UN: Build on Islamic State chief's death to thwart recruits

Syrian Democratic soldiers keep watch by the prison that was attacked by the Islamic Stete militants in Hassakeh, Syria, Tuesday, Feb. 8, 2022. The Jan. 20 attack on the prison in northeast Syria was the biggest IS operation in years, and it took the U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish forces 10 days to defeat it. (AP Photo/Baderkhan Ahmad) (Baderkhan Ahmad, Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

CAMEROON – The U.N. counterterrorism chief said Wednesday it’s crucial to build on the momentum following last week’s death of the leader of the Islamic State extremist group and address the grievances that terrorist groups exploit to attract new followers.

Undersecretary-General Vladimir Voronkov told the U.N. Security Council that the death of Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi in a U.S. raid in northwest Syria was “perhaps the most significant in a series of blows” against the Islamic State’s leadership in recent months.

But he warned that the group is known for its ability to regroup despite similar past losses, “maintaining and intensifying its activities in conflict-affected regions across the world.”

Since the 9/11 attacks in the United States that spurred the U.N.’s counterterrorism activities, Voronkov said the United Nations has learned that combatting terrorism “is a long-term game and that there are no quick fixes.”

“Military counterterrorism operations may be necessary,” he said, “but comprehensive measures with a strong focus on prevention are required to address the dynamics that fuel the appeal to terrorism.”

The head of the U.N. Office of Counterterrorism urged all 193 U.N. member nations, starting in Iraq and Syria where the Islamic State’s leadership is still concentrated, to sustain gains against the extremist group, “prevent its regional expansion and curtail its capabilities to launch attacks and recruit new members to its ranks.”

Stressing the critical importance of building on momentum from al-Qurayshi’s death to address grievances that IS and other extremist groups exploit, Voronkov said: “We must focus on restoring human dignity, trust and social cohesion.”

“This must start with addressing the desperate situation in displacement camps and detention facilities across Syria and Iraq,” he said, stressing the humanitarian hardships of thousands of people, especially children with presumed family links to IS members “who through no fault of their own remain stranded in this precarious limbo, at a growing risk of further radicalization and recruitment.”

According to a report by U.N. experts monitoring sanctions against IS and al-Qaida circulated this week, the overcrowded al-Hol camp in northeast Syria for alleged IS family members houses an estimated 60,000 people, two-thirds of them under the age of 12. The camp’s “foreigners annex” includes approximately 2,000 women and 7,000 children, it said. The experts said minors in the camp continue to be exposed to IS ideology.

The experts said 10,000 IS detainees are currently in prisons run by the U.S.-backed, Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces “including approximately 2,000 foreign terrorist fighters."

Voronkov, who presented the experts report to the Security Council, called the Jan. 20 IS attack on a prison in Hassakeh in northeast Syria, which houses at least 3,000 IS detainees, the extremist group’s most significant actions since the fall of its self-declared caliphate in 2019. The Syrian Democratic Forces, regained control after 10 days and hundreds of deaths.

“I was particularly disturbed," the counterterrorism chief said, “by the group’s use of children as human shields during the intense fighting that occurred in and around the prison.”

He echoed other U.N. and humanitarian officials urging countries to repatriate their nationals from the camps, saying “the current pace does not demonstrate the requisite urgency and is likely to exacerbate conditions conducive to terrorism.”

Beyond Syria and Iraq, Voronkov said regional affiliates of IS “continued to expand at an unsettling scale and pace, partly enabled by the proliferation of conventional arms and weapons, especially in fragile conflict settlings.”

He singled out central, eastern and West Africa, warning that the expansion of IS affiliates there “would have serious and lasting repercussions well beyond the continent.”

In Cabo Delgado on the border area between Mozambique and Tanzania, Voronkov said the IS affiliate suffered setbacks after the deployment of foreign troops, but “the group appears displaced rather than defeated, and its fighters have continued to regroup into smaller, more autonomous cells.”

He warned that the deteriorating situation and intensification of IS activity in Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Congo, Mali, Niger, Nigeria and Uganda “is another cause for serious concern, and tactical gains in these regions may also increase the group’s revenues.”

On a positive note, Voronkov said IS terrorist activity declined in Egypt, Libya and Morocco in the last half of 2021 “following counterterrorism gains, defections, and public investments in development initiatives.”

As for Europe, Voronkov said the foremost concern remains “online terrorist radicalization and recruitment” that can inspire attacks by lone actors or small groups, “inspired by, but unaffiliated" with IS extremists,.