In adopting its resolution 2253 (2015), the Security Council expressed its determination to address the threat posed to international peace and security by Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as Da’esh) and associated individuals and groups. In paragraph 97 of that resolution, the Council requested that I provide an initial strategic-level report on the threat, followed by updates every four months. In its resolution 2368 (2017), the Council requested that I continue to provide strategic-level reports that reflect the gravity of the aforementioned threat, as well as the range of United Nations efforts in support of Member States in countering this, with the next report to be provided by 31 January 2018, followed by updates every six months thereafter.
I have made counter-terrorism one of my highest priorities. This is my first report since the establishment of the Office of Counter-Terrorism in June 2017. The Office has been mandated to enhance coordination and coherence in United Nations efforts to counter terrorism and to strengthen the provision of capacity-building assistance to Member States in response to the evolving threat of terrorism.
This, my sixth report on the threat posed by ISIL to international peace and security, was prepared by the Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate and the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team, in close collaboration with the Office of Counter-Terrorism and other United Nations entities and international organizations.
The report shows that, despite the recent setbacks experienced by ISIL, the group and its affiliates continue to pose a significant and evolving threat around the world. The United Nations is committed to supporting Member States in facing this challenge and I am confident that the newly established Office of Counter-Terrorism will help deliver an All-of-United Nations approach to support the efforts of Member States to counter terrorism and prevent violent extremism, in particular in relation to the threat posed by global terrorist groups such as ISIL.
II. Threat assessment
A. Overview of threat
During the last six months, military pressure has resulted in strategic setbacks for ISIL4 in Iraq, the Syrian Arab Republic and the southern Philippines, as a result of which the group has been forced to relinquish strongholds in urban areas and to adapt to altered circumstances.
The group continues to give prominence to external attacks and has lost its focus on conquering and holding territory. ISIL is now organized as a global network, with a flat hierarchy and less operational control over its affiliates. Member States have highlighted that the willingness of some members of the ISIL and Al-Qaida (QDe.004) networks to support one another’s attacks (S/2016/629, para. 3) remains a concern, and the potential convergence of the two networks, at least in some areas, is an emerging threat.
It is likely that, in the absence of its focus on conquering and holding territory, the pool of recruits for ISIL will reduce. ISIL was able to attract a wide range of individuals, including some who were eager to support the establishment of a quasi-state structure. In future, it will focus primarily on a smaller and more motivated group of individuals willing to fight or conduct attacks. In combination with increased control measures put in place by Member States, this will diminish new recruitment and the travel of foreign terrorist fighters. Overall, the global flow of such fighters into the conflict zones in Iraq and the Syrian Arab Republic has nearly come to a halt, with only occasional reporting of newly recruited fighters from Member States.
Furthermore, the structure of the ISIL core global propaganda machinery and the frequency, scope and quality of its output continue to deteriorate. The group has begun to issue false claims of responsibility for attacks. In addition, some of its important online magazines are no longer issued. Nevertheless, Member States highlighted that foreign terrorist fighters, ISIL members and sympathizers are still able to use social media, including encryption technology and communication tools within the dark web, to communicate, coordinate and facilitate attacks. Member States remain concerned that the threat to their homeland will be exacerbated by a growing number of “frustrated travellers”, the continuing risk of the recruitment by terrorist groups of insiders from within critical infrastructure and the capabilities that returnees and relocators can bring to existing networks of ISIL sympathizers.
The fight against ISIL is entering a new phase, with more focus on less visible networks of individuals and cells acting with a degree of autonomy. This presents, to a certain extent, a more difficult challenge for Member States, as well as the international community. Information sharing concerning the identity of foreign terrorist fighters, returnees, relocators and known ISIL members will remain vital. The ISIL (Da’esh) and Al-Qaida sanctions list remains one of the key global instruments in this regard.
Member States are conscious that, following the strategic military setbacks o f ISIL in Iraq and the Syrian Arab Republic, foreign terrorist fighters, in particular those from outside the immediate region, may decide to leave the conflict zones as they cannot easily blend in with the local population. Identifying these potential ret urnees and relocators may prove challenging. ISIL has collected travel and identification documents from incoming fighters for potential use in future travel and has obtained several thousand blank Syrian passports. Although the booklet numbers of the blank Syrian passports are included in the Stolen and Lost Travel Documents database of the International Criminal Police Organization (INTERPOL), Member States highlighted that their use by returnees or relocators is possible.
In addition, Member States bordering the conflict zones highlighted continued challenges in identifying individuals as foreign terrorist fighters, returnees, relocators or listed individuals. Biometric identification of suspicious individuals can be an effective tool to counter the threat of terrorists attempting to travel internationally using false, forged or altered travel documents. Therefore, the inclusion of biometric data, high quality pictures and fingerprints of such fighters in various regional and international databases, including the INTERPOL database on foreign terrorist fighters, remains important. On 21 December 2017, the Security Council adopted resolution 2396 (2017), updating resolution 2178 (2014) and highlighting the issue of returnees and relocators, as well as the use of biometric data. The resolution addressed a range of threats and included some of the measures outlined by the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team in its reports and recommendations since 2016.