Repatriating Detained Foreign Fighters, Their Families Key to Combating Threat Posed by Islamic State, Counter-Terrorism Officials Warn Security Council

Gauging the global threat posed by Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Da’esh) amid the COVID-19 pandemic, counter-terrorism officials cautioned the Security Council during a 24 August videoconference meeting* that Member States must address pressing issues — particularly the repatriation of detained foreign fighters and their families — to prevent the group from spreading its influence across countries and regions.

Vladimir Voronkov, Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations Office of Counter-Terrorism, briefing on the Secretary-General’s report on the threat posed by ISIL to international peace and security (document S/2020/774), said that  COVID-19 pandemic-related restrictions such as lockdowns and restrictions on movement seem to have reduced the risk of attacks in non-conflict zones in the short-term.  However, the reverse is true in Iraq and Syria, where more than 10,000 ISIL fighters are believed to be active, moving freely in small cells between the two countries, further complicating an already dire and unsustainable situation.

“The global threat from ISIL is likely to increase if the international community fails to address pressing challenges,” he warned, adding that ISIL and other terrorist groups seek to exploit the far-reaching disruption and negative socioeconomic and political impacts of the pandemic.

Citing the group’s rising online presence as a concern, he said ISIL’s opportunistic propaganda efforts during the pandemic could be fueling continued attacks carried out by individuals inspired online.  The impact on recruitment and fundraising activities remains unclear, but command and control arrangements between the ISIL core and its remote “provinces” have continued to loosen, thereby strengthening regional affiliates.

Highlighting regional developments, he said that Islamic State in West Africa Province remains a major focus of the group’s global propaganda, with its total membership of 3,500 making it one of the largest remote “provinces”.  Equally worrisome are attacks staged by Islamic State Central Africa Province in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and in Mozambique.  In Europe, the threat continues to be mainly from Internet-driven, homegrown terrorist radicalization.  Several countries report a growing terrorist threat from “right-wing violent extremism”, which requires intelligence services to shift their operational and analytical priorities away from a focus on ISIL.

Turning to Asia, he said ISIL’s affiliate in Afghanistan remains capable of high-profile attacks in various parts of the country and concern remains over the recruitment of ISIL fighters in the Maldives and the looming challenge of managing returnees from the core conflict zone.  In South-East Asia, attacks on security forces occur regularly, but Government authorities have maintained pressure on ISIL activities through counter-terrorism operations.

Highlighting a range of United Nations efforts in support of Member States, as mandated by Security Council resolution 2368 (2017), he cited examples such as the Office of Counter-Terrorism’s launch of the Global Counter-Terrorism Coordination Platform.  Countering the financing of terrorism remains a key priority, since the pandemic has increased the potential risk of cybercrime by terrorists to raise and move funds.  The Office has also continued to partner with a broad range of entities to support Member States in law enforcement and border security.

As emphasized during the Virtual Counter-Terrorism Week, strengthening collective action and international counter-terrorism cooperation must remain a priority during and after the pandemic, he said, adding: “As Member States continue their efforts to develop comprehensive responses to the threat posed by ISIL and terrorism, they can count on the full support of my Office and the United Nations system through the Global Counter-Terrorism Coordination Compact.”

Michèle Coninsx, Assistant Secretary-General and Executive Director of the Counter-Terrorism Executive Directorate, summarizing its activities and the consequences of the pandemic, said the dire situation faced by thousands of ISIL-associated women and children in the detention camps of north-eastern Syria remains a major challenge for the international community.  The COVID-19 pandemic risks exacerbating an already untenable humanitarian, human rights and security situation.  Indefinite detention is legally unjustifiable and has significant security and moral implications.

In July, the Executive Directorate published an analytical brief published on the prosecution of ISIL-associated women, which highlights the gender-specific challenges encountered by States in the investigation, prosecution, rehabilitation and reintegration of women returnees, she said, emphasizing that:  “We cannot allow these women to become the forgotten demographic.”

Pointing to signs of progress amid an urgent need to institutionalize strategies and provide States with the required technical assistance, she said some Governments have repatriated their citizens, despite the additional challenges posed by COVID-19, while others are making progress in prosecuting ISIL returnees for terrorism-related offences.  States should continue to improve the collection and sharing of admissible, terrorism-related information and evidence by the military, she stressed.

At the same time, pandemic-related restrictions may exacerbate existing grievances, and with people spending more time online, ISIL and its affiliates are taking the opportunity to accelerate the spread of their toxic propaganda via digital platforms, she observed.  Member States must ensure that policies adopted to curtail the spread of terrorist narratives and misinformation are human-rights compliant and gender-sensitive, and they should introduce innovative and practical counter-terrorism measures, strengthen existing partnerships, and ensure that victims’ rights are respected.  “Our response to this enduring transnational challenge must be a multilateral one, rooted in enhanced information-sharing and international cooperation,” she said.

For its part, the Executive Directorate has conducted a range of activities, she noted, including adapting its working methods in response to the pandemic, conducting virtual “deep-dive” missions, and holding consultations with Member States and experts on the use of biometric technologies for pandemic-related measures, aimed at ensuring their compliance with international human rights law.  While making counter-terrorism more difficult, the pandemic has also provided an opportunity to question the status quo, she said, encouraging stakeholders to review and strengthen approaches to countering terrorism and violent extremism.  “We must collectively uphold our shared principles of a rule-of-law-based international order and develop human rights-compliant and gender-sensitive policies, practices, and whole-of-society approaches,” she said.

Council members, including those whose countries are coping with terrorist threats, largely agreed that a united response was required.  Some said regional actors played an important role.  Others raised concerns, including the importance of resolving repatriation issues involving foreign terrorist fighters and their families.

South Africa’s representative described ISIL/Da’esh as a stubborn threat to international peace and security, stressing the need to address the root causes that give rise to the resentment that fuels terrorism.  He also urged the United Nations and its Member States not to allow COVID-19 to derail efforts to reach the Sustainable Development Goals by their target date.  A key concern for South Africa is the situation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where Islamic State in Central African Province has continued its attempts to establish a greater operational presence, including an insurgency gripping northern parts of neighbouring Mozambique.  He noted that a few days ago the member States of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) expressed their commitment to support Mozambique in addressing terrorism and violent attacks.

The speaker for the Russian Federation agreed that the threat remains high, as ISIL’s organization and tactics suggest it has now fully transformed into a network structure with sufficient financial resources to restore coordination and planning mechanisms to attack the Iraq-Syria border area in line with its continued plan to revive the “caliphate” in Iraq.  Expansion across Africa and Afghanistan alongside active recruitment drives in South and South-East Asia are also evident.  Sharing concerns about increased online activities, he said terrorists are also seeking to use the pandemic to increase the number of supporters, primarily at the expense of those dissatisfied with the actions of the authorities in the context of the crisis.

There is still much room for improvement for international cooperation in addressing pressing issues, he said, such as the repatriation of foreign terrorist fighters and their family members, many of whom are languishing in detention camps.  Unfortunately, this is a battle that some colleagues, including in the Council, decided to withdraw from.  Any Council resolution addressing the fight against terrorism at this time cannot fail to recognize this problem, he stressed.

The United States representative, commending the work of the Global Coalition, noted that efforts are based on four main non-military lines:  counter-financing; counter-messaging; detention, repatriation and accountability for crimes and abuses by foreign terrorist fighters; and stabilization of liberated areas.  Given the continuing threat, the United States seeks to identify, sanction and target each ISIL affiliate and has worked with Council members to this end.  Efforts must also address repatriation to ensure that detained foreign terrorist fighters and their family members in Syria and Iraq do not become “the nucleus of an ISIS 2.0”.  The United States has led by example, she said, adding that countries must repatriate, prosecute, rehabilitate and reintegrate foreign terrorist fighters and their families as appropriate.

Disappointed that Council members’ refusal to include repatriation had stymied Indonesia’s efforts to draft a meaningful resolution on this issue, she said “the world is watching”, and wondered whether the Council would try to address the situation or dismiss the threat and “bury its head in the sand”, as it did two weeks ago with the Iran arms embargo resolution.  Challenging Council members to refuse to accept countries’ attempts to misuse counter-terrorism to pursue their own political ends, she expressed deep concern about the situation in Xinjiang, where more than 1 million Uyghurs and other Muslims have been detained under the false guise of fighting terrorism.  The United States, she added, stands ready to work with partners to prevent and counter terrorism while protecting and promoting human rights and fundamental freedoms.

China’s representative, emphasizing that his Government participates in international and regional counter-terrorism cooperation and works closely with other Member States, said the situation in Xinjiang falls under China’s internal affairs.  It is neither a religious nor human rights issue, but one of counter-terrorism and anti-extremism, and all measures taken are consistent with United Nations resolutions and agreements.  Voicing regret that the United States chooses to smear and discredit those measures, he instead urged Washington to “give up bigotry and double standard”, step up its own efforts to combat COVID-19 and safeguard the lives of the American people.

The pandemic, he said, has laid bare inequalities within and between countries.  “Ignorance, anxiety, stigma, and politicization that come with the pandemic have led to hatred and xenophobia, which have been aggravated and amplified by the popular use of social media,” he said, adding that conditions conducive to terrorism may also be exacerbated.  All counter-terrorism cooperation must abide by the Charter and national sovereignty must be respected.  He underlined the need to further promote multilateralism, calling for integrated policies that address the root causes of terrorism and eradicate its breeding grounds, while also spotlighting the important role of regional organizations.  Among several priority issues, he underlined the questions of foreign terrorist fighters, the diversified means of terrorist financing, the misuse of the internet and the collusion of terrorist groups with organized crime.

Germany’s representative outlined four tools for fighting international terrorism and foreign terrorist fighters:  people must be given opportunities to live a meaningful, dignified life; former terrorist fighters must be rehabilitated and reintegrated, and given a second chance after adequate due process; societies and countries must cooperate; and civil society must have a strong role.  Ending Da’esh’s territorial control was an enormous achievement, but its withdrawal into the shadows, however, is not a reason to celebrate.  Counter-terrorism measures must never serve as a pretext for human rights violations, he said, citing examples of so-called counter-terrorism measures that indiscriminately target ethnic minorities.  “That must not be our approach,” he emphasized.

Belgium’s representative said that it is not clear yet how COVID-19 is impacting the threat posed by ISIL.  As there has been an increase in the group’s activities in Iraq and Syria, particularly in the most fragile regions, it is important to remain vigilant and continue to assess the situation to prevent any resurgence in the coming months.  During the pandemic, the group’s offensive propaganda efforts, mainly on online platforms, have benefited from a fragile, confined audience, which feels marginalized and downgraded.  Preventing and fighting against such hate speech must remain a long-term priority, as it exacerbates radicalization that leads to violent extremism and terrorism.  Given the evolving ISIL threat, the Council of the European Union in June updated its conclusions about the bloc’s external action on preventing and countering terrorism and violent extremism.  The fight against terrorism can only succeed if it fully complies with human rights and international humanitarian law.

The representative of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines emphasized the need to advance comprehensive strategies that promote social inclusion and cohesion to build resilient societies and reduce radicalization.  Moreover, all counter-terrorism actions must be conducted in accordance with international law and with the full implementation of relevant Security Council resolutions and the United Nations Global Counter Terrorism Strategy.  It is vital to monitor the changes in terror financing techniques utilized by ISIL, he said, calling on the international community to fully implement Council resolution 2462 (2019), which requires Member States to disrupt and criminalize the financing of terrorism for any purpose.  In that regard, he commended the efforts made by the Executive Directorate and Counter-Terrorism Office, welcoming the recent launch of a global capacity-building programme pursuant to the resolution.

Viet Nam’s delegate, highlighting the importance of international and regional cooperation, said that no country is safe until all are safe.  One growing challenge is the issue of foreign terrorist fighters returning to their home countries, alongside concerns about the $100 million in ISIL’s financial reserves and various fundraising methods by terrorist groups.  Sharing intelligence is crucial, he said, emphasizing that the pandemic demonstrates the importance of coordinating action within limited resources.  Bringing terrorists to justice and preventing their return to terrorism is essential and must be carried out in line with national laws and international obligations.  Mutual legal assistance and sharing best practices in prosecution, reintegration and rehabilitation of terrorists and their dependents, as appropriate, can prove beneficial and should be furthered, he said.  It is also critical to adopt a whole-of-society approach in building balanced and cohesive societies that are resilient to terrorism and radicalization.

The representative of the Dominican Republic condemned the rising number of attacks by ISIL/Da’esh in such places as Iraq and Syria at a moment when Governments are forced to focus their limited resources on saving lives amid the COVID-19 pandemic.  It is crucial to pay due attention to the socioeconomic impact of the crisis, which could exacerbate conditions conducive to terrorism in the medium- to long-term.  Also voicing concern about the humanitarian situation that people with alleged links to ISIL/Da’esh continue to face in camps and detention centres, he said COVID-19 has added an additional element of destabilization to those already serious situations.  It is necessary to strengthen initiatives aimed at countering the risk of exploitation and radicalization in camps and detention centres, with assistance from specialized United Nations agencies and the support of the international community.  Given the large shift online during the pandemic, relevant bodies should also remain alert and able to react to increases in cybercrime for terrorist financing and ISIL/Da’esh propaganda, he said.

France’s representative expressed his country’s determination to pursue the fight against Da’esh within the framework of the international coalition, stressing that there will be no complete and lasting victory against Da’esh without a political solution to the Syrian crisis.  Noting that Da’esh’s financial capabilities remain high, he underscored the need to combat the financing of terrorism effectively.  It is also important to curtail the use of the Internet for terrorist purposes.  The Christchurch Call that France launched together with New Zealand in May 2019 now brings together some 50 States and partners, including major Internet companies.  The COVID-19 pandemic has led, during periods of containment, to increased exposure to online terrorist propaganda.  Furthermore, the fight against terrorism, radicalization and violent extremism must be conducted in accordance with international humanitarian, refugee and human rights law.

The representative of Indonesia, Council President for August, spoke in his national capacity, warning that ISIL affiliates are still active in many parts of the world, even as the world now faces the COVID-19 pandemic.  Through media propaganda, they may inspire attacks, once normal public mobility and assembly resume.  It is imperative to invest in soft measures towards countering terrorist narratives and steering people away from violent extremism while promoting and facilitating the spread of messages of peace, moderation and tolerance.  The fight against terror should neither cease nor waver in the face of the pandemic.  COVID‑19 should in no way hinder the combat against terrorism.  It is necessary to stay attuned to how ISIL threats continue to evolve, during and after the pandemic, so that responses can be adjusted.