ISIL Now ‘A Covert Global Network’ Despite Significant Losses, United Nations Counter-Terrorism Head Tells Security Council
Two Other Briefers, Delegates Focus on Threat of Returning, Relocating Terrorist Fighters
Despite suffering “significant” losses, Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Da’esh) has morphed from a regional group into a covert global network, with a weakened yet enduring core in Iraq and Syria, the head of United Nations counter-terrorism told the Security Council today.
Presenting the Secretary-General’s report (document S/2018/770), Vladimir Voronkov, Under-Secretary-General in the United Nations Office of Counter‑Terrorism said the group’s evolution from a proto-State structure into a covert network has made it more difficult to detect and analyse because its financial-management functions have gone underground. ISIL/Da’esh is still able to channel funds across borders and continues to expand in Afghanistan, projecting a growing threat into Central Asia, he added.
Stressing that United Nations counter-terrorism bodies have prioritized their responses to the return and relocation of foreign terrorist fighters, he called for greater international cooperation, better sharing of information, efforts to improve capacity, as well as advanced countermeasures matching the sophisticated technological methods used by terrorists.
Also briefing the Council were Michèle Coninsx, Executive Director of the Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate, and Joana Cook, Senior Research Fellow with the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence, at King’s College, London, both of whom underscored the importance of collective efforts.
Ms. Coninsx pointed out that, since the adoption of resolution 2178 (2014), the emphasis has shifted to fighters relocating or returning to their countries of origin or nationality, or to third countries. Over the past six months, Member States and United Nations entities have developed innovative ways to address the threat through the use of advanced passenger information, name records systems, as well as biometrics, she added.
Ms. Cook said her research findings demonstrated that 41,490 foreign citizens across 80 countries have become affiliated with Da’esh. One in four Da’esh fighters are women and minors — unprecedented numbers for a terrorist organization, she added. “We believe this to be a vast underestimation based on current gaps in data.” She said the group reached out to women through targeted and gendered recruitment, leveraging the sense of purpose and belonging offered by the “caliphate”. The international community now has the opportunity to incorporate such data into efforts to counter violent extremism, she emphasized.
In the ensuing dialogue, delegates decried the continuing ability of ISIL/Da’esh, despite its losses, to take advantage of ungoverned spaces and weak States. The United Kingdom’s Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs noted that the root causes of the group’s emergence have yet to be resolved, stressing the need to do more to support peace and reconciliation in Iraq and to reach a political solution in Syria.
The representative of the United States described ISIL as “a resilient enemy”, saying her country is working with partners to help rebuild in Iraq and Syria, restoring electricity and other services, and thereby allowing 150,000 Syrians to return to Raqqa. Where force is necessary, the United States will deepen its partnerships with countries fighting terrorism, she pledged.
On that point, the Russian Federation’s representative underlined that all counter-terrorism efforts must be carried out with full respect for the sovereignty of States in which such crimes are alleged to have been committed. The Russian Federation is cooperating in such efforts within Syria, with the full consent of that country’s Government, he emphasized, while calling attention to blatant violations of the arms embargo against ISIL fighters there.
Kuwait’s delegate commended United Nations efforts to engage technology companies in limiting Internet use for terrorist purposes, while Poland’s representative advocated focusing on identifying and addressing abuse of new payment modalities to finance terrorism, notably in countries where they are unregulated. States must fulfil their obligations to freeze the assets of all entities on the ISIL/Da’esh and Al-Qaida sanctions list, he stressed.
France’s delegate cited the development of pluralist, inclusive solutions in Iraq and Syria — with the goal of ending impunity for sexual slavery perpetrated against the Yazidi people — as another critical imperative.
Also speaking today were representatives of Bolivia, Netherlands, Peru, China, Kazakhstan, Sweden, Ethiopia, Côte d’Ivoire and Equatorial Guinea.
The meeting began at 3:05 p.m. and ended at 5:20 p.m.
VLADIMIR VORONKOV, Under-Secretary-General in the United Nations Office of Counter-Terrorism, presented the Secretary-General’s seventh report on the threat posed by Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Da’esh), outlining a strategic-level threat assessment and an update on United Nations in support of counter‑terrorism efforts by Member States. Touching on highlights of the report (document S/2018/770), he said that the so-called ISIL/Da’esh caliphate has been in headlong retreat in Syria since its defeat at the end of 2017. Its membership, estimated at more than 20,000 in those countries, is split evenly between Iraq and Syria, with some fighters fully engaged militarily and others concealed in “sympathetic communities” and urban areas. The group’s leadership has also decentralized to mitigate further losses, and is thus likely to survive in the two countries in the medium term, due to the ongoing conflict and complex stabilization challenges.
However, there were significant numbers of ISIL/Da’esh-affiliated fighters in Afghanistan, South-East Asia, West Africa, Libya, and to a lesser extent in Sinai, Yemen, Somalia and the Sahel, he said, describing the complex challenge posed by returning and relocating foreign terrorist fighters. While their flow into Iraq and Syria has come to a halt, the rising threat from ISIL’s global network will be diverse and hard to predict, he emphasized, warning, moreover, that the group’s evolution from a proto-State structure into a covert network poses new challenges. ISIL/Da’esh finances in the Middle East, for example, are more difficult to detect and analyse because its financial management functions have gone underground. Following structural changes, ISIL is still able to channel funds across borders, often through intermediate countries, he said.
ISIL’s influence around the world continues through its affiliates and intermediaries, he continued, recalling that the ISIL-linked Jammah Ansharut Daulah network in Indonesia launched a series of May suicide bombings that demonstrated a disturbing precedent of using families in perpetrating such violence. He also expressed concern about the high volume of commercially encrypted messages in Europe and the radicalization in prisons. “The international community must renew their efforts to effectively counter the rapidly evolving and transnational threat from ISIL,” he stressed.
He went on to state that the United Nations system is working to staunch the financing of terrorism and organized crime, while addressing border management, law enforcement, international judicial cooperation, prosecution, rehabilitation and reintegration, in addition to both countering terrorist narratives and engaging communities. Counter-terrorism bodies have prioritized their responses to the phenomenon of foreign terrorist fighter, he said, noting that the Foreign Terrorist Fighters Capacity Building Implementation Plan — steered by the Counter-Terrorism Office and the Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate — has been streamlined to reflect the priorities identified in resolution 2396 (2017).
More broadly, international cooperation, sharing information and building capacity were critical, he said, underlining that the sophisticated methods employed by terrorists require similarly advanced counter-measures. Describing his 14-15 August visit to Afghanistan, recounted his participation in a conference organized by the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission and his meeting with victims of terrorism. In Kabul, he held consultations with President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, among other senior officials, who emphasized the need to consider counter-terrorism efforts in the context of Afghanistan’s peace and reconciliation process. They all proposed that Kabul host a high-level conference in 2019, he added, noting that the permanent Council members had expressed initial interest in that idea.
MICHÈLE CONINSX, Assistant Secretary-General and Executive Director of the Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate, said that, since the September 2014 adoption of Security Council resolution 2178 — which focuses on preventing foreign terrorist fighters from travelling to conflict zones, the emphasis has shifted to fighters who relocate or return to their countries of origin or nationality, or to third countries. The number of returning and relocating fighters is therefore not as high as feared by some, but it still poses a range of challenges, including the difficulty of assessing risks associated with their relocation, as well as evidentiary and jurisdictional challenges to prosecuting them. She noted that a significant number of fighters have entered national criminal justice systems, placing new demands on prisons and raising the risk of in-prison radicalization.
There is need for greater efforts to address such issues as prison capacity and security, she emphasized, while warning that States also face the potential risks posed by the forthcoming release of imprisoned foreign terrorist fighters. They may re-engage in terrorist activities, she said, noting that many States are uncertain about the effectiveness of monitoring tools developed for such individuals. Many such fighters have been given relatively short sentences, and may not have had sufficient opportunities to undergo rehabilitation and reintegration before their release. Over the past six months, Member States and United Nations entities continue to develop innovative ways to address the threat, including the use of advanced passenger information and name records systems, as well as biometrics. The United Nations system, including the Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate and the Office of Counter-Terrorism, continues to strengthen its coordination and coherence in assessing implementation gaps, identifying good practices and delivering the necessary technical assistance to Member States, she emphasized.
JOANA COOK, Senior Research Fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence, King’s College, London, briefed Council members on a report she recently co-authored with Gina Vale, focusing on the strategic, tactical and operational engagement by ISIL/Da’esh of women and minors. The problem is particularly critical in relation to that jihadist group, but is increasingly reflected in others, she said, emphasizing that it requires immediate and urgent engagement. She said that her research findings demonstrated — for the first time and with evidence — that some 41,490 foreign citizens across 80 countries became affiliated with Da’esh. Some 13 per cent of them are women and 12 per cent are minors, meaning that 1 in 4 Da’esh fighters are women and minors — unprecedented numbers for a terrorist organization. “We believe this to be a vast underestimation based on current gaps in data,” she said, noting that of the 80 countries reviewed, only 26 publicly provide reliable figures on both women and minors. “We still do not have a full understanding of the scale and scope of this concern.”
She said her research figures exclude women and minors prevented from travelling to Iraq and Syria, as well as local women and minors within the conflict zone who may have become affiliated with Da'esh — whether willingly or coercively. Many women are drawn to Da’esh because it presents itself as an ideologically pure State-building project, she said, recalling that the group held and administered territory between 2014 and late 2017, giving women an opportunity — “a perceived stake” — as well as a sense of purpose in building its proto-State. In addition, many of the diverse women Da’esh attracted expressed feelings of discrimination, oppression and disenfranchisement in the communities they left behind. The group reached out to women through targeted and gendered recruitment efforts in its multilingual propaganda, utilising language and imagery that spotlighted women’s rights, empowerment and the sense of purpose and belonging offered by the “caliphate”.
She went on to note that ISIL/Da’esh also promised services ranging from free health care and education to marriage arrangements, among others. It sought to promote the recruitment of minors within and beyond its territory, with the aim of raising “cubs” as future fighters and ideological guardians, while training boys in particular to engage in violence. Young people drawn to Da’esh were also recruited through diverse methods and held varied roles. While the fall of the physical “caliphate” represented a significant turning point, it was probably not the end of the group’s relevance or activities, but “only a period of evolution”. Some 20 per cent of Da’esh fighters have returned to their home countries, but only a small percentage appears to be women and minors, she noted, adding: “Women are poised to play an important role in carrying forward the ideology and legacy of Da’esh.” Expressing concern that they may pass the ideology on to their children, she said that while some minors traumatized by the group’s violence have engaged in suicide attacks, many youth and women are unlikely to become security threats. The international community now has the opportunity to incorporate such data into its efforts to counter violent extremism, as well as military, criminal justice, rehabilitation and reintegration programmes, she said.
JEREMY HUNT, Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs of the United Kingdom and Council President for August, speaking in his national capacity, emphasized: “Da’esh has not been vanquished and the root causes of its emergence have yet to be resolved.” Indeed, the group is evolving into a covert terrorist network, taking advantage of ungoverned spaces and weak States, he said, noting that its terrorists do not require central direction. Some 900 of its members with links to the United Kingdom have joined the conflicts in Syria and Iraq, he added, stressing that the response should involve continuing military operations. As a member of the anti-terrorism coalition, the United Kingdom led in the area of strategic communications against Da’esh, he said, noting that his country’s Government has committed £20 million to combat the threat in 2018. Advocating a renewed focus on the root causes of ISIL’s emergence, he said that means doing more to support peace and reconciliation in Iraq and a political solution in Syria. Recalling the adoption of resolution 2309 (2016), the first such text on aviation security, he said the Council should consider further action against terrorist use of the Internet for propaganda and fundraising. For its part, the United Kingdom aimed to identify anyone at risk for radicalization, he said. Having refined its “prevent” programme, it would share its experience with others, he added.
NIKKI R. HALEY (United States) noted her country’s rallying of a 77-member global coalition to defeat ISIS. Working together, it helped Iraq declare its territory liberated from ISIL, and drove the group from much of its territory in Syria and Iraq. “They are a resilient enemy,” she said. “We do not want to give ISIL room to regroup.” The United States is working with its partners to help victims rebuild in Iraq and Syria, while restoring electricity and other services and thereby allowing 150,000 Syrians to return to Raqqa. That effort will continue thanks to $300 million in new stabilizing funds, she noted. However, ISIL’s ideology has taken root in Afghanistan, Nigeria, Libya, Somalia and Sinai, she said, underlining the importance of denying the group safe haven. In addition, Al‑Qaida leaders are still plotting attacks, notably in Syria and Yemen, and the United States has led the way in negotiating resolution 2396 (2017), intended to set the highest standards for disrupting the travel of foreign terrorist fighters. She emphasized the importance of watch lists and biometrics in that context, while advocating full use of sanctions regimes. Where force is necessary, the United States will deepen its partnerships with countries fighting terrorism, she pledged.
SACHA SERGIO LLORENTTY SOLÍZ (Bolivia) expressed concern that terrorist groups continue to employ various recruitment means and narratives while improving their online coordination. Emphasizing that religion or nationality must never be correlated with terrorism, or considered in counter-terrorism programmes, he said the return of foreign terrorist fighters to their home countries was a major international challenge. Such fighters “do not appear all of a sudden”, but instead were influenced by such factors as poverty and vulnerability. In that regard, he called for efforts to address all root causes of extremism, including regime-change policies and foreign interventions. Spotlighting the links between terrorist groups and transnational criminal organizations, he said money‑laundering on the latter’s part helped to finance terrorist groups and allowed them to evade State control. Both counter-terrorism and prevention mechanisms must be pursued in full respect for the sovereignty and independence of States, he said, underlining that all parties must act with urgency in that regard.
ANNE GUEGUEN (France) warned that, despite the loss of its territorial foothold, Da’esh had transformed into a global underground network, reflecting its ability to adapt continually. Calling for scaled-up international efforts to prevent the resurgence of Da’esh, she said the development of pluralist, inclusive solutions in Iraq and Syria — with the goal of ending impunity for such crimes as the sexual slavery perpetrated against the Yazidi people, among others — is another critical imperative, as is the fight against terrorist financing. Financial and legal frameworks, as well as cooperation with the private sector, should be continuously fine-tuned and enhanced. Calling for efforts to combat the online activities still being conducted by terrorist groups, she said the relocation and return of foreign terrorist fighters, meanwhile, will require greater efforts to track and monitor at-risk individuals, in addition to stronger cooperation and sharing of information.
KAREL JAN GUSTAAF VAN OOSTEROM (Netherlands) said that, as ISIL morphs into a covert network, it is necessary to invest in financial intelligence and public‑private partnerships to counter the terrorist group’s financing. As ISIL strengthens its affiliates around the world, the emphasis must be on prevention and the resilience of local communities, he said, adding that there is also a need to detect the return or relocation of ISIL fighters. The Netherlands and the United States have collected good practices to address the challenges posed by the returning families of foreign terrorist fighters, especially practical guidelines to deal with women and children, he stated, emphasizing that ISIL fighters must be held accountable for their heinous actions.
FRANCISCO TENYA (Peru) said ISIL/Da’esh sought to use the Internet and social networks to encourage and mobilize its followers to carry out attacks, as well as to recruit resources and members. Peru advocated strengthening policies to promote critical thinking in cyberspace, he said. Citing the threat posed by returning foreign terrorist fighters, he stressed the need for comprehensive criminal justice strategies that respect human rights, due process and the gender perspective. However, States must not overlook the role of prisons when foreign terrorist fighters enter judicial systems. On financing, he urged States to strengthen financial intelligence systems and monitor the use of funds by terrorists. Peru welcomed the progress made by the International Impartial and Independent Mechanism to Assist in the Investigation and Prosecution of Persons Responsible for the Most Serious Crimes under International Law Committed in the Syrian Arab Republic since March 2011, he said, welcoming also the appointment of an Ombudsperson for the Al-Qaida and ISIL/Da’esh sanctions committee.
BADER ABDULLAH N. M. ALMUNAYEKH (Kuwait) said that, despite the diminishing threat of Da’esh in Iraq and Syria, the group continues to threaten international peace and security, having transformed from a regional entity into a covert global network whose finances are difficult to trace. Returning and relocating foreign terrorist fighters pose a threat to their home countries and third States alike, due to their military field expertise, he noted, advocating the exchange of relevant information. Additionally, with terrorists using social networks, States must take measures to combat the spread of their ideology, he emphasized, while commending United Nations efforts to engage technology companies in limiting Internet use for terrorist purposes. He urged States to take advantage of United Nations programmes, recalling in that context that the ministerial meeting of the coalition against Da’esh, hosted by Kuwait in February to formulate anti‑terrorism, was the first of its kind since the defeat of Da’esh in Iraq.
WU HAITAO (China) cited the tragic recent terrorist attacks in Afghanistan and Syria, emphasizing that the international community must embark on a common and integrated strategy in accordance with the new and evolving characteristics of terrorism. States must adhere to a unified standard, while ensuring full respect for the sovereignty and leadership of the countries concerned, and abiding by the purposes and principles of the United Nations Charter. Priority should be accorded to political solutions and development, he said, emphasizing the need to refrain from linking terrorism with any particular ethnic or religious groups, and to “endeavour to build “a new type of international relations” based on dialogue. In addition, he urged countries to enhance the sharing of information, and to work together in combating online terrorist recruitment and other activities, including by developing strong cybersecurity policies and blocking terrorist organizations from spreading their narratives online.
JOANNA WRONECKA (Poland), acknowledging that Governments bear the primary responsibility for addressing the terrorist threat, encouraged support for the additional engagement of international, religious and civil society organizations, as well as academia and the private sector. The fight against terrorism must be carried out in accordance with international human rights standards while addressing root causes, she emphasized. Poland advocated a focus on preventing ISIL/Da’esh attacks while addressing abuse of payment modalities to finance terrorism, notably in countries where such systems are unregulated. Furthermore, States must strengthen their financial intelligence and fulfil their obligations to freeze the assets of all entities on the ISIL/Da’esh and Al-Qaida sanctions list. Ensuring accountability and non-recurrence means stepping up the collection and sharing of data, she said, emphasizing also the importance of countering terrorist narratives and engaging communities, especially since women and girls are vulnerable to exploitation, trafficking and sexual violence at the hands of terrorists.
KAIRAT UMAROV (Kazakhstan) described changing terrorist tactics as “low-cost” localized terrorism. He said the weakening of ISIL/Da’esh has led to reorientation of the group’s supporters into an “autonomous jihad” in their places of residence, as well as the increased use of improvised explosive devices and drones in suicide attacks. Exacerbating such tactics is the return of foreign terrorist fighters equipped with skills in mine and explosive warfare, as well as military operations in urban areas, he noted. The greatest such threat in Central Asia is from the largest terrorist groups in northern Afghanistan, who, driven from Iraq, see the South Asian country as a springboard for the creation of a world caliphate, and hence, for the expansion of the so-called Wilayat Khorasan. That group comprises foreign terrorist fighters, as well as former members of the Taliban, East Turkestan Islamic Movement and other groups, he said. Furthermore, the authority of Al-Qaida and its regional branches is growing, and includes Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb and Al-Qaida in the Indian Sub-continent. Kazakhstan advocated halting drug trafficking and the illegal trade in natural resources, sharing best practices, enhancing the exchange of biometric information on terrorists, exchanging best practices on supressing terrorist ideas on the Internet, and proactive measures to counter self-radicalization.
CARL ORRENIUS SKAU (Sweden) highlighted national efforts to counter terrorism, including the establishment of the Swedish Centre to Prevent Violent Extremism in early 2018 to support municipal counter-terrorism activities. In addition, localities have now appointed coordinators to engage in the prevention of violent extremism. Sweden’s Ombudsman for Children presented a report on children’s direct and indirect involvement in violent extremism earlier in 2018, he said, noting that the document underscores the need to listen more to children’s experiences. Municipalities are now implementing recommendations issued by social services about ways to deal with returnees and their families, he said.
MAHLET HAILU (Ethiopia) emphasized that “it is wise not to go overboard and declare victory over terror”. The threat is, and will continue to be, a major challenge, especially in light of the transformation of ISIL/Da’esh from a territorial entity to a covert network. Meanwhile, the activities of the group’s regional affiliates and the threat posed by returning and relocating foreign terrorist fighters also remain serious. Noting the heavy impact of terrorism and violent extremism on Africa, she expressed concern that affiliates and sympathizers of ISIL and Al-Qaida continue to pose serious threats to peace and security in the north and west of the continent, the Sahel region and East Africa. The Al-Qaida affiliated Al-Shabaab group remains a potent threat in the Horn of Africa, a region also witnessing the emergence of ISIL affiliates operating in Somalia. Meanwhile, ISIL in Libya represents a threat to that country and the wider region, she said, emphasizing that restoring peace and stability in Libya, Mali and the Lake Chad Basin is critical to denying safe haven to terrorist groups. It will be critical to enhance the region’s capacity to counter terrorism, she stressed, spotlighting also the need to “get the management of security right in Somalia” as security leadership transitions from the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) to the Somali forces.
KACOU HOUADJA LÉON ADOM (Côte d’Ivoire) said that despite military and strategic setbacks, Da’esh continues to threaten global peace and security, morphing into a nebula of affiliates who are leveraging information and communications technologies, making it all the more difficult to combat recruitment and dissemination of the group’s propaganda. He expressed concern that many Da’esh affiliates are active in Somalia, the Sahel, West Africa, Egypt and Libya, the latter hosting 3,000 to 4,000 terrorist fighters. Citing the increasingly sophisticated armed attacks by terrorists, which obstructed the free movement of goods and people, he underscored the importance of allocating funds to combat that asymmetric threat, while calling for solidarity and cooperation among all stakeholders, and for strengthening national and regional capacities.
JOB OBIANG ESONO MBENGONO (Equatorial Guinea) said the transformation of Da’esh into a covert network was facilitated by local affiliates, women and youth, as well as the deplorable tactic of suicide attacks. Meanwhile, the phenomenon of foreign terrorist fighters, as well as links with criminal networks, are being seen across various regions of the African continent. Describing mass displacement and the ongoing crisis in Libya as among the factors driving such challenges, he called for stronger cooperation between the Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate and the Office of Counter-terrorism, while reiterating the need to respect national sovereignty in all counter-terrorism efforts. Equally critical are efforts to stamp out “safe havens and blind spots” in the fight against terrorism and to identify regions and States in which the implementation of counter-terrorism resolutions remains limited. Emphasizing the need to address the root causes of terrorism, he called for more investment in sustainable and equitable development, as well as peacebuilding.
VASSILY A. NEBENZYA (Russian Federation) said that while ISIL’s “Tower of Babel has fallen to pieces”, its leadership is now finding new sources of financing and logistical support. Terrorists are striving to invest in such legal sectors as tourism, agriculture, pharmacology and construction, while also working to take control of narcotic flows from Afghanistan. Noting that the Secretary‑General’s report demonstrates the Syrian army’s success in combating ISIL, with more than 400 towns and cities liberated, he nevertheless warned that “sleeper cells” still pose a threat, adding that there is evidence of the group’s increasing activities in provinces bordering Central Asian States. Calling for accountability on the part of any actor providing direct or indirect support to terrorist fighters — and for all counter-terrorism process to be conducted with full respect for the sovereignty of States in which such crimes are alleged to have been committed — he said the Russian Federation is cooperating in such efforts on Syrian soil, with the full consent of the that country’s Government. He also spotlighted blatant violations of the arms embargo against ISIL fighters in that country, saying there was “mounting evidence” of arms shipments from abroad and even support from some Member States.