahman al-Mawla, its new leader, who was sanctioned by the Council’s 1267/1989/2253 ISIL and Al-Qaida Sanctions Committee on 21 May.
ISIL’s activities in territories formerly under its control in Iraq and Syria are expected to be addressed during tomorrow’s meeting. According to the Secretary-General’s report, the group “continued to consolidate” and carry out operations more openly and confidently. The number of attacks in some of those areas has increased significantly in the first half of 2020 compared to the same period in 2019. ISIL is estimated to have about 10,000 active fighters in Iraq and Syria. In order to finance its operations in Iraq and Syria, the group uses donations, kidnap for ransom, extortion of businesses and individuals, and commercial activity. States consider ISIL to have financial reserves of about $100 million in total.
The Secretary-General’s report also addresses the prosecution, rehabilitation and reintegration of foreign terrorist fighters, which are the focus of a draft resolution currently being negotiated by Council members. These issues might be discussed in tomorrow’s meeting. The report describes the conditions of people suspected of being linked to ISIL in camps in the north-east of Syria as “dire and complex”, especially for children and women in need of urgent assistance on human rights, humanitarian and security grounds. Arguing that the situation in camps in Iraq and Syria is already volatile and unsustainable due to security, humanitarian and political challenges in those countries, the report says that the COVID-19 pandemic further compounds these circumstances. It warns that if related issues are not addressed, the medium to long-term threat posed by ISIL globally will likely increase. The significant trauma experienced by the people in the camps (such as sexual violence perpetrated by ISIL or the kidnapping and recruiting of children) puts them at high risk of exploitation and indoctrination, as ISIL still attempts to radicalise and recruit them. Acknowledging the multifaceted challenges states are facing with regard to repatriation, the Secretary-General urges states to repatriate their citizens, in line with international law including international human rights law, humanitarian law and refugee law. He emphasises that actions and policies resulting in statelessness should be avoided.
The Secretary-General’s report also shows heightened concern about the fate of children. He emphasises that their voluntary repatriation, protection and rehabilitation should be a matter of priority; and lays out the UN’s engagement and assistance in that regard. He further underlines that children, no matter their role or affiliation, have to be treated in accordance with a state’s obligations under international law, including prosecution under internationally recognised juvenile justice standards and detention as a last resort and as short as possible. The report draws attention to a lack of reintegration and rehabilitation programs for children associated with terrorist groups.
Developments in different regions—that is, the activities of various ISIL affiliates—are also expected to feature in tomorrow’s meeting. In this regard, concerns about the widespread geographical reach of ISIL may be expressed. Despite ongoing territorial losses and the arrest of its leader Aslam Farooqi in April, ISIL-Khorasan (ISIL-K, sanctioned by the Council) in Afghanistan remains able to perpetrate high-profile attacks. On 2 August, fighters affiliated with ISIL-K temporarily took over a prison in the city of Jalalabad, freeing about 270 ISIL prisoners. The group is further trying to seize on the dynamics of the Afghan peace process by trying to recruit Taliban fighters opposing the US-Taliban agreement reached in February.
The Islamic State West Africa Province (sanctioned by the Council) has a membership of about 3,500, making it the biggest “and most conspicuous” of ISIL’s self-styled provinces outside Iraq and Syria, according to the Secretary-General’s report.
The Islamic State Central Africa Province (ISCAP) remains active in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, including attacks against the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO). ISCAP is focused on establishing a “caliphate”. In Mozambique, ISCAP gained momentum in the north-eastern Cabo Delgado province where it was able to conduct complex attacks and even temporarily take over villages. On 11 August, the town of Mocímboa da Praia was attacked by Ahlu Sunnah Wal Jamaa, which had pledged allegiance to ISCAP in 2019, eventually taking over the port.
On 15 April, five speedboats owned by the government of the Maldives were set on fire. The attack was claimed by ISIL, the first in the country. No casualties resulted from the attack, which was extensively praised by ISIL media.
In some regions, ISIL continues to struggle with local Al-Qaida affiliates, including in Yemen. The Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS, sanctioned by the Council) has been fighting with Al-Qaida aligned Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (sanctioned by the Council) since March. The Secretary-General’s report describes ISGS as “the most dangerous group” in the border area of Burkina Faso-Mali-Niger.
In their statements, some members may also choose to solemnly commemorate the six-year anniversary of the 3 August 2014 ISIL attack on Iraq’s Sinjar district, where the majority of the world’s Yazidis (a religious community believed to have been founded in the 11th century) live. The UN has classified the atrocities against the Yazidis that began with the 3 August 2014 attack as genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.