U.N. Warns of Growing Islamic State Terrorist Threat
The militants have lost ground in Iraq and Syria, but U.N. officials say there’s a growing risk the group will mount “centrally directed attacks on international civilian targets.”
The Islamic State has been linked to the deaths of more than 500 civilians in countries including Belgium and the United States in the past six months alone. The months ahead could be even bloodier.
That’s the sobering conclusion of a new review of the Islamic State’s rise by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. It noted that the Islamic State has inspired or carried out the killing of civilians in 11 countries, not counting the group’s attacks in its strongholds of Iraq, Syria, Libya, Afghanistan, and Yemen.
“The global threat from ISIL remains high and continues to diversify,” Ban wrote, using an alternate acronym for the group. “Recent international attacks perpetrated by members of ISIL demonstrate that the terrorist group is now moving into a new phase, with the increased risk that well-prepared and centrally directed attacks on international civilian targets may become a more frequent occurrence.”
The report follows a year in which the Islamic State steadily lost territory in both Iraq and Syria, where a surge in U.S. and allied airstrikes has destroyed vital oil fields controlled by the group, dramatically curbing its oil revenues.
Oil production in Islamic State-controlled territory has fallen by 30 to 50 percent, forcing the extremists’ paymasters to cut fighters’ salaries by as much as half, according to Ban. The report does not put a dollar sign on the Islamic State’s oil profits. But a previous U.N. report estimated that the militant group generated between $400 million and $500 million in oil revenues last year.
A decision by the Iraqi government to halt the payment of salaries to government employees in Islamic State-controlled territory has, according to one unidentified member state cited in the report, cut the flow of about $2 billion into the region and “therefore significantly curbed ISIL’s opportunity to levy ‘taxes'” on the residents of the areas it controls.
“For the first time since the declaration of its so-called caliphate, in June 2014, the ISIL core is under financial pressure,” Ban wrote. He cited a report by the U.N. Assistance Mission for Iraq, noting that the Islamic State’s failure to conquer new lands means “its ability to loot and sell fresh resources, assets or antiquities has been diminished.”
While Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi still commands an army of up to 30,000 fighters in Syria and Iraq, military setbacks have forced his organization to move beyond its traditional Middle East stronghold in search of more money and new recruits. It has established its largest branches in Afghanistan, Yemen, and Libya, where the group has as many as 5,000 troops and controls the city of Sirte, the birthplace of former Libyan strongman Muammar al-Qaddafi.
The Islamic State’s gains over the past couple of years in Libya, in particular, have alarmed the United States and its allies, which are weighing whether to commit greater military assistance to Libya’s newly established U.N.-backed Government of National Accord to fight the extremist group.
Britain and other governments are pressing for the adoption of a U.N. Security Council resolution that would allow the interception of ships on the Mediterranean Sea suspected of smuggling arms to the Islamic State.
Despite its military reversals in Syria and Iraq, the Islamic State “is not yet strategically and irreversibly weakened,” according to Ban. And the group’s leaders are seeking to intensify the activities of overseas affiliates as part of its increasingly global military strategy.
In the last six months, the Islamic State has “carried out, inspired or claimed responsibility for” terrorist strikes against civilian targets in Bangladesh, Belgium, Egypt, France, Germany, Indonesia, Lebanon, Pakistan, Russia, Turkey, and the United States. “The Paris attacks of November 2015 and the Brussels attacks of March 2016 demonstrate ISIL’s ability to mount complex, multi-wave attacks,” Ban wrote.
In a separate development on Thursday, the U.S. State Department released its annual report on terrorism, which found that the Islamic State threat is becoming more and more decentralized, with the group spreading its influence into Southeast Asia, Africa, and the North Caucasus region. The report singled out the Islamic State as the greatest terrorist threat around the world — highlighting its “formidable force” in Iraq and Syria. However, it noted that the Islamic State’s footprint in Asia and Africa is largely thanks to “pre-existing terrorist networks” declaring their solidarity with the group rather than the Islamic State creating new affiliates.
“The relationship between most of these groups and ISIL’s leadership remained symbolic in most cases,” the State Department report said. “Many of these groups are made up of pre-existing terrorist networks with their own local goals and lesser capabilities than ISIL.”
Despite the Islamic State’s growing influence in more parts of the world, U.S. officials have said they’ve made progress in stemming the flow of foreign fighters to Iraq and Syria, which has swelled the group’s ranks. But the United States hasn’t always been consistent in quantifying that progress. Air Force Maj. Gen. Peter Gersten, the deputy commander for operations and intelligence for the campaign against the Islamic State, told reporters on April 26 that the number of fighters traveling to Iraq and Syria dropped dramatically in the last year from about 2,000 per month to 200.
But the U.S. military walked back that claim days later, saying the official estimate is higher than Gersten’s.
“We believe the foreign fighter flow was 2,000 at one point and is now down to a quarter or less of that,” U.S. Army Col. Steve Warren, the spokesman for the U.S.-led campaign, told Reuters. That would mean a 75 percent decrease from earlier in the year, which is significant, but not as dramatic as the 90 percent decline indicated by Gersten.
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Colum Lynch is Foreign Policy’s award-winning U.N.-based senior diplomatic reporter. @columlynch