The UN Counter Terrorism Committee submitted its latest report to the members of the UN Security Council last Tuesday (26 July). The 15th UN secretary-general’s report on the threat of the Islamic State (IS) was then distributed widely to the many other committees and agencies concerned with the terrorist threat.
The report’s overall assessment was that the terrorist threat, in particular the threat posed by IS, “remains high in conflict zones and, by extension, neighbouring member states.” An array of data and analyses corroborate this assessment.
The report focuses mainly on transnational terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda and IS and cautions that while their threat is concentrated in conflict areas, these have generated conditions conducive to the potential for the threat to spill over into non-conflict areas as well. It therefore urges action to resolve such conflicts.
It notes that the two named organisations are still active in the areas of greatest interest to them, which are those offering environments conducive to their bases and activities, but that a range of complex political problems have also induced them to create spaces for expansion elsewhere. These areas in order of priority are Africa, Central and South Asia, and the Levant, which includes Syria and Iraq.
Foreign terrorist fighters are a special source of concern for the authors of the report both because of the major threat they pose and because of the precarious situation of their wives and children. An estimated 120,000 fighters and their families are being held in 11 camps and 20 facilities in north-eastern Syria, the report says.
It adds that a Member State has reported that approximately 10,000 foreign terrorist fighters remain in the custody of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the predominantly Syrian Kurdish forces in north-eastern Syria.
Of particular concern to the authors are the reported 30,000 children under the age of 12 at risk of IS indoctrination. IS continues to operate its “Cubs of the Caliphate” programme that aims to produce a new generation of extremists. It introduced the programme during its control of the swathe of territory spanning Syria and Iraq on which it founded its so-called “caliphate” in 2014-2017.
The report openly acknowledges, perhaps for the first time, that IS, despite its defeat by the US-led Coalition in 2018, still maintains two distinct organisational structures, one for Iraq and one for Syria. It also has “vigorous and well-established” regional networks with hubs in Afghanistan (covering South Asia) and Somalia (covering the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Mozambique). The one that has experienced the largest expansion in the past two years (2020-2022) is based in the Lake Chad Basin (which covers Nigeria and the Western Sahel region).
A major section of the report discusses terrorist-related developments during the first six months of 2022. The first was the Hasaka Prison break in January. The IS attack against this prison complex in north-eastern Syria freed a large number of inmates and led to severe losses in the ranks of the SDF that were guarding it.
In February, a US-led military operation near the Syrian border with Turkey killed IS leader Amir Mohamed Said Abdel-Rahman Al-Salbi. In March, IS acknowledged this and proclaimed Abu Al-Hassan Al-Hashemi Al-Qurashi as his successor. The actual identity of this individual has yet to be confirmed, although it has been discussed widely among Member States, according to the report.
As concerns Al-Qaeda, the report notes that periodic video releases appear to confirm “with near certainty” that Ayman Al-Zawahiri, the group’s leader, is still alive. It also cites UN Member States that contributed to this analysis as observing that Al-Zawahiri’s increased comfort and ability to communicate coincided with the Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan in August 2021.
It suggests that Al-Qaeda’s main allies in Afghanistan have re-established themselves in the current administration in Kabul. This coincides with new and more sophisticated Al-Qaeda propaganda indicating that the group is re-emerging as the main rival to IS in the arena of intra-terrorist competition.
It has even been suggested that Al-Qaeda could become a greater source of targeted threats and that the international context may be more favourable than ever to Al-Qaeda and its bid to re-don the mantel of the leader of global Islamist jihad.
Given that funding is crucial to these organisations’ operations, it is little wonder that the report dedicates a special section to this. Drawing on information from sources in various countries, it says that the IS leadership controls some $25 million in reserves, with most of these funds remaining in Iraq.
IS expenditures, most of which are payments to fighters and their families, exceed income. Nevertheless, the group’s sources of revenue, which include extortion, kidnapping for ransom, zakat (a form of donation), direct donations, and income from trading and investments, have helped it “establish a financial system that allows the group to adapt and sustain itself in varied conditions.”
The Member States that contributed to the report add that the IS leadership’s “ability to direct and maintain control over the flow of funds to global affiliates remained resilient.” One drew attention to the “emerging importance of individuals in South Africa in facilitating the transfer of funds from IS leadership to affiliates in Africa.”
The UN Counter Terrorism Committee has obtained information that has enabled it to trace sizeable financial transactions made by IS and Al-Qaeda using cryptocurrencies. According to one of its reports, IS has started giving courses on how to set up digital currency wallets to make and receive payments using digital currencies. The organisation has been using this method to solicit donations and fund activities.
According to the latest set of evidence, transactions totalling over $700,000, mostly in privacy secured digital currencies, have been made in order to finance IS operations in Afghanistan. The evidence also suggests that the organisation is becoming increasingly adept in using lesser-known digital currencies.
The reports by the UN Counter Terrorism Committee are highly revealing and merit closer study. The abundance of information made available through this transparent and systematic reporting system reminds us that the terrorist peril still looms, as much as some would like to ignore it.
* The writer is the general director of the Egyptian Centre for Strategic Studies (ECSS).
*A version of this article appears in print in the 4 August, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.