There has been a significant rise in ISIS attacks in Iraq and Syria, with the group exploiting security gaps in Iraq caused by the coronavirus pandemic to relaunch and invigorate its rural insurgency in the country, according to a report submitted to the UN Security Council that was made public on Thursday.
The wide-ranging report, put together by the UN monitoring team that tracks the global jihadi terror threat, states that the group is consolidating in Iraq and Syria and “showing confidence in its ability to increasingly operate in a brazen manner in its former core area.”It states that the number of ISIS attacks in Iraq and Syria “increased significantly in early 2020 as compared with the same period in 2019.
“Referring to the situation in Iraq, the UN monitoring team stated that ISIS has “exploited security gaps caused by the pandemic and by political turbulence in Iraq to relaunch a sustained rural insurgency, as well as sporadic operations in Baghdad and other large cities.”
In recent weeks in particular, Iraq has seen a huge surge in Covid-19 cases, with the number of cumulative cases surpassing 100,000 on Thursday compared with fewer than 7,000 confirmed on June 1.
Syria has far fewer confirmed cases, but leaders of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces say ISIS has exploited the fact that the pandemic has limited the SDF’s mobility in the region.
Gen. Mazloum Abdi, the top commander of the SDF, told CTC Sentinel, the monthly publication of the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, in June that a major Covid-19 outbreak would limit his forces’ ability to counter the Islamic State “because we will be busy managing the situation in detention facilities” where the group currently houses thousands of former ISIS members.
The newly released UN report, which is based on information from member states, estimates that there are currently more than 10,000 ISIS fighters in Iraq and Syria.
One reason for ISIS’s resilience in those countries is money. According to the new UN report, member states assess ISIS still has approximately $100 million in reserves. It states the group’s assets are “believed to take the form of cash, buried or stored in caches across the conflict zone or kept with financial facilitators in neighbouring countries. Some of the funds have been invested in legitimate businesses in Iraq, the Syrian Arab Republic and neighbouring countries.”
Report challenges Trump’s narrative
The new United Nations findings challenge the narrative of President Donald Trump, who earlier this year claimed to have destroyed “100% of ISIS and its territorial caliphate.
“The UN monitors also presented a more pessimistic assessment than that recently presented by the Trump administration. In June, Ambassador James Jeffrey, the special envoy to the global coalition to defeat ISIS, stated that although ISIS remained “a resilient and significant threat” in Iraq and Syria, there had been a small reduction in the overall number of ISIS attacks and a lessening in their complexity, “so we think the situation is not getting worse, it’s getting better.
“The UN report does not paint a uniformly negative picture of the evolving ISIS threat in Iraq and Syria. It noted that several significant ISIS leaders had been removed since Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was killed last October and that “as some financial facilitators are captured or killed in counter-terrorism operations, knowledge of the whereabouts of hidden funds may also be lost.
“The new UN report also notes that ISIS’s new leader Amir Muhammad Sa’id Abdal-Rahman al-Mawla “has not visibly asserted himself in communications, which may prove to be a limiting factor in his influence and appeal, and perhaps that of the group.
“In June the US government doubled the reward for information about al-Mawla to $10 million.
When it came to the big picture the new UN report noted that although ISIS “maintains the ambition to control territory and populations … for the moment, [it] represents an entrenched rural insurgency without the reach to threaten urban areas on a sustained basis.”
Covid-19 and the global terror threat
The UN report finds that outside of Syria, Iraq and other conflict zones, the short-term terror threat has fallen as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, noting that “restrictions on international travel significantly constrain terrorist mobility, networking and finance-related activity” and that targets have become more elusive because of the discouragement of public gatheringsHowever, it warns that ISIS has “had a captive audience during the lockdown and, if it has successfully used this for planning and recruitment purposes, it is possible that the easing of restrictions in non-conflict zones will see a spike in attacks once targets become available again.
Another motivation is fear of irrelevance: COVID-19 largely eclipsed terrorism from the news.”The report warns that should the pandemic lead to a severe global recession that could create conditions where terrorist and extremist narratives gain increased currency.The report also noted that there have been no indications that ISIS “is systematically attempting to weaponize the virus.”
Concern over al Qaeda
The report warns that the security situation in West Africa and the Sahel is a particular cause for concern, stating that ISIS and al Qaeda franchises there “continued to enjoy operational success in early 2020,” which led to heightened concerns about stability in the region.It also states that al Qaeda remains active in Afghanistan nearly 19 years after 9/11 and notes that its leadership continues to maintain a close relationship with the Haqqani network, a powerful subgroup within the Afghan Taliban.
A Pentagon report published earlier this month reached a similar conclusion.The persisting close relations between al Qaeda and the Taliban are widely seen as one of the main stumbling blocks to future progress in the peace process in Afghanistan in the wake of the agreement signed between the US and the Taliban earlier this year.
Though there has been speculation that al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri may, like Osama bin Laden, have hidden in Pakistan, the UN report states that according to member states, al-Zawahiri is currently based in Afghanistan. The report finds that should al-Zawahiri’s “poor health … force a leadership succession, it will be challenging for Al-Qaida in the context of a peace process” in Afghanistan.
The report also found that al Qaeda has “ingrained itself in local communities and conflicts” around the world, with its recent “favored” affiliate in Syria, Hurras al-Din, “committed to preparing for external attacks despite its current focus on targeting Syrian forces” and its Yemeni affiliate, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, still “determined to mount external operations.
“According to the US government, AQAP had “significant ties” to Saudi air force officer Mohammed Alshamrani, who carried out a terrorist attack that killed three at Naval Air Station Pensacola in Florida in December 2019.
The report states that “during his time at Pensacola and up to the day of the attack, Alshamrani was in direct contact with Abdullah al-Maliki, an AQAP media and Internet recruitment operative who was killed in Yemen on May 13. The Pensacola attack is believed to have been planned prior to Alshamrani’s arrival in the United States.
“In a May news conference, Attorney General William Barr and FBI Director Christopher Wray revealed that al-Maliki had been targeted in a counterterrorism operation but did not spell out whether he had been killed.