Da’esh and affiliates still a threat in conflict zones, UN counter-terrorism officials report

25 August 2023 – Despite successful international counter-terrorism initiatives, the extremist group Da’esh and its affiliates continue to pose a serious threat in conflict zones and neighbouring countries, the UN Security Council heard on Friday.

Ambassadors were briefed by two senior UN counter-terrorism officials who presented the Secretary-General’s latest report on the group, also known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), which showed that the threat in non-conflict areas remains low.

“This analytical distinction can obscure what is the complex, context- specific and dynamic nature of how these groups operate and evolve and their impact on international peace and security,” said Vladimir Voronkov, head of the UN Counter-Terrorism Office (UNOCT).

He stressed that countering and preventing terrorism require long-term commitment as well as continued and coordinated efforts.

Expansion and attacks in Africa

Mr. Voronkov said the continued expansion of Da’esh and affiliates in parts of Africa, as well as the increasing level of violence and threat, remain deeply concerning.

The Da’esh affiliate in the Sahel region “is becoming increasingly autonomous” and stepping up attacks in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger.

“The confrontations between this group and an Al-Qaida affiliate in the region, coupled with the uncertain situation after thecoup d’état in Niger, present a complex and multi-faceted challenge,” he added.

Conflict and instability in Sudan have also renewed attention on the presence and activity of Da’esh and other terrorist groups there.

Attacks have also increased in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), where some 500 people have been killed in terrorist violence in the volatile eastern region of the country.

Challenges in Afghanistan

Meanwhile, the situation in Afghanistan is growing increasingly complex, as fears of weapons and ammunition falling in the hands of terrorists are now materializing.

“Thein-country operational capabilities of Da’esh’s so-called Khorasan province, sanctioned as ISIL-K, has reportedly increased, with the group becoming more sophisticated in its attacks against the Taliban and international targets,” he said.

“Moreover, the presence and activity of some 20 different terrorist groups in the country, combined with the repressive measures put in place by the Taliban de facto authorities, the absence of sustainable development and a dire humanitarian situation, pose significant challenges for the region and beyond.”

Counter-terrorism successes

Mr. Voronkov also pointed to successful counter-terrorism initiatives by the international community, such as progress in targeting Da’esh finances.

Cash reserves estimated at $25 million to $50 million “are now significantly less and diminishing”, according to the UN report, which also noted” sustained attrition” to the group’s leadership, including the killing of its chief earlier this year in Syria.

“As a result of counter-terrorism efforts, Da’esh has moved to adopt less hierarchical and more networked, decentralised structures, following Al-Qaida’s footsteps, with increased operational autonomy by its affiliated groups,” said Mr. Voronkov.

Upcoming summit in Nigeria

He underscored that international law “remains the bedrock” for successful counter-terrorism efforts.

Initiatives must be “firmly grounded in political strategies for resolving the conflicts that fuel terrorism the most”, he said, while “more complementarity” between security responses and preventive measures is also needed.

He also looked to a counter-terrorism summit in Nigeria next year, organized by his office and the Government, as an opportunity to both increase international support and address the situation on the continent.

Repatriations from Syria camps

Natalia Gherman, Executive Director of Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate (CTED), the secretariat for the Council’s own Counter-Terrorism Committee (CTC), addressed four key trends in the report.

Among them were continued efforts by Governments to repatriate their nationals from camps in northeast Syria hosting thousands of people, mainly women and children, with alleged ties to terrorist groups.

“At the same time, we must also recall the responsibility of Member States to bring terrorists to justice, and to demonstrate international cooperation in efforts to do so,” she said.

As the Da’esh presence in parts of Africa continues to evolve, Ms. Gherman highlighted the need for the UN to support countries on the continent.

Accountability and justice

Her final point noted that the UN has stepped up efforts to hold Da’esh accountable for its crimes.

For example, CTED partnered with UN experts on the rule of law to explore criminal justice avenues for sexual and gender-based violence committed by terrorist groups.

“Drawing from practitioners’ experiences in the field and the perspectives of civil society, it was clear that only through accountability and justice can we begin to address the fear and devastation that terrorism inflicts on individuals, communities, and nations,” she said.

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John Pike