The ISIS extremist group is still capable of sending funds to supporters and motivating attacks in Europe and elsewhere despite military pressure and falling revenue – and al-Qaida remains resilient especially in West Africa, East Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, U.N. experts said in a report circulated Thursday.
The experts monitoring sanctions against the extremist groups said competition between ISIS and al-Qaida continues, but “shifting alliances” among fighters “and cooperation on the tactical level in several regions also allow them to move between various groups.”
The report said the extremist threat continues to rise in Southeast Asia, where IS wants to establish a foothold. It said recent events in the southern Philippines, where the city of Marawi has been under siege by IS-linked militants for more than two months, is evidence of this.
The experts said in the report to the U.N. Security Council that “the core” of the ISIS extremist group is adapting to military pressure in Iraq and Syria by delegating decision-making responsibility to local commanders and switching to encrypted communications.
Several member states highlighted “the increasingly creative use of drones” by IS, primarily in Iraq and Syria. They said the group is developing the capability to design and construct larger drones which will increasingly enable it “to weaponize the drones, thereby increasing its ability to strike at a distance,” according to the report.
It said IS “continues to send funds to its affiliates worldwide” and is likely to do so as long as the group has the means.
IS leaders have also sent money to places where the group doesn’t have affiliates in an attempt to prepare for its eventual defeat in Iraq and Syria, according to an unidentified U.N. member state quoted in the report.
The experts quote several member states as saying IS fighters returning home generally fall into three categories: Those disenchanted with the extremist group “and terrorism as an ideology” who can potentially be deradicalized and reintegrated into society; a much smaller group of high-risk individuals who return with the aim of conducting “terror attacks”; and individuals who have cut ties with IS but “remain radicalized and are ready to join another terrorist group should the opportunity arise.”
The report assessed extremist trends by region:
Attacks in Europe in the first half of 2017 demonstrate that “Europe remained a priority region” for IS attacks, it said. However, thus far in 2017 the group hasn’t conducted an attack in which the IS “core” is involved in detailed planning and decision-making, sending fighters and providing financial resources, the report said. It quoted some member states reporting “an increase in radicalization and violent extremism” linked to IS networks in Europe.
In Iraq, the report quoted several member states saying key IS leaders left Mosul prior to the attack by Iraqi forces supported by the U.S.-led coalition. But it said IS resistance in Mosul “indicates that its command and control structure has not broken down completely and that the group remains a significant military threat.” In Syria, the report said key IS members also left their stronghold of Raqqa ahead of an expected attack and air strikes.
The Arabian Peninsula faces “a significant threat” from al-Qaida and IS in Yemen, the report said. It said a member state reported that over 30 IS-related “terrorist plots” have been disrupted in the region, including one in June targeting the Grand Mosque in Mecca, and Jeddah in Saudi Arabia.
It said the importance of Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula for the militant group is demonstrated by a statement from Osama bin Laden’s son, Hamza bin Laden, encouraging sympathizers to join al-Qaida training camps in Yemen.
In North Africa, the report said IS cells claimed several attacks in Libya in the first half of 2017 following the extremist group’s ouster from Sirte. It quoted a member state estimating the number of IS fighters in Libya at between 400 and 700. In Tunisia, it said the threat from IS and al-Qaida remains “a source of concern.”
In West Africa, the report said “al-Qaida affiliates remain resilient and present a significant threat to Mali and, to a lesser extent, the Sahel region.” According to member states, al-Qaida affiliated groups continue to attack military forces and have intelligence capabilities to monitor movements of security and military patrols “and conduct complex attacks,” it said.
East Africa faces “terrorist threats” from both al-Qaida affiliate al-Shabab, which has approximately 6,000 to 9,000 members, and IS affiliates operating in parts of southern Somalia and its semiautonomous state of Puntland.
In Afghanistan, the report said IS has intensified its competition with the Taliban “and aims to expand.” But it said despite recruitment efforts in the last three years, “the group has not yet established a viable fighting force there.” It said the Taliban “continues to wield substantial influence over regional al-Qaida affiliates.” It quoted one member state saying currently more than 7,000 foreigners are fighting in Afghanistan for the Taliban and al-Qaida affiliates.
In Southeast Asia, the report said the situation “remains precarious.” It said that while “terrorist groups” are believed to be ideologically divided over IS, the group’s propaganda on its so-called “caliphate” has resonated with extremists in the region. The report said at least seven attacks in 2016 targeting Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines can be attributed to pro-ISIS militants.