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ISIS's capabilities today: a United Nations overview

This article summarizes the Seventh “Report of the Secretary-General on the threat posed by ISIL (Da’esh) to international peace and security and the range of United Nations efforts in support of Member States in countering the threat” as well as the Statement by Mr. Vladimir Voronkov, Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations Office of Counter-Terrorism, 2018.

Jeremy Hunt, Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs of the United Kingdom and President of the Security Council for the month of August, chairs the Security Council meeting on threats to international peace and security caused by terrorist acts.
Security Council Meets on Threats to Peace and Security Caused by Terrorist Acts, August 2018

ISIL continues to present a serious challenge, especially due to its transformation into a covert network, the activities of its regional affiliates, and the complex threat posed by returning and relocating foreign terrorist fighters (FTFs) and their families.

On their side, Member States and the United Nations continue to strengthen, refine and promote the use of tools and measures to address the evolving transnational threat posed by ISIL.

This Seventh report notes that while the so-called ISIL “caliphate” has suffered significant losses, it remains a serious and significant concern. Since the end of 2017, ISIL has been defeated in Iraq and is in headlong retreat in the Syrian Arab Republic.

Overall current ISIL membership in Iraq and the Syrian Arab Republic is estimated at more than 20,000, split fairly evenly between the two countries. Some ISIL fighters are fully engaged militarily, others concealed in sympathetic communities and urban areas. ISIL has also decentralized its leadership structure to mitigate further losses.

Therefore, an ISIL core is likely to survive in Iraq and the Syrian Arab Republic in the medium term, due to the ongoing conflict and complex stabilization challenges. In addition, significant ISIL-affiliated numbers also exist in Afghanistan, South-East Asia, West Africa and Libya, and to a lesser extent in Sinai, Yemen, Somalia and the Sahel.

The challenge posed by returning and relocating foreign terrorist fighters (FTFs) remains complex. The flow of FTFs towards ISIL in Iraq and the Syrian Arab Republic has essentially come to a halt.

However, the reverse flow, although slower than anticipated, remains a serious challenge. Moreover, the rising threat from ISIL’s global network, particularly from FTFs, will be diverse and hard to predict. One of the dangers posed by returning FTFs is expertise gained in the conflict zones such as skills to prepare improvised explosive devices and weaponize drones.

Another important aspect is that ISIL’s evolution from a proto-state structure into a covert network brings new challenges. For instance, ISIL’s finances in the Middle East are harder to detect and analyze now that its administrative functions to manage finances have gone underground. After its structural changes, ISIL is still able to channel funds across borders often via intermediate countries, to their final destination.

Moreover, in examining ISIL’s activities in different parts of the world – from the Middle East, Africa, particularly North, West and East Africa, to Europe, Central, South and Southeast

Asia, the UN Seventh report shows ISIL’s continuing presence and influence, particularly through its affiliates and intermediaries.

The group has also continued attempts to expand its presence in Afghanistan and the terrorist threat projecting from Afghanistan into Central Asia is perceived to be growing.

In Indonesia, Jamaah Ansharut Daulah, an ISIL-linked local network of cells launched a series of deadly suicide bombings in May 2018, in a disturbing precedent of using families to launch attacks. In Europe, there are concerns over the high volume of commercially encrypted messages as well as radicalization in prisons.

UN Member States and the international community must renew their efforts to effectively counter the rapidly evolving and transnational threat from ISIL.

The role of the Security Council has been instrumental in this regard, especially through the various resolutions it has adopted over the last few years on the different aspects of countering terrorism, as well as on the threat posed by ISIL. The ISIL and Al-Qaida Sanctions List also remains one of the key global instruments in this effort.

It has been a close partnership between UNOCT and CTED, and in collaboration with other entities such as UNODC, UNESCO, OHCHR and UN Women.

The UN system is striving to address critical aspects such as countering the financing of terrorism, organized crime, border management and law enforcement, international judicial cooperation, prosecution, rehabilitation and reintegration, and countering terrorist narratives and engaging communities.

In particular, United Nations counter-terrorism bodies have continued to focus on the FTF

phenomenon. The United Nations Foreign Terrorist Fighters Capacity Building Implementation Plan steered by UN Office of Counter-Terrorism and CTED has been updated and streamlined to reflect the priorities identified in Security Council resolution 2396. It now consists of 40 projects, to be implemented by 12 UN entities. Over 20 of the 40 projects focus specifically on returning and relocating FTFs.

To counter the threat posed by ISIL and terrorism more broadly, international cooperation, information sharing and capacity-building are critical. Moreover, the growing sophistication of methods used by terrorists, require countermeasures, particularly technological ones, that are similarly complex and advanced.


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