What's In Blue

Posted Thu 24 Aug 2023

Counter-Terrorism: Briefing on the Secretary-General’s Strategic-Level Report on ISIL/Da’esh

Tomorrow morning (25 August), the Security Council will convene for a briefing on the Secretary-General’s 17th biannual strategic-level report 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 Executive Director of the Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate (CTED) Natalia Gherman will brief. The Council will also be briefed by a civil society representative, who is expected to focus on ISIL’s use of sexual and gender-based violence.

Voronkov and Gherman may report that the threat posed by ISIL has remained mostly high in conflict zones and low in non-conflict areas. The Secretary-General’s report, which was issued on 31 July, notes that the risk of ISIL’s resurgence persists, with the group adapting its strategy by embedding with local populations and choosing battles that are likely to limit its losses, while simultaneously rebuilding and recruiting from camps in north-eastern Syria and vulnerable communities, including those in neighbouring countries.

At tomorrow’s meeting, Council members may mention ISIL’s recent leadership losses. On 3 August, ISIL confirmed that its leader, code-named Abu al-Husain al-Husaini al-Qurashi, had been killed during clashes with rival militant group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham in north-west Syria. Approximately three weeks earlier, on 9 July, the US Central Command (CENTCOM) announced that Abu Osama al-Muhajer, a senior ISIL leader, had been killed by a drone strike in eastern Syria. According to the Secretary-General’s report, some member states took the view that lower levels of ISIL violence during this year’s holy month of Ramadan, an occasion which has often triggered a surge in attacks by the terrorist group, could possibly be ascribed to attrition among its leadership.

Council members are also likely to express concern about the activities of ISIL and its affiliates in Africa. The Secretary-General’s report describes several examples of operations carried out by ISIL and its affiliates on the African continent, including in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Mozambique, and the Sahel. In discussing this issue, Council members may choose to focus on recent developments in the Sahel and their implications for counter-terrorism measures. The Secretary-General’s report indicates that member states have expressed concern that terrorist groups could exploit the current instability in Sudan and says that ISIL’s affiliate in the Sahel, the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), has become increasingly autonomous and has played a significant role in the escalation of violence in the region. Several analysts have also noted that the recent coup in Niger could have a negative effect on counter-terrorism efforts in West Africa.

Regarding the threat posed by ISIL in Africa, the report notes that developments “are deeply concerning and interconnected with existing conflicts and local grievances”, adding that “[a]s acknowledged in the policy brief on A New Agenda for Peace, this requires a new generation of counter-terrorism operations in response, led by regional African partners and with a [Council] mandate under chapters VII and VIII of the [UN Charter], as well as guaranteed funding through assessed contributions”. Council members who take a similar position, including the African members (Gabon, Ghana, and Mozambique), might refer to this observation in their statements tomorrow.

Developments in other regions are also likely to be discussed. According to the report, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant-Khorasan (ISIL-K), ISIL’s Afghan affiliate, has been assessed by member states as the most serious terrorist threat in Afghanistan and the region. The report says that ISIL-K has increased its operational capabilities inside Afghanistan, with the total number of fighters and family members associated with the group estimated at 4,000 to 6,000 people, a steady increase over the numbers reported in previous reports, while also becoming more sophisticated in its attacks against both the Taliban and international targets. Member states have also reported increasing concerns about ISIL-K’s ability to project a threat outside Afghanistan. In light of these findings, Council members might underscore the importance of preventing Afghanistan from becoming a haven for terrorism and urge the Taliban to adhere to the commitments it has made in this regard.

In Iraq and Syria, ISIL commands between 5,000 and 7,000 people, most of whom are fighters, and has adopted a deliberate strategy of reducing the number of attacks it carries out with a view to facilitating recruitment and reorganisation. Despite this reduction in activity, the Secretary-General’s report notes that the risk of resurgence in Iraq and Syria remains.

The situation of suspected ISIL fighters and the women and children associated with them living in camps and detention centres is expected to be raised tomorrow. According to the Secretary-General’s report, approximately 55,000 people remain in the Hawl and Rawj camps in north-eastern Syria, many of whom are children. The report refers to reports of grave abuses, particularly against women and girls, and notes that living conditions in the camps are dire, with significant humanitarian hardship and limited access to food, medical care, clean water, and other basic services for inhabitants. It also concludes that the large number of people living in the camps and detention facilities in north-eastern Syria “continue to present serious challenges to the region and beyond that need to be addressed” and calls on member states to repatriate their nationals in line with their obligations under international law. Some members may echo this call and highlight the need for effective repatriation, prosecution, rehabilitation, and reintegration programmes in their statements tomorrow. These members might also emphasise the importance of incorporating gender considerations into such programmes.

Council members are also likely to address the prevention of terrorism and the need to counter terrorist narratives. The Secretary-General’s report observes that “the underlying drivers of conflict must be tackled to prevent terrorist exploitation and further radicalisation and recruitment” and calls on all actors to scale up investment in efforts designed to prevent the spread of terrorism. Council members may make similar points in their statements tomorrow, including by emphasising 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.

Countering the financing of terrorism is another likely topic of discussion. The Secretary-General’s report indicates that, although ISIL’s previously reported cash reserves of $25 to $50 million have been significantly reduced and are diminishing, the group nonetheless retains substantial amounts of cash reserves. 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.

Council members are expected to mention the use of sexual and gender-based violence by ISIL. The Secretary-General’s report notes that many victims of terrorism, particularly those who have experienced sexual or gender-based violence perpetrated by ISIL, continue to face stigmatisation, with child survivors severely affected. Some Council members may refer to this issue and welcome the UN’s work in this area, including the support provided by the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) to Yazidi survivors who experienced conflict-related sexual violence.

Council members which have signed on to the Shared Commitments on Women, Peace, and Security (WPS)—Albania, Brazil, Ecuador, France, Gabon, Japan, Malta, Switzerland, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the UK, and the US—are expected to read two joint statements after tomorrow’s meeting, one on counter-terrorism and another on Sudan. It appears that the statement on counter-terrorism will highlight the use of sexual and gender-based violence by terrorist groups.

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