Global co-operation needed for counter-terrorism during and after pandemic

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With Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Da’esh) and other terrorist groups attempting to exploit the COVID-19 pandemic for their own ends, the international community must respond with stronger collective action and co-operation the UN’s top counter-terrorism official maintains.

Vladimir Voronkov UN Office on Counter-Terrorism head, , said the global coronavirus crisis underscored challenges in eliminating terrorism,  presenting the UN Security Council with the latest ISIL impact on international peace and security report.

“The pandemic environment raises strategic and practical challenges for counter-terrorism, discussed during virtual counter-terrorism week last month,” he told Council members in a video-teleconference briefing.

Since the start of the year, the threat has grown in conflict zones, as seen by regrouping and increased activity of ISIL and some affiliates in Iraq and Syria.

In non-conflict areas, the threat has decreased in the short term, with COVID-19 lockdowns and restrictions seemingly lowering the risk of attacks.

“Opportunistic propaganda efforts” by ISIL could fuel an ongoing trend of attacks by individuals and small groups, he said.

Unclear is how the pandemic is affecting ISIL recruitment and fundraising efforts, or whether there is a change in strategic direction under new leader, Amir Muhammad Sa’id Abdal-Rahman al-Mawla. His predecessor, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was killed in a US military operation in Syria in 2019.

Spotlighting regional developments, Voronkov said ISIL continues to consolidate its position in parts of the Middle East previously under its control, “operating increasingly confidently and openly”.

More than 10 000 ISIL fighters are estimated active in Iraq and Syria, moving freely in small cells between the two countries, he said, adding 2020 saw a “significant increase” in ISIL attacks in both countries compared to 2019.

The COVID-19 crisis further complicated an already dire and unsustainable situation of several thousand people – especially women and children – with suspected links to ISIL. Some countries are repatriating children, but there is limited progress in overcoming legal, political and practical hurdles to repatriation, he said.

Turning to Africa, he said Islamic State in West Africa Province and its 3 500 members as a “major focus of ISIL global propaganda” as it reinforces links with Islamic State in the Greater Sahara – “the most dangerous group in the tri-border area Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger”.

ISIL has only a few hundred fighters in Libya, it exploits tensions between ethnic groups and represents a threat capable of broader regional impact, he said, adding ISIL could expand activities if conflict in the North Africa nation escalates.

In Europe, the main threat comes from Internet-driven home-grown terrorist radicalisation, he said.  Acute concerns surround release of prisoners with terrorist backgrounds and connections, while the rise of right-wing violent extremism means intelligence services are shifting priorities from ISIL.

Looking towards Asia, he said the ISIL affiliate in Afghanistan, Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant-Khorasan, remains capable of high-profile attacks – despite territorial losses and the arrest of leaders – as it seeks to use the country to spread influence and to attract fighters opposing the peace agreement between the Taliban and the US.