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ISIL Must Be Defeated in Cyberspace, Under-Secretary-General Tells Security Council, as Terrorist Group Takes Advantage of Pandemic-Related Disruptions

Increased online exposure to extremist propaganda and incitement could lead to a sudden rash of terrorist attacks when pandemic-induced movement restrictions ease, the top United Nations counter-terrorism official warned today as the Security Council discussed threats posed by Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Da’esh).

“We must defeat ISIL in the cyberspace,” said Vladimir Voronkov, Under‑Secretary-General for Counter-Terrorism and the head of the United Nations Office of Counter-Terrorism, in his briefing to the 15‑member organ on the Secretary‑General’s twelfth biannual strategic report (document S/2021/98) on ISIL threats.

He said that the group intensified its efforts to regroup and reinvigorate its activities in the second half of 2020, although it has not developed a purposeful strategy to exploit the COVID-19 pandemic.  Its core in Iraq and Syria and its affiliates in other conflict zones have continued to take advantage of the pandemic-related disruption to step up their operations, with several high-profile attacks.

Member States warn that ISIL could regain the capacity to orchestrate attacks in different parts of the world in 2021, he reported, adding that, outside conflict zones, the risk of exposure to ISIL propaganda and incitement has continued to grow as people — especially the youth — spend more time at home and online.

“This could lead to a sudden rash of attacks in some countries, when COVID‑19-related movement restrictions ease,” he said, adding that the socioeconomic toll and political fallout of the pandemic could further aggravate the longer-term threat posed by ISIL and other terrorist groups by widening the pool of individuals receptive to radicalization and recruitment.

Some 10,000 ISIL fighters, including foreign terrorist fighters, remain active, most of them in Iraq, pursuing a protracted insurgency, he said.  These sizable remnants are assessed to pose a major, long-term and global threat.  More tragically, he added, the international community has made little progress in addressing the situation of thousands of individuals, mostly women and children, suspected of having links with ISIL and held in precarious conditions in the region.  The already dire humanitarian and security situation in the detention facilities and displacement camps is deteriorating even further, especially in the Syrian Al-Hol refugee site, where many instances of terrorist radicalization, fundraising, training and incitement have been reported.

He reiterated the Secretary-General’s call on Member States for the voluntary repatriation of adults and children stranded in Iraq and Syria, commending Kazakhstan, Russian Federation and Uzbekistan for having repatriated hundreds of affected children from north-east Syria.  Other States, especially European countries, have conducted fewer repatriations, he added, expressing hope that they will step up their efforts.

Turning to other regions, he said ISIL affiliates in West Africa conducted numerous attacks against the military and civilians at the end of 2020 in the tri‑border area among Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger, and in the Lake Chad Basin, demonstrating determination and adaptability.  The Islamic State Central Africa Province is emerging as a strong regional affiliate, employing sophisticated tactics and capabilities, emboldened by recent operational successes in Mozambique and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

In Europe, a string of attacks in France, Germany, Austria and Switzerland, partly inspired by ISIL, provided a stark reminder of the diffuse threat from homegrown terrorist attacks by lone actors, he said, noting that, in Asia, ISIL’s affiliate in Afghanistan is assessed to still have between 1,000 and 2,200 fighters spread across several provinces.

Highlighting the launch of a new global programme on countering terrorist threats against vulnerable targets, including from unmanned aerial systems, he said his office also established a new global framework to better coordinate the provision of support from 15 United Nations entities, regarding individuals returned from or remaining in Iraq and north-east Syria.  In addition, it has made significant progress in helping Member States implement programmes to counter terrorist travel.

Noting that this year marks the twentieth anniversary of Security Council resolution 1373 (2001), which established the Counter-Terrorism Committee in the wake of the 11 September 2001 attacks in the United States, he said “the time could not be more relevant for Member States to recommit themselves to multilateral action against terrorism, under the auspices of the United Nations”.

Echoing his remarks, Michèle Coninsx, Executive Director of the Counter‑Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate (CTED), said that, as the terrorist threat has evolved, so, too, has the response of the United Nations.

Stressing the unique role played by CTED — the Committee’s secretariat body — in supporting Member States’ efforts to implement Security Council anti‑terrorism resolutions, she said plans are in place to conduct a hybrid follow-up assessment visit to Iraq and other neighbouring States to identify the remaining challenges in the region.

Further, she said, CTED continues to prioritize the Committee’s recommendations to Member States on dealing with returning and relocating foreign terrorist fighters formerly associated with ISIL, citing the recent launch of a joint initiative with Indonesia, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and the Counter-Terrorism Office to identify and disseminate good practices across South and South-East Asia.

In this regard, CTED has continued to strengthen its dialogue with 14 Member States particularly impacted by the phenomenon of foreign terrorist fighters to help them develop their capacities in the areas of border management, law enforcement and firearms control, through deep-dive assessment missions.

CTED’s analysis indicates that COVID-19’s financial impact may make terrorist groups more reliant on criminal activities, including drug smuggling, trafficking minerals and precious stones, fraud, cybercrime and the sale of counterfeit medicines.  Starting in 2021, CTED will produce annual assessments of gaps identified and areas requiring more action in relation to States’ implementation of countering terrorist financing.  It also recently launched an initiative to produce guidance for States on countering the financing of terrorism.

CTED’s analysis also indicates that COVID-19 has detracted attention or redirected resources from several long‑standing counter-terrorism policy challenges.  CTED’s ongoing efforts to help Member States review and update their national legislation have also strengthened their ability to bring terrorists to justice while protecting and promoting international human rights law and international humanitarian law, she said.

“We must continue to encourage the identification of shared, global priorities based on universal values of justice, equality and human dignity,” she said, stressing that this can be achieved only through a comprehensive, coordinated, “One-UN” approach aimed at helping Member States develop and implement effective counter-terrorism measures while addressing conditions conducive to terrorism and violent extremism.

In the ensuing discussion, Council members noted the need to address resurgent ISIL threats, not only in Iraq and Syria, but also in other parts of the world, including in Africa, Europe and Asia, while also underscoring the importance of defeating its presence in cyberspace.  They also emphasized the need to prevent radicalization of young people and address the root causes of terrorism.

The representative of the United States said the Biden Administration is committed to working with global coalitions to defeat ISIL, which remains a serious threat in Iraq, Syria and other nations.  Preventing an ISIL resurgence remains a priority, he said, adding that the international community’s efforts and understanding must adapt to ever-evolving threats.  Pressing concerns include counter‑financing, detention, repatriation and stabilizing areas liberated by ISIL.  Indeed, the threat will grow if States fail to repatriate their citizens, he cautioned, adding that it is simply the right thing to do, given that many are children in detention, where education and other basic services are almost non‑existent.  Alarmed that ISIL affiliates are working together, he pledged to work with Council committees on this and other issues, especially at a time when terrorists are exploiting the pandemic to advance their agendas, adapting messages to undermine confidence in Governments and sow violence.

The representative of Kenya noted that Al-Qaida, ISIL and their affiliates are spreading their activities in Africa, especially in conflict zones, through expanded recruitment and radicalization operations.  Al-Qaida-linked Al‑Shabaab resurged during the COVID-19 pandemic, establishing facilities to recruit personnel in the guise of distributing food and other aid items in Somalia.  To counter these threats, he proposed addressing terrorism financing and radicalization networks regionally and globally by tightening financial regulations and establishing strong public financial management systems.  It is imperative to enhance national mechanisms to freeze assets of individuals accused of engaging in terrorist activities and increase resource funding for the counter‑terrorism office in Kenya and widen its geographical scope.  It is also vital to increase anti-terrorism capacity and funding to developing countries, particularly fragile African States to address the spectre of expanding ISIL affiliates, while propagating counternarratives to stem the spread of terrorist ideology, he said, also highlighting the need to ensure access to COVID-19 vaccines in the third world to limit their susceptibility to recruitment and radicalization.

The representative of Tunisia, highlighting the pandemic’s negative effect on terrorist threats, said ISIL is still trying to spread its propaganda across areas both with and without conflict.  States must urgently address financing, especially since terrorist groups are increasingly dependent on organized crime, from kidnapping to illicit oil sales.  As such, efforts must focus on helping nations to resolve financing-related problems.  Gravely concerned about flourishing terrorism and violence in Africa, he cited reports of foreign fighters in Libya.  Equally concerned about the rise of terrorist activities involving extreme right-wing groups, he said their messages embrace xenophobia and racism.  Tunisia, for its part, works towards implementing Council resolutions and counter‑terrorism initiatives, enhancing multilateralism and partnering with civil society in related efforts.  Expressing support for a global response to combat terrorism, he said efforts must adopt a participatory approach that respects international law.

The representative of the Russian Federation said terrorists are using the Internet to spread their ideas amid the pandemic and its related socioeconomic upheaval.  ISIL remains a growing threat in Central Africa, threatening to spread south.  Despite having suffered defeat in some areas, ISIL remains in Idlib and Aleppo and other areas, with foreign fighters among their ranks.  The Al Hol camp is also a concern, he said, noting that Moscow works closely with authorities to return nationals to their countries of origin, including the 274 children who returned to the Russian Federation since 2018 and another 98 children in the process of being repatriated.  Raising several concerns, he said such pseudo‑humanitarian organizations as the White Helmets have ties to terrorist groups like Al-Nusra and are being deployed to other areas to spread their ideologies.  Organized crime, including drug trafficking from Afghanistan, remains a concern.  Noting that terrorists use the fact that there is a lack of unity among States, he recalled that ISIL stems from the illegal use of force by a foreign State and an illicit supply of arms.  Member States should demonstrate a united front, he said, adding that combating ISIL is the goal of United Nations entities and programmes, which all countries should support.

The representative of India said terrorism continues to pose the gravest threat to humankind, and a forceful fight must combat its spread in Africa and other regions.  Easy access to new and emerging technologies, such as artificial intelligence, drones and alternative currencies, must be addressed, as ISIL continues to gain strength far beyond Iraq and Syria.  Terrorist organizations have worked in Pakistan and other nations in South-East Asia, perpetrating and planning attacks.  All groups should be named in subsequent counter-terrorism reports.  Underlining the importance of an eight-point action plan against terrorism, he said every element must be implemented, including enlisting and delisting groups objectively.  It is imperative to build on these elements to truly prevent and combat terrorism while recognizing the global programme aimed at choking terrorist financing.  The United Nations has a critical role in the global counter-terrorism compact, he said, citing examples of India’s commitments and efforts in the region.

The representative of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines said Member States and the international community must enhance coordination and adapt tools to mitigate and counter the threat of terrorism and properly confront today’s challenges.  Deeply concerned about the ever-evolving threat of ISIL activities around the world, she said effective global cooperation in gathering and sharing information and intelligence regarding the emerging threats is required to better anticipate changes and prepare responses.  Member States must collectively address the ongoing challenges presented by foreign terrorist fighters, coordinating and building on national, regional and international efforts.  Drawing attention to children affiliated with ISIL who are detained in Syria and Iraq, she reaffirmed support for those Member States involved in rehabilitation and reintegration, and urged nations to share good practices and lessons learned.  More remains to be done to better address terrorist financing, especially since the COVID-19 pandemic has compounded persisting difficulties faced by Member States in this regard, through better regulation, among other things.  The Council’s mission should be to counter ISIL and the broader threat of terrorism while remaining united and effective in efforts to combat the scourge of violent extremism conducive to terrorism.

The representative of Ireland said human rights must remain at the core of the global response to terrorism.  The introduction of emergency measures by States to reduce the spread of COVID-19 must not compromise human rights, she added, asking for more elaboration on that issue to be included in the Secretary‑General’s next report.  Also calling for stronger efforts to prosecute terrorists for gender-based crimes, she added that trends regarding female perpetrators of terrorist acts demonstrate the need to incorporate a gender perspective into counter-terrorism policies and ensure women’s full, equal and meaningful participation.  While echoing concerns raised about the need to target the sources of terrorist funding, she warned that measures adopted to address that issue must not negatively impact the work of humanitarian and civil society actors.  Among other things, she also called for more reporting and analysis of the drivers of attacks in West Africa and the Sahel, as well as the factors underpinning the relationship and linkages between ISIL and affiliated groups.

The representative of Norway voiced concern about the continued activities of ISIL — including its foothold in Syria and Iraq, its capacity to recruit followers and its ability to conduct terrorist attacks — as well as its spread, and that of related groups, around the globe.  “Experience has repeatedly shown that [ISIL] and affiliated groups exploit existing conflicts and vulnerabilities in States and populations, causing a vicious cycle of further destabilization,” she said.  The roots of radicalization, including factors leading to grievances, marginalization, exclusion and injustice, must be urgently addressed.  In addition, political, development and military measures must be better aligned to resolve conflicts that allow terrorist groups to take root.  Spotlighting the importance of addressing climate change as a driver of conflict, she emphasized the need for action to address the increasing trend of online radicalization and the financing of terrorism, including through new tools such as crowdfunding and the use of cryptocurrency or virtual assets.

The representative of Estonia, noting the pandemic’s influence over terrorism trends, said people are spending more time in front of screens than ever before.  In that context, terrorist groups expanded their online activities and forged new alliances to raise funds via cryptocurrency wallets.  They also carried out high-profile attacks in Afghanistan and West and Central Africa, while lone individuals carried out terrorist attacks in Europe.  Stressing the clear need for closer cooperation on the global, regional and national levels to counter those threats, he welcomed the growing cooperation among the United Nations, European Union, Europol and Eurojust.  “The United Nations has a central role in leading the global effort, from setting the standards to the delivery of technical assistance,” he said, also noting the importance of working meaningfully with civil society groups and the private sector.  States must also ensure that all counter-terrorism measures comply with international law, or risk seeing them undermined or used as a pretext to drive further radicalization, he warned.

The representative of Mexico said the Secretary-General’s report reflects several critical aspects and areas where action must urgently be taken, including tackling challenges related to the pandemic’s effects on counter-terrorism efforts.  As terrorist groups are capitalizing on the pandemic’s impact, prevention strategies must be strengthened accordingly.  Turning to conditions in detention centres, he said basic rights and services are lacking, recalling that 80 per cent of those in the Al Hol camp are women and children.  Their full reintegration is essential, with special attention paid to gender-related trauma and violence.  Moreover, sexual violence must be fully addressed, with perpetrators held accountable, he said, commending a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) programme focused on gender-based issues.  Terrorist financing must also be hobbled with effective initiatives that avoid negatively affecting the provision of humanitarian assistance.

The representative of Viet Nam spotlighted positive developments over the last six months, including that ISIL was not able to materially take advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic for propaganda and recruitment purposes.  Travel restrictions temporarily limited the ability of terrorist fighters to launch high‑impact attacks and engage in avenue‑raising activities.  However, he warned against complacency, noting that the socioeconomic fallout of conflicts can be exploited by ISIL and its affiliates.  As solidarity and cooperation remain the most effective response, the Council must stay firmly committed to detecting and averting new threats.  Spotlighting the importance of global cooperation — including the provision of technical assistance to help States monitor terrorists’ movement, detect and respond to imminent attacks, and prevent financing and recruitment — he went on to call for common standards of international law to drive the treatment of detained ISIL fighters and their families detained in Iraq and Syria.

The representative of China said the international fight against terrorism has a long way to go in light of increasing threats from ISIL.  Efforts must completely root out terrorist groups and demonstrate global cooperation.  Double standards must be abandoned, he said, emphasizing that the Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate must discharge its important role in helping States to tackle terrorism.  New, flexible and effective tools must also be created, particularly since the Internet is now an important battlefield in combating terrorism, he said, highlighting examples to recruiting and funding attacks and activities.  Indeed, the Internet must not become a paradise of freedom for terrorists.  In addition, the repatriation of foreign fighters must continue, he said, voicing support for ongoing efforts.  China supports States in sharing experiences with the United Nations on best practices with a view to gradually building positive momentum.  More broadly, the root causes of terrorism must strive to eradicate the origin while fostering support in such critical areas as education.

The representative of Niger, citing recent counter-terrorism achievements, voiced concern about the resilience and adaptability of ISIL, which has replenished its operational capacity during the pandemic.  Sleeper cells, affiliated groups and other activities are spreading.  In the greater Sahara region, ISIL and affiliates represent a threat to communities that is now spreading to other nations, including the United Republic of Tanzania and Mozambique.  Given the socioeconomic impact of COVID-19 that may continue to worsen the situation, it is critical that the international community address terrorism’s root causes.  In that vein, corruption and money‑laundering must choke terrorist financing.  At the same time, rehabilitation and reintegration efforts for terrorist fighters must be strengthened.  This fight requires all the international community’s strength, he said, adding that States must maintain the same momentum that defeated ISIL in Iraq and Syria, which is the only way to truly and fully eliminate terrorism and its threats.

The representative of France underlined the need to continue to put pressure on terrorist groups.  However, “our response cannot be simply a security response”, she said, calling for political solutions in Syria and the return of State authority in the Sahel region.  Also needed are efforts to curb the flow of resources to terrorist groups, she said, spotlighting the use of cryptocurrency and urging all Member States to fully implement resolution 2462 (2019).  The safe use of Internet technology, as well as the protection of human rights, are also critical.  Emphasizing that there can be no impunity for crimes committed by ISIL, she welcomed the fact that 142 people have been tried for terrorism-related crimes in Mali in recent years.  Children must not be punished for the crimes of their parents, she added, noting that France — while unable to carry out repatriation in war zones where it lacks jurisdiction — has repatriated orphans and unaccompanied minors wherever possible.

The representative of the United Kingdom, Council President for February, spoke in his national capacity, expressing a concern about the situation in displacement camps.  His country facilitates the return of unaccompanied or orphan children on a case-by-case basis and subject to national security concerns.  But, those who have fought for or supported Da’esh should face justice in the most appropriate jurisdiction, often where those crimes were committed.  Further afield, Da’esh’s presence worldwide, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, is concerning.  Its online recruitment and incitement also need tackling.  The United Kingdom remains an active member of the global coalition against Da’esh, serving as a co-lead on efforts to tackle the propaganda threat.  At the United Nations level, his delegation will continue to advocate for increasing focus on preventing terrorist misuse of the Internet, aviation security and emerging threats beyond Da’esh, like right-wing terrorism.  Emphasizing the need to protect and promote human rights and the rule of law while countering terrorism, he advocated for prevention and whole-of-society approaches, and echoed remarks by France’s delegate about the White Helmets.

For information media. Not an official record.