UN experts: Terrorist threat remains high in conflict areas

U.N. experts said Tuesday the threat from Islamic State extremists and al-Qaida remains high in Syria and Iraq.

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U.N. experts said Tuesday the threat from Islamic State extremists and al-Qaida remains high in conflict areas and neighboring countries and warned that those conflicts will “incubate” the capability for a terrorist operation elsewhere in the world unless they are successfully resolved.

In a wide-ranging report to the U.N. Security Council, the experts said both the Islamic State and al-Qaida operate in the areas of greatest concern — Africa, central and south Asia, and the “Levant” which includes Syria and Iraq.

The experts said foreigners who fought with the Islamic State group are “another major potential threat multiplier” along with their dependents and quoted one unnamed country reporting that an estimated 120,000 remain in 11 camps and some 20 prison facilities in northeast Syria.

Another country reported that approximately 10,000 “foreign terrorist fighters” remain in custody of the U.S.-backed and Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, they said.

The panel of experts monitoring sanctions against al-Qaida and the Islamic State, also known as IS and ISIL, said that among those being held are 30,000 children under the age of 12, “who are at risk of radicalization by extreme ISIL ideology.

It quoted another unnamed country as saying ISIL is seeking to create a new generation of extremists and is continuing its “cubs of the caliphate” approach adopted when its so-called caliphate ruled a significant swathe of Syria and Iraq from 2014-2017.

ISIL was defeated by Iraqi forces and a U.S.-led coalition in 2017 but the experts said it still maintains two distinct organizational structures for Iraq and Syria and has “vigorous” and well-established regional networks in Afghanistan covering south Asia, in Somalia covering Mozambique and Congo, and in the Lake Chad Basin which also covers Nigeria and the the western Sahel.

What is notable, the experts said, is that “two of the three most dynamic ISIL networks are in Africa, which is also the location of some of al-Qaida’s most dangerous affiliates.”

The panel said “the most dynamic developments” during the first six months of 2022 covered by the report were the major jailbreak mounted by ISIL in )the northeastern Syrian city of Hassakeh in January, “releasing a large number of prisoners while sustaining heavy casualties” and the Feb. 3 killing of the Islamic State leader known as Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi in a U.S.-led counterterrorism raid near the Turkish border in northwest Syria, the experts said.

On March 10, ISIL acknowledged his death and announced his successor as Abu al-Hassan al-Hashemi al-Qurashi, but the panel said his real identity has not yet been established though it has been widely discussed by many countries, with Iraqi Bashar Khattab Ghazal al-Sumaida’i “cited as the most likely candidate.”

By contrast, the experts said, al-Qaida’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahri, has issued regular video messages “that provided almost current proof of life.”

They quoted unnamed countries saying al-Zawahri’s “apparent increased comfort and ability to communicate has coincided with the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan (in August 2021) and the consolidation of power of key al-Qaida allies within their de facto administration.”

Surveying the global situation, the panel said, “the international context is favorable to al-Qaida, which intends to be recognized again as the leader of global jihad.”

“Al-Qaida propaganda is now better developed to compete with ISIL as the key actor in inspiring the international threat environment, and it may ultimately become a greater source of directed threat,” the experts said.

According to one unidentified country, the al-Qaida committee that coordinates global leadership has demoted al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula below its African affiliates.

The panel quoted many countries reporting that the ISIL leadership controls approximately $25 million in reserves, with much of the cash remaining in Iraq. It said expenditures mainly to fighters and their family members exceed current revenues but additional sources of revenue including extortion, kidnapping for ransom, direct donations and income from trading and investments have helped ISIL “adapt and sustain itself.”

The experts said member states report that ISIL leaders’ ability to direct and maintain funding to global affiliates “remains resilient.”

One country highlighted “the emerging importance of South Africa in facilitating transfers of funds from ISIL leadership to affiliates in Africa,” the panel said, adding that it is “aware of several large transactions totaling more than $1 million.”

The experts said they continue to receive reports of ISIL and al-Qaida “making use of cryptocurrencies to solicit donations and support activities.”

One unidentified country said ISIL “was providing tutorials on how to open digital asset wallets and make transactions using cryptocurrencies” while another another country raised concerns about “transactions totaling more than $700,000 involving privacy-enhancing cryptocurrencies” to fund ISIL operations in Afghanistan, which indicates its increasing sophistication in the use of lesser-known cryptocurrencies, the panel said.