The Islamic State (IS) terror group is reorganising and ramping up its guerrilla-style attacks in Syria and Iraq, the United Nations’ counter-terrorism chief has warned, adding that the crisis unleashed by coronavirus could make it easier to recruit a new generation of jihadists.
More than 10,000 IS fighters remain at large in Iraq and Syria, more than two years after the militant group’s claimed defeat, Vladamir Voronokov, the head of the UN’s Counter-Terrorism Office said.
“Small cells” of jihadists continue to move freely between the two countries to carry out ambushes, arson, and gun and bomb attacks, while the group and its affiliates have also claimed to be behind recent terrorism in Egypt, Libya, Afghanistan, Yemen and West Africa, he added.
In a briefing to the UN Security Council last night Mr Voronokov said that travel restrictions and national lockdowns due to the coronavirus pandemic appeared to have temporarily reduced the risk of terrorist attacks in Europe.
But the former Russian diplomat added that IS and other terror groups would try “to exploit the far-reaching disruption and negative socioeconomic and political impacts of the pandemic.”
“There is a continued trend of attacks by individuals inspired online and acting alone or in small groups, which could be fuelled by [IS’s] opportunistic propaganda efforts during the Covid-19 crisis”, he said.
President Trump and others proclaimed that IS was “100 per cent defeated” with the loss of its former territory in 2017 and the killing of its founder, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, in October last year.
But the group has since boasted of carrying out or inspiring hundreds of terror attacks in recent months, despite ongoing operations against them by a US-led military coalition in Iraq and Syria and local security forces.
Claimed attacks include 136 separate incidents across the Middle East, Africa and Southeast Asia in a two week “raid of attrition” campaign which begun on July 22, which resulted in 565 civilian and military casualties, according to IS propaganda.
At least 96 of these attacks can be independently verified, with 43 in Iraq and 35 in Syria, including deadly sniper and suicide bomb attacks against local police, military and civilian targets.
US Syria envoy James Jeffrey said an attack on a gas pipeline in a suburb of Damascus yesterday which caused widespread power cuts, was “almost certainly a strike” by IS.
On Sunday Iraq’s Army was mourning the loss of its own counter-terrorism chief, Staff Colonel Hisham Mohamed, who was killed in an operation against jihadists in Salahuddin Province, north of Baghdad.
Despite these setbacks, the US-led military Coalition has continued to claim “success” in its campaign against IS, as it withdraws troops from military bases near the Iraq-Syria border.
But Mr Voronkov bemoaned the “dire and unsustainable” situation of holding foreign jihadists and their families in controversial Syrian camps, and urged countries such as Britain to repatriate their own nationals to stand trial.
His comments come after the Telegraph revealed that twin sisters Salma and Zahra Halane from Manchester, who fled the UK to join IS as teenagers, are alive and held in a camp run by Syrian Kurdish forces in the north-east of the country. Like Shamima Begum, another “IS bride” from Bethnal Green, East London, their UK nationality has been revoked.
“The global threat from IS is likely to increase if the international community fails to meet this challenge,” Mr Voronokov added.