What's In Blue

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

Tomorrow afternoon (15 February), the Security Council will convene for a briefing on the Secretary-General’s 18th 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, Executive Director of the Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate (CTED) Natalia Gherman, and Secretary General of the International Criminal Police Organization (INTERPOL) Jürgen Stock will brief.

Voronkov and Gherman may report that the threat posed by ISIL remains high, with a significant impact on conflict zones. The Secretary-General’s report, which was issued on 31 January, notes that although the group and its affiliates continue to face leadership attrition and financial setbacks, they have retained their capacity to conduct attacks and project a threat beyond their areas of operation. The risk of resurgence in the group’s core areas of Iraq and Syria remains, while the activity of its affiliates has contributed to a deterioration of the security situation in parts of West Africa and the Sahel.

The Secretary-General’s report describes three “broad tactical trends” during the current reporting period, which Council members may reference at tomorrow’s briefing. First, in the Sahel, the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) and the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Jama‘a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin (JNIM) have established a local détente, with the reduction in fighting allowing both groups to allocate more resources to other targets. Second, in several areas, including the Sahel and West Africa, ISIL appeared to be claiming responsibility for significantly fewer attacks than it had perpetrated, a trend that may form part of a strategy to win the “hearts and minds” of the populations where the group is active without actually reducing its operations. Third, in the four months leading up to November 2023, the number of attacks perpetrated by the group decreased but their lethality grew, possibly indicating the improved capabilities of some affiliates. Since November, however, the number of attacks has again started to rise in some areas.

In their statements tomorrow, Council members may note that these trends highlight the particular counter-terrorism challenges facing Africa, which Secretary-General António Guterres recently described as the “global epicentre of terrorism”. The threat is particularly acute in the Sahel, where ISIL affiliates continue to exploit political instability, governance deficits, and intercommunal tensions to embed themselves in local conflict dynamics and expand their areas of operation. In this context, the Secretary-General’s report welcomes the Council’s adoption of resolution 2719 of 21 December 2023 on the financing of African Union (AU)-led peace support operations (AUPSOs) as an “important step” in bolstering international efforts to address peace and security challenges on the continent. Council members may similarly welcome the resolution, which some analysts believe could potentially support counter-terrorism efforts in the Sahel by facilitating the deployment of a UN-supported AUPSO in the region. (For more information on resolution 2719, see the In Hindsight in our February 2024 Monthly Forecast.)

Developments in other regions are also likely to be discussed. According to the Secretary-General’s report, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant-Khorasan (ISIL-K)—ISIL’s Afghan affiliate—remains the most serious terrorist threat in Afghanistan and neighbouring countries, despite increased counter-terrorism pressure by the Taliban. Although these counter-terrorism efforts have led to a reduction in the number of attacks perpetrated by ISIL-K and a high attrition among its senior and mid-tier leadership figures, the affiliate has retained the ability to recruit and conduct attacks. US intelligence officials have reportedly attributed the 3 January terrorist attack in Kerman, Iran, which killed at least 94 people, to ISIL-K.

Several Council members may address the situation in the Middle East, where regional tensions have been rising following the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas war on 7 October 2023. Some members may refer to the Secretary-General’s observation that the threat posed by ISIL remains highest in conflict zones and express concern about the potential for the group to exploit the current crisis to increase its activity in the region. According to the report, the group remains “firmly antipathetic” to Hamas—whose members it considers apostates—but its media output has tried to capitalise on the situation in Gaza to mobilise potential lone actors to commit attacks. The group may also benefit from the geopolitical consequences of the crisis, which have escalated tensions between Iraq and the US and accelerated discussions on winding down Operation Inherent Resolve, the US-led international military coalition present in Iraq to support the government’s anti-ISIL operations. The Secretary General’s report says that the group’s capabilities in its core areas of Iraq and Syria remain degraded, but that it has continued to operate as a low-intensity insurgency in remote and rural areas, with an estimated combined strength of between 3,000 and 5,000 fighters in these countries.

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 48,500 people remain in the Hawl and Rawj camps in north-eastern Syria, the majority of whom are children. The report describes the camps as overcrowded, with inadequate shelter and limited access to food, medical care, clean water, and other basic services. It says that individuals in the camps and other facilities face “significant challenges relating to their human rights and access to humanitarian assistance”, which are exploited by ISIL. The report characterises the pace of repatriation as “slow” and reiterates the Secretary-General’s call for countries with nationals in these facilities to boost their repatriation efforts in line with their obligations under international law. Tomorrow, some members may echo this call and highlight the need for effective repatriation, prosecution, rehabilitation, and reintegration programmes, while emphasising the importance of incorporating gender considerations into such programmes.

Council members are also likely to address the need to prevent violent extremism and to counter terrorist narratives. The Secretary-General’s report observes that the persistence of the threat posed by ISIL “highlights the limits of security-centred approaches” to counter-terrorism. It therefore calls for “comprehensive, multi-tiered and multi-stakeholder responses” that focus on prevention. 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 ISIL’s resources have continued to decline, with available reserves in the range of $10 million to $25 million, down from $25 to $50 million in the previous reporting period. While the group’s predominant means for financial transactions remain traditional methods such as cash couriers and informal hawala transfer systems, an increase in the use of cryptocurrencies has been observed. In their statements tomorrow, Council members might call for enhanced international cooperation to combat the financing of terrorism, in line with resolution 2462 of 28 March 2019, as well as stress the need to counter the use of new and emerging technologies for terrorist purposes, as the Council’s Counter-Terrorism Committee (CTC) emphasised in its Delhi Declaration of 29 October 2022.

Stock is likely to describe INTERPOL’s counter-terrorism efforts, which include capacity-building support to member states, particularly in Africa and Central Asia, in such areas as border management, biometric technologies, and analysis capabilities. He may also stress INTERPOL’s commitment to gender-sensitive policing and the organisation’s efforts to build member states’ capacity to investigate terrorist-linked sexual and gender-based violence—a need recently highlighted by CTED in a November 2023 report describing challenges to holding perpetrators accountable for such crimes. More broadly, Stock may note that INTERPOL’s work is guided by its Global Policing Goals, which link the organisation’s activities to the promotion of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

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