The COVID-19 pandemic has increased the threat from the Islamic State and al-Qaida extremist groups in conflict areas including Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq, but the threat remains comparatively low in non-conflict areas despite a series of attacks in Europe, U.N. experts said in a new report.
The panel of experts said in a report to the U.N. Security Council circulated Thursday that the threat continued to rise in conflict zones in the last half of 2020 because “the pandemic inhibited forces of law and order more than terrorists” who were able to move and gather freely despite COVID-19 restrictions.
The panel said U.N. member states, which it didn’t name, assess that as restrictions from the pandemic ease in various locations, “a rash of pre-planned attacks may occur.”
“The economic and political toll of the pandemic, its aggravation of underlying drivers of violent extremism and its expected impact on counter-terrorism efforts are likely to increase the long-term threat everywhere,” the experts warned.
The panel said Iraq and Syria remain “the core area” for the Islamic State group — also known as IS and ISIL — and Syria’s northwest Idlib region where al-Qaida has affiliates is “a source of concern.”
But the experts said Afghanistan remains the country “worst affected by terrorism in the world.”
Despite initial optimism after the Feb. 29, 2020 agreement between the United States and the Taliban and the beginning of direct talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban last September, the panel said the situation in the country “remains challenging.”
More than 600 Afghan civilians and 2,500 members of the country’s security forces have been killed in attacks since last Feb. 29, the experts said, and “terrorist activities and radical ideology continue to be a potential source of threats to the region and globally.”
The panel quoted unidentified U.N. member states as saying the current number of ISIL fighters has fallen to between 1,000 and 2,200.
While prospects of reviving its former offensive and holding territory “appear remote” ISIL has claimed responsibility for many recent high-profile attacks, it said.
“Al-Qaida assesses that its future in Afghanistan depends upon its close ties to the Taliban, as well as the success of Taliban military operations in the country,” the experts said, estimating the number of al-Qaida members and their affiliates in the country at between 200 and 500 spread across at least 11 provinces.
The panel said: “Afghanistan remains important to both ISIL and al-Qaida, and the peace process key to suppressing the long-term threat from both.”
In Iraq and Syria, the experts said there is no indication that ISIL will be able to reconstitute its self-declared “caliphate” that once spanned a third of both Iraq and Syria and was defeated in 2017 “in the short to medium term.”
But they said the extremist group “will certainly exploit its capacity to remain in a region characterized by limited stabilization and reconstruction prospects.”
An estimated 10,000 ISIL fighters remain active in Iraq and Syria “waging a sustained insurgency straddling the borders between the two countries,” the panel said.
The majority of fighters are in Iraq but face pressure from the country’s security forces “rendering the country more difficult for ISIL operations” in comparison with Syria where the de-escalation zone in northwest Idlib remains “a limited safe haven,” it said.
Elsewhere in the Mideast, the panel said al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula suffered setbacks in late 2020 and ISIL in Yemen suffered “substantial losses” in July and August, including its leader Abu Al-Walid Al-Adeni.
The experts said Israel’s recent normalization of relations with some Arab countries “was used as a rallying narrative by terrorist organizations in the region” including al-Qaida groups which condemned leaders of the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain and called on their followers “to retaliate by attacking foreign interests in the region.” An ISIL spokesman also called on followers “to attack foreign nationals in Gulf states” though none have been reported yet, they said.
The panel said the extremist groups have made progress recently mainly in Africa.
“While terrorism continues to spread in West Africa, the region of Cabo Delgado in Mozambique is among the most concerning areas,” it said.
In Cabo Delgado, the experts said fighters from the Islamic State Central Africa Province have taken over towns and villages, continue to hold the port of Mocimboa da Praia despite a sustained government offensive.
Elsewhere in Africa, the panel said an ISIL affiliate “remains resilient in northeast Sinal despite heavy Egyptian military pressure.” In the Sahel, the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara “suffered significant attrition” in confrontations and as a result of counter-terrorism operations but “its command-and-control capacity remains effective,” the experts said. And in Somalia Al-Shabab continues to target military operations and civilians.
In Europe, the experts said attacks in Austria, France, Germany and Switzerland between September and November “underscored the enduring threat” from extremists.