The United Nations says the so-called Islamic State terror group has not been able to withstand sustained military pressure in several conflict zones at once and is on the defensive.
In its biannual report on the state of IS and al-Qaida, the U.N. says recruitment of foreign terrorist fighters to IS in Iraq and Syria “has slowed considerably” and fighters are increasingly leaving the battlefield. Islamic State’s finances are also on the decline, forcing it to operate on a “crisis” budget, and the territory it holds has shrunk significantly.
“ISIL is adapting in several ways to military pressure,” U.N. political chief Jeffrey Feltman told the Security Council in a briefing Tuesday, using one of the acronyms by which the terrorists are known. He said the group is “resorting to increasingly covert communication and recruitment methods, including by using the dark web, encryption and messengers.”
He said while income and territory are on the decline, “ISIL still appears to have sufficient funds to continue fighting,” and the U.N. report warns “the threat to the aviation sector remains high,” citing recent attacks on airports in Belgium and Turkey.
Returning fighters a concern
The report also warns of threats to countries where their nationals who have fought with IS return home, saying that they “will present a significant threat if they eventually return, given that most are staunchly committed to ISIL ideology.”
The current U.N. report focuses on the group’s presence in Europe, North Africa and West Africa.
In Libya, a military offensive succeeded in dislodging IS from its stronghold in the city of Sirte, one of its most important bases outside of Syria and Iraq. Feltman, however, cautioned that the group’s threat to Libya and its neighbors continues, noting that IS still has between several hundred and 3,000 fighters in Libya and they have moved to other parts of the country.
No ‘large-scale attacks’ in Western Europe
The United Nations says IS has also increased its presence in West Africa and the Maghreb, and its affiliate Boko Haram, which has several thousand fighters, remains a serious threat.
In 2014, IS said it would carry out attacks in Europe and the United States in retribution for airstrikes against the group. “Some of these attacks were directed and facilitated by ISIL personnel, while others were enabled by ISIL providing guidance or assistance or were inspired through its propaganda,” Feltman said.
Since the last U.N. report on IS four months ago, it notes that terrorists have not carried out any “complex, large-scale attacks” in western Europe. It speculates that this may be due to several factors, including the pressure on its resources in multiple conflict zones, increased difficulty for their fighters to travel from battlefields to Europe, and large-scale police and security measures in multiple countries that have disrupted plots and terror cells across Europe.
The report cautions member states currently assess the threat of large-scale attacks remains, and says one state has warned that not all of the IS operatives believed to have been sent to Europe to carry out the Paris (November 2015) and Brussels (March 2016) attacks have been identified and arrested.
The U.N. says that while countries have improved their information sharing and cooperation in addressing terrorism and curbing the travel and transit of fighters, and cracked down on terrorist financing, more needs to be done.
Gaps must be addressed in global screening efforts to stem the travel of foreign fighters. Designing and implementing border management strategies is also a challenge for many countries, the U.N. report says.
One measure, requiring airlines to provide advance passenger information, has only been implemented in 56 countries, including just a handful in Europe. The United Nations is working with 78 countries identified as the most affected by foreign terrorist fighters to help them get this system up and running. The U.N. report also notes that some countries have expanded the passenger information to include cruise ships and other ocean traffic, but there is no regulation that requires this and leaves open a “significant vulnerability.”
Travel ban suspended
U.S. President Donald Trump recently ordered a 90-day ban on citizens from Libya, Sudan, Somalia, Yemen, Syria, Iran and Iraq entering the United States while stricter border security measures are studied; but, the ban is suspended while it is being challenged in court.
“As we consider what more we can do to check and roll back ISIL,” the U.N.’s Feltman said, “we must also step up efforts to prevent and resolve violent conflicts that both drive and are made worse by terrorism.” He said ultimately, it would be the spread and consolidation of peace, security, development and human rights that would most effectively stamp out terrorism at its roots.