U.N. counterterrorism experts reported that Islamic State militants remained a “covert” global threat, despite their recent losses and shifts in tactics.
The United Nations Office of Counterterrorism, or UNOCT, warned the extremist group still had between 14,000 and 18,000 militants in Iraq and Syria, including up to 3,000 foreign terrorist fighters.
IS, also known as ISIL and Da’esh, was evolving into a covert local network as its former self-proclaimed caliphate was reduced to a last stronghold in eastern Syria. Its revenues shrank due to lost territory but it retained US$50 to US$300 million in cash reserves, the U.N. office reported.
The group raised money by selling oil produced from areas it controlled in Syria’s eastern province of Deir-el-Zour. It also continued to get cash from hostage-taking and illegal trade in items such as human organs, drugs and cultural artifacts.
The central leadership of IS “retains an influence and maintains an intent to generate internationally directed attacks and thereby still plays an important role in advancing the group’s objectives,” Vladimir Voronkov, the U.N. undersecretary-general who heads UNOCT, said in presenting its report to the U.N. Security Council.
“The threat posed by returning and relocating fighters, as well as from individuals inspired by them, remains high and has a global reach,” he said. “I would therefore emphasize, the recent ISIL losses should not lead to complacency at any level.”
The report contrasted with U.S. President Donald Trump’s assertion in December that IS had been defeated. More recently, however, Trump promised to keep hunting IS fighters for years despite ordering troop withdrawals from Syria and Afghanistan. He acknowledged the militants’ “remnants” could remain a dangerous threat while regrouping underground.
IS created a network of cells in Kabul and other Afghan cities, though its “center of gravity” remained in Iraq and Syria, and the threat of its combatants was spreading to other nations as they returned home. IS carried out several high-profile attacks throughout last year, against a wide range of targets, the U.N. office said.
“This is exacerbated by the challenge of foreign terrorist fighters who either are leaving conflict zones, or those who are returning or who are about to be released from prison,” Voronkov said. “In this context, radicalization in prison settings is seen as a particular challenge in Europe and Iraq.”
Michele Coninsx, head of the U.N. Counterterrorism Committee Executive Directorate, or CTED, said the loss of territory by IS was turning the extremist group “into a covert and more locally focused network in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere.”
She said the militants’ ability to use new, anonymous technologies, like blockchain and cryptocurrencies, to raise funding and recruits presented the world with new types of risks.
United States-allied Syrian forces have been battling IS militants in their last stronghold in eastern Syria, where the U.S.-led coalition said it struck an IS-occupied mosque in Baghouz to support Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces. The coalition said IS used the mosque as a command center.
In recent days, more than 20,000 civilians have fled the IS-controlled region and gone to Kurdish camps in northeastern Syria, while SDF fighters laid siege to the IS militants.