Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Da’esh) may have lost its territorial foothold in Syria, but it remains a global threat through a network of affiliates stretching from West Africa to South-East Asia and residual wealth estimated at up to $300 million, senior counter-terrorism officials told the Security Council today.
Presenting the Secretary-General’s ninth report on the threat posed by ISIL to international peace and security, the Under-Secretary-General for the United Nations Office of Counter-Terrorism, said the current lull in ISIL-directed attacks may only be temporary. “We need to remain vigilant to mitigate the risk posed by the evolution of ISIL and its affiliates, deny it new recruits and prevent its resurgence,” he emphasized, calling upon Member States to take a comprehensive and long-term view underpinned by urgent political leadership and a principled approach based on international law.
ISIL continues to evolve into a covert network, with a growing number of attacks in Government-controlled parts of Syria reflecting a pattern seen in Iraq since 2017, he continued. In Africa, ISIL’s West Africa province is among its strongest affiliates, while in Europe, radicalization in prisons and the risk posed by returnees upon their release from detention are a major concern. In Asia, the threat posed by ISIL persists despite military pressure, he said, noting that the group has between 2,500 and 4,000 fighters, as well as women playing a role in the planning and executing attacks.
He went on to express acute concern about the estimated 24,000 to 30,000 foreign terrorist fighters — as well as their relatives and associates — believed to have survived out of the estimated 40,000 who joined the “caliphate”. While acknowledging that Member States face a significant challenge in repatriating ISIL fighters and relatives, he emphasized that they bear primary responsibility for their own nationals, while urging them to avoid measures leading to statelessness.
Also briefing Council members, the Executive Director of the Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate (CTED) discussed the repatriation of foreign terrorist fighters and their families, noting the significant remaining knowledge gaps relating to the number and profiles of women who travelled to and returned from ISIL-held territory.
She said the Directorate has identified the need for States to develop or expand existing national strategies and action plans to consider the risk and threat to so-called “soft” targets. Victims of terrorism are another critical issue, she said, underlining the need to listen to their voices and to bring perpetrators to justice. “Despite their military defeat, ISIL and its affiliates remain a significant threat,” she stressed. “We, therefore, must remain vigilant, innovative, adaptive and proactive in our response.”
In the ensuing debate, Council members acknowledged that ISIL remains a threat to peace and security around the world and underscored the urgent need for continued international cooperation – including through the United Nations – to counter the group, including by stemming its financial flows. They also acknowledged the challenges of repatriating, prosecuting and reintegrating foreign terrorist fighters and their families.
The Russian Federation’s representative, recalling Syria’s efforts to stamp out ISIL with help from his own country and other partners, said every effort must be made to stop the group from evolving into a more sophisticated terrorist organization. About 3,000 ISIL members still operate in Syria alongside other terrorist groups, he said, adding that some conceal themselves among displaced persons.
His counterpart from the United States noted the contribution made by the Global Coalition to Defeat Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), emphasizing that its work is far from complete and that its 81 members remain committed to carrying on the fight. He also urged Member States not to overlook the ongoing threat of Al-Qaida and to ensure the group does not consolidate power and threaten the United States or its allies and partners.
Equatorial Guinea’s representative pointed to the growing number of foreign terrorist fighters in Africa and its affiliates, such as Islamic State in the Sahara, which is flourishing alongside Al-Shabaab and Boko Haram. “The African continent is bleeding,” she said, noting that Da’esh-supported groups are placing an enormous burden on everyday life and forcing people to flee their homes.
Indonesia’s representative, noting that authorities in his country foiled a plot by an ISIL-related group in May, described as crucial international responses in such areas as cutting off terrorist financing, securing judicial cooperation, prosecution, rehabilitation and reintegration, as well as engaging communities. Alongside “hard” measures, Member States should also invest in “soft” approaches to counter terrorist narratives and steer people away from extremism, he added.
France’s representative said foreign terrorist fighters should be prosecuted in the country where the relevant crimes were committed. Priority must also be accorded to preventing use of the Internet for terrorist activities, she emphasized, noting that the Christchurch attack demonstrated that much remains to be done in that regard. France and New Zealand launched the Christchurch Call to Action, appealing for voluntary, collective partnerships between Governments and service providers, she added.
Also speaking were representatives of Germany, China, Dominican Republic, United Kingdom, South Africa, Peru, Kuwait, Belgium, Côte d’Ivoire and Poland.
The meeting began at 3:07 p.m. and ended at 4:57 p.m.
VLADIMIR VORONKOV, Under-Secretary-General for the United Nations Office of Counter-Terrorism, introduced the ninth report of the Secretary-General on the threat posed by Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Da’esh) to international peace and security and the range of United Nations efforts in support of Member States in countering the threat (document S/2019/612). He said the report outlines how ISIL, despite its territorial defeat in Syria last March, continues to aspire to global relevance, capitalizing on its affiliates and enjoying estimated residual wealth of up to $300 million at its disposal. The report also discusses acute concerns about foreign terrorist fighters, returnees and relocators, he said, noting that between 24,000 and 30,000 foreign terrorist fighters – of the estimated 40,000 who joined the “caliphate” – are believed to have survived. Reviewing the threat posed by ISIL at the global and regional level, he said that while the group’s military defeat in Syria was a watershed, the fall of Baghuz was not a fatal blow. ISIL continues to evolve into a covert network, with a growing number of attacks in Government-controlled parts of Syria, following a pattern seen since 2017 in Iraq, where ISIL targeted reconstruction and normalization efforts.
In Africa, ISIL’s West Africa province is among its strongest affiliates, with around 4,000 fighters, he continued, emphasizing also the need for vigilance in relation to the evolving threat posed by ISIL’s affiliate in Central Africa. In Europe, radicalization in prisons and the risk posed by returnees upon release from prison are major concerns that compound the risk of home-grown terrorism and of the latter inspiring further attacks. In Asia, the threat posed by ISIL persists despite military pressure, with the group estimated to have between 2,500 and 4,000 fighters, including foreign terrorist fighters, he said, calling attention to the role of women in planning and executing attacks in South-East Asia, as well as the targeting of places of worship, as seen in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday. He went on to note that, over the past six months, thousands of suspected ISIL fighters and their families have been detained in Iraq and Syria, with as many as 70,000 people held in Syria’s Al-Hawl camp alone. While Member States face significant challenges related to their repatriation, they also bear primary responsibility for their own nationals, he emphasized, urging avoidance of policies and actions that lead to statelessness.
He went on to state that the Office of Counter-Terrorism is developing, in partnership with other United Nations entities, a global programme to support Member States on the screening, prosecution, rehabilitation and reintegration of individuals suspected or convicted of committing terrorist acts, as well as their relatives and associates. A handbook on dealing with children affected by the foreign fighter phenomenon will be launched on 30 September, he said, going on to highlight several initiatives undertaken by his Office in such areas as law enforcement and border security, protection of vulnerable targets and countering terrorist financing. He went on to caution that the current lull in attacks directed by ISIL may only be temporary, as stated in the Secretary-General’s report. “We need to remain vigilant to mitigate the risk posed by the evolution of ISIL and its affiliates, deny it new recruits and prevent its resurgence,” he stressed, calling upon Member States to take a comprehensive, long-term view in that regard, underpinned by urgent political leadership and a principled approach based on international law.
MICHÈLE CONINSX, Executive Director, Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate (CTED), said that in parallel to repatriation efforts, States should deal with the post-repatriation phase, issues of accountability, and the challenges involved in rehabilitation and reintegration. Member States reiterated to the Directorate their concerns about the potential risks of immediately releasing imprisoned foreign terrorists fighters in the absence of appropriate rehabilitation and reintegration programmes, she recalled, emphasizing the essential importance of short-, medium- and long-term post-repatriation strategies. It is also essential that such strategies be human rights-compliant, gender-sensitive and take the special needs of children into account, she said.
CTED continues to be fully engaged in helping States address these challenges, she continued, citing its work in the Lake Chad Basin, where the United Nations system is helping States develop regional approaches. However, significant knowledge gaps remain regarding the number and profiles of women travelling to and returning from ISIL-held territory. Recalling that the Directorate published a trend report on this matter in February, she reported that terrorists also continue to exploit the Internet, social media and messaging apps. To address these challenges, CTED and its partners have developed the Practical Guide for Requesting Electronic Evidence Across Borders, she said.
Noting the interest of terrorists in carrying out attacks against “soft” targets, including places of worship, she said CTED identified the need for States to develop or expand existing national strategies and action plans to consider the risk and threat to such targets. Government and private-sector partnerships are essential in protecting “soft” targets, she emphasized. Another critical issue is victims of terrorism, she said, stressing the need to hear the voices of victims and to bring the perpetrators of terrorist acts to justice. Reiterating that ISIL maintains significant residual wealth, estimated to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars, she said the Security Council has undertaken numerous activities aimed at countering the financing of terrorism. “Despite their military defeat, ISIL and its affiliates remain a significant threat,” she stressed. “We, therefore, must remain vigilant, innovative, adaptive and proactive in our response.”
GENNADY V. KUZMIN (Russian Federation), recalling Syria’s efforts to stamp out ISIL with help from partners, including his own country, said the terrorist group is spreading its activities across the world. Every effort must be made to halt that trend and prevent attempts to reformat ISIL into a more sophisticated terrorist organization, he emphasized. Providing a snapshot of the threat’s reach, he said about 3,000 ISIL members still operate in Syria alongside other terrorist groups, some hiding, concealing themselves among displaced persons. In Iraq, jihadists have transformed themselves to support subversive acts, fuelling tensions between Shia and Sunni Muslims, he added. While terrorists have capitalized on Libya’s collapse, flourishing in the oil crescent, they are also forging ties with criminal groups in Egypt and other countries, with various splinter groups vocally supporting ISIL, from Islamic State in Western Africa and Islamic State in the Sahara to similar terrorist organizations in Afghanistan and Uzbekistan. Ending the financial flows supporting such activities is among the greatest challenges, he said, stressing that in order to counter the threat of ISIL spreading, the international community must operate in a cohesive manner to eliminate its training ground in the Middle East.
JUERGEN SCHULZ (Germany) emphasized importance of including measures to counter the financing of terrorism in national responses. Germany currently holds the vice-presidency of the Financial Action Task Force and is committed to supporting its work in setting the international standard, he said, while stressing that it is essential to ensure that human rights, international humanitarian law and the rule of law are always adequately considered in the fight against terrorism. Trust in State institutions must also be strengthened, he said, noting that disrespect for them could lead marginalized people to violent extremism and into the hands of terrorist networks. Pointing out that women often find themselves in horrific situations during violent conflict, he underlined the importance of including a gender perspective in the Security Council’s work.
WU HAITAO (China) emphasized the need for results-based cooperation, as well as the central role that the United Nations and the Security Council must play in coordinating counter-terrorism measures. He called for a holistic approach that addresses and eliminates the root causes of terrorism, with more assistance also being extended to developing countries for counter-terrorism efforts. He emphasized the importance of tailored international judicial cooperation focused on the movement of foreign terrorist fighters, terrorist financing, collusion between international terrorist groups and organized crime, and misuse of the Internet by terrorists. The strength and expertise of relevant United Nations mechanisms should be fully leveraged, he added.
JONATHAN R. COHEN (United States) called attention to efforts by the 81-nation Global Coalition to Defeat Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) on the ground and in such areas as counter-financing, counter-messaging, repatriation of foreign terrorist fighters and stabilization of liberated areas. That work is far from complete and the Coalition remains committed to carrying on the fight, he said. Expressing concern about the concentration of ISIL fighters in civilian camps, he encouraged Member States to repatriate and prosecute their citizens as appropriate. ISIL affiliates threaten other part of the world beyond Iraq and Syria, from West Africa to South-East Asia, he said. Describing the designation of ISIL affiliates and the adoption of resolution 2462 (2019) as significant developments, he stressed that Member States must act on those measures to make them meaningful. He also urged them not to overlook the ongoing threat of Al-Qaida and to ensure that the group does not consolidate power and threaten the United States or its allies and partners.
JOSÉ SINGER WEISINGER (Dominican Republic) acknowledged the collective pain of victims and survivors of heinous attacks around the world, including New Zealand and Sri Lanka. Agreeing that there is urgent need for greater resources to address terrorism, he pointed out that the population of Syria’s Al-Hawl camp has grown seven-fold. He went on to welcome efforts by the United Nations to develop principles for dealing with women and children linked to terrorist groups, while noting that the perverse relationship between terrorism and transnational organized crime further tests the response capacity of Member States.
AMPARO MELE COLIFA (Equatorial Guinea) said the increasing number of foreign terrorist fighters in Africa and the flourishing of such affiliates as Islamic State in the Sahara alongside Al-Shabaab and Boko Haram are among the most preoccupying concerns. “The African continent is bleeding,” she said, citing the Da’esh-supported groups branching out into countries from Burkina Faso to Nigeria. They are placing an enormous burden on daily lives and economies, forcing people to flee and damaging critical infrastructure, she added. While Council resolutions 2462 (2019) and 2482 (2019) galvanize the fight to root out the financial operations of Da’esh and other terrorism groups, other areas also need urgent attention, she emphasized, citing the need to prevent the use of new technologies to recruit and radicalize young people, prisoners and others. She went on to acknowledge the role of the United Nations in coordinating broad international efforts, including through mechanisms that promote accountability for crimes committed by Da’esh.
JONATHAN GUY ALLEN (United Kingdom), expressing concern about conditions in the camps in north-eastern Syria, welcomed the increased attention from the United Nations and its efforts to prevent the spread of extremism in those locations. Expressing support for the work of the United Nations Investigative Team to Promote Accountability for Crimes Committed by Da’esh/Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (UNITAD), he said the breadth and wealth of Da’esh is alarming, adding that a collective approach is required to tackle the threat. Equally concerned about terrorist recruitment in prisons, he encouraged the United Nations and Member States to address the trend, adding that his delegation is encouraged by efforts centred on rehabilitation and reintegration. Expressing support for the Christchurch Call to Action, he said he anticipates working with partner States and the private sector to combat the spread of terrorism online.
MARTHINUS VAN SHALKWYK (South Africa) said his delegation is particularly concerned about the spread of terrorism in Africa, with Libya in the north becoming fertile ground for ISIL supporters, and the 4,000 fighters of Islamic State West Africa Province making it among the strongest regional affiliates. Indeed, reports indicate that ISIL is trying to establish itself in Central Africa and in the southern region, he noted. South Africa is committed to international cooperation in fighting terrorism because no country can shoulder the burden alone, he said, emphasizing that the United Nations must play its crucial role in coordinating and facilitating global efforts. Commending the Organization’s efforts to date, he called for a holistic approach, from treating terrorism as a security threat to tackling its root causes when shaping counter-measures aligned with international law. States must refrain from taking unilateral coercive counter-terrorism measures, which often result in unintended casualties and feed a vicious cycle of resentment and hatred that ultimately perpetuates further violent extremism and terrorism, he stressed.
DIAN TRIANSYAH DJANI (Indonesia) said ISIL/Da’esh remains a serious threat, including in his country where authorities successfully foiled a plot by a related terror group in May. Indeed, ISIL’s evolution from a territorial entity to a covert network — along with the activities of its regional affiliates, among other threats — are huge challenges around the world. Underlining the importance of international cooperation, he described as crucial the international community’s responses in such areas as cutting off terrorist financing, securing judicial cooperation, prosecution, rehabilitation and reintegration, and engaging communities. For sustainable, long-term success in the fight against terrorism, it is crucial to adopt a holistic approach. In that context, he said that, alongside “hard measures”, Member States should also invest in soft approaches to counter terrorist narratives and steer people away from extremism.
LUIS UGARELLI (Peru) said the fight against Da’esh represents a huge challenge for all States. It is, therefore, essential for the international community to coordinate its efforts while also supporting those of the United Nations and other international and regional organizations. Fighting and preventing terrorism requires a holistic approach that recognizes that peace, security, development and human rights are mutually reinforcing. Noting that Da’esh has gone underground and transformed itself into “a kind of franchise”, he stressed the need to combat, in line with international law, the misuse of information and communications technology, as well as the abuse of non-profit organizations, to raise funds and recruit followers. He went on to underscore the importance of tackling money-laundering, given that Da’esh maintains significant financial resources.
MANSOUR AYYAD SH. A. ALOTAIBI (Kuwait) said Da’esh continues to work covertly in Iraq, Syria and other parts of the world, with the Secretary-General’s report noting the group’s continued ability to fund subversive acts in ways that are difficult for the authorities to detect. Emphasizing that the war against Da’esh has resulted in many humanitarian challenges, he noted that Kuwait has established a centre that provides guidance to persons affected by abhorrent ideologies. He underscored the importance of international cooperation, including the exchange of information and efforts to counter incitement. Kuwait condemns terrorism as criminal acts that have no association to any religion, civilization or ethnicity, he said.
CHLOÉ BONIFACE (France) underlined the importance of the coalition to adopt inclusive solutions in Iraq and Syria with a view to preventing the re-emergence of Da’esh through such actions as ending impunity. In this regard, the newly agreed Paris road map aims at guiding the coalition over the coming months. Highlighting three priority areas, she first encouraged all States to fully implement resolution 2462 (2019) on preventing and combating the financing of terrorism and meet their obligations. The second priority concerns the treatment of foreign terrorist fighters, requiring the international coordination of information-sharing among civil, military and financial institutions. Foreign terrorist fighters should be prosecuted where the relevant crimes were committed, she said. The final priority must aim at preventing the Internet from being used for terrorist activities, she said, noting that the Christchurch attack demonstrated that much remains to be done in this regard. As a result, France and New Zealand launched the Christchurch Call to Action, appealing for voluntary, collective partnerships between Governments and service providers.
MARC PECSTEEN DE BUYTSWERVE (Belgium) said his delegation remains concerned about the spread of Da’esh and the conditions in camps and detention centres in Iraq and Syria, particularly regarding the situation of radicalized women and children. The threat is far from having disappeared, including in Europe, he said, adding that the most dangerous individuals are those who have been prevented by authorities from joining Da’esh and yet still want to contribute to the terrorist group through an individual act. Part of the problem is a lack of knowledge about this phenomenon and of monitoring prisoners. For its own penal system, Belgium adopted an approach based on individual evaluation and management of risks, with partner institutions — from the police to psychosocial service providers — sharing information in following up on released prisoners to ensure their rehabilitation. However, States must do their utmost to fully implement all relevant Council resolutions. In addition, efforts must be made to ensure humanitarian workers have access to do their work in situations affected by terrorism. He also underlined the importance of paying attention to the polarization of society stemming from Da’esh supporters, emphasizing the importance of taking a multilateral approach to combating terrorism.
ANTONIN BENJAMIN BIEKE (Côte d’Ivoire) said Da’esh constitutes one of the greatest concerns to the Council. Even though it is defeated, the terrorist group continues to do harm, posing an ongoing threat actively across the world and demonstrating its resilience through new technology. The Secretary-General’s report shows there is a need to tailor a multilateral approach that requires cooperation among all stakeholders. As such, the United Nations and the Council must stand at the forefront of these endeavours. Commending resolutions 2462 (2019) and 2482 (2019) and the work of the Counter-Terrorism Committee, he said efforts must address pressing issues such as the repatriation of children of foreign fighters, which the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) estimated to be about 29,000 in Syria. To combat the future spread of terrorism, States must urgently respond to the needs of young people, particularly in West Africa, he said, noting that regional trends are seeing recruiters that continue to antagonize communities. Indeed, eradicating terrorism requires holistic solutions, he said, expressing support for a recent France-Germany proposal, made on the margins of the Group of Seven meeting, to boost support for the Group of Five for the Sahel. These and other efforts must be collective and cooperative if the world is to put an end to the spread of terrorism.
MARIUSZ LEWICKI (Poland), Security Council President for the month and speaking in his national capacity, underlined the need to remain vigilant given expectations that ISIL/Da’esh will revive its operational capacity as soon as circumstances allow. Voicing deep concern about the threat posed by foreign terrorist fighters, returnees and relocators, he warned that overcrowded camps for internally displaced persons — where families with links to designated terrorist groups are stranded — may present easy recruitment targets for terrorists if not properly addressed. Underlining the challenges facing countries in the areas of justice and correction systems, he said radicalization in prisons remains an important issue in Europe with thousands of foreign terrorist fighters returning from conflict zones. “Without additional resources […] prisons will become a place where radical ideologies can thrive,” he said, also encouraging Member States to allow experts from sanctions committee monitoring teams to conduct their work related to sexual violence perpetrated by terrorists.