Counter-Terrorism: Briefing on the Secretary-General’s Strategic-Level Report on ISIL/Da’esh
Tomorrow afternoon (9 February), the Security Council will convene for a briefing on the Secretary-General’s 16th biannual strategic-level report (S/2023/76) on the threat posed by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Da’esh) to international peace and security. Under-Secretary-General for Counter-Terrorism and head of the UN Office of Counter-Terrorism (UNOCT) Vladimir Voronkov and Acting Executive Director of the Counter-Terrorism Executive Directorate (CTED) Weixiong Chen are expected to brief. A woman civil society representative with expertise in preventing and countering violent extremism is also scheduled to brief the Council.
Voronkov and Chen may report that the threat posed by ISIL and its affiliates has continued to follow the trajectory described in previous reports. The Secretary-General’s latest report, dated 1 February, says that the threat remained high during the second half of 2022 and increased in and around conflict zones. It also notes that member states have expressed concern regarding ISIL’s “continued objective to project a threat outside conflict zones”, including by attempting to inspire attacks by individuals or small groups.
ISIL’s recent leadership losses and their effect on its operations are likely to be discussed during tomorrow’s meeting. On 30 November 2022, the US Central Command (CENTCOM) announced that ISIL’s leader, Abu al-Hassan al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi, had been killed in mid-October 2022 during a counter-terrorism operation conducted by The Free Syrian Army (the military opposition to the Syrian government) in the southern province of Dar’a in Syria. Al-Qurayshi replaced former leader Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi, who died during a 3 February 2022 pre-dawn raid carried out by the US military in northwest Syria.
On 26 January, the US reported that senior ISIL figure Bilal al-Sudani had died during a US military operation in northern Somalia. US officials described al-Sudani as “a key operative and facilitator for [ISIL’s] global network” who was responsible for supporting the group’s expansion and activities across Africa and beyond the continent by providing funding to sustain ISIL’s operational capabilities, including to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant-Khorasan (ISIL-K), ISIL’s Afghan affiliate. The Secretary-General’s report, which was finalised prior to al-Sudani’s death, notes that although leadership attrition has weakened ISIL’s core, its pool of potential leaders “is sufficiently deep to withstand losses in the short term”. Some Council members may refer to the recent deaths of ISIL leaders and emphasise that counter-terrorism operations have an important role to play in combatting ISIL.
The activities of ISIL and its affiliates in Africa are another likely topic of discussion. The Secretary-General’s report says that the number of violent attacks carried out by ISIL throughout Africa has increased, particularly in the Sahel, where ISIL has targeted civilians and engaged in armed confrontations with government forces. The report also describes several examples of violence perpetrated by groups linked to ISIL in Africa, including a series of attacks conducted by Ahlu Sunna wal-Jama’a in Cabo Delgado province in northern Mozambique that led to the displacement of more than 160,000 people in June and July 2022. Some Council members may express concern regarding these developments during tomorrow’s meeting.
Developments in other regions are also likely to be discussed tomorrow. According to the Secretary-General’s report, ISIL-K remains a significant threat in Central and South Asia and retains ambitions to carry out attacks outside Afghanistan. The report refers to ISIL-K attacks that targeted diplomatic missions and Shia minorities in the country and notes that member states in the region have estimated that the group controls between 1,000 and 3,000 fighters. It also notes that one member state has reported that ISIL-K has begun smuggling narcotics. In light of these findings, Council members may refer to the importance of preventing Afghanistan from becoming a haven for terrorism.
In Iraq and Syria, ISIL is estimated to control between 5,000 and 7,000 fighters and continues to carry out guerrilla attacks against government forces. The Secretary-General’s report notes that, despite recent setbacks, the risk of an ISIL resurgence in Iraq and Syria persists, adding that neighbouring countries are vulnerable to attacks directed or inspired by ISIL.
ISIL’s use of new and emerging technologies may also be addressed during tomorrow’s meeting. The Secretary-General’s report says that ISIL is increasingly using unmanned aerial systems “for surveillance, reconnaissance and to attack targets with a high degree of accuracy and efficiency”. The report further notes that ISIL has continued to utilise information and communication technologies to spread propaganda and indicates that its use of such technologies has “become more sophisticated and prolific”. Some Council members may refer to these findings and highlight the presidential statement adopted by the Council on 15 December 2022, which called on the 1373 Counter-Terrorism Committee (CTC) to consider developing, with CTED’s support, a set of non-binding guiding principles to assist member states to counter the threat posed by the use of new and emerging technologies for terrorist purposes, as provided in the “Delhi declaration on countering the use of new and emerging technologies for terrorist purposes”. (The Delhi declaration was adopted during the CTC’s special meeting in India, which took place on 28 and 29 October 2022.)
Council members are also likely to address the prevention of terrorism and the need to counter terrorist narratives. According to the Secretary-General’s report, ISIL “continued to leverage local dynamics and exacerbate existing grievances and intercommunal tensions” during the reporting period. The report also says that “security responses alone are not sufficient” and “that they must be accompanied by efforts that prevent new recruits from joining the ranks of ISIL”. When discussing these issues, some Council members are expected to emphasise the importance of a whole-of-society approach to counter-terrorism that respects human rights, aligns with international law, and addresses the root causes of violence and extremism. Some members may argue that gender considerations should be incorporated into counter-terrorism policies and practices.
The situation of suspected ISIL fighters held in detention, as well as the women and children associated with them, is expected to be raised tomorrow. The Secretary-General’s report notes that there has been “no significant improvement” in the camps and detention facilities holding persons believed to be associated with ISIL. It further says that the threat posed by ISIL is compounded by foreign terrorist fighters (FTFs) who are relocating to new areas or returning home, as such fighters “could take on roles as ISIL recruiters or leverage their battlefield experience to plan and carry out more lethal attacks”. Several members might call on member states to repatriate their nationals who are currently held in camps or detention centres for persons suspected of being associated with ISIL. Some may highlight the need for effective repatriation, prosecution, rehabilitation, and reintegration programs for such individuals.
Countering terrorism financing is another likely area of discussion. The Secretary-General’s report indicates that although member states estimate that ISIL has access to between $25 and $50 million in funds, several member states believe that these funds are depleting. The report notes that ISIL’s recent leadership losses have contributed to a decline in its revenues and says that counter-terrorism operations have also placed its revenue streams under pressure. In their statements tomorrow, Council members might refer to the role that international cooperation plays in combatting the financing of terrorism and call for the full implementation of resolution 2462 of 28 March 2019, which decided that all member states must ensure that their domestic laws and regulations establish serious criminal offences regarding the financing of terrorism.