Less than five months after the military defeat of the Islamic State group in Syria, a UN report is warning that the group's leaders could launch international terrorist attacks before the end of the year, including those intended to "exacerbate existing dissent and unrest" in European nations.
In a bleak assessment of the global spread of jihadi movements, a report by UN analysts on the Security Council Counter-Terrorism Committee said Islamic State leaders, despite their military defeat in Syria and Iraq, are "adapting, consolidating and creating conditions for an eventual resurgence" in those countries.
The group, though hobbled by a lack of financing, is also exploring ways to "reinvest in the capacity to direct and facilitate complex international attacks," the July report said.
"The current abatement of such attacks, therefore, may not last long, possibly not even until the end of 2019," the analysts added. Their report was based on the intelligence assessments of UN member states.
Islamic State leaders, the analysts found, were monitoring political developments in Western European nations and considering attacks that would inflame domestic divisions. Thought its planning capabilities are limited, the group has carried out reconnaissance of potential targets and has positioned explosives.
President Donald Trump confidently predicted the group's elimination when United States and allied forces took Baghuz, Syria, the last stronghold of the Islamic State's caliphate, in late March. The report's authors, though, say the group still has many fighters in Iraq and Syria who are able to move freely and carry out attacks.
Some 30,000 Islamic State foreign fighters and dependents may have survived the conflict and "will be of international concern for the foreseeable future," the analysts said. "Some may join al-Qaida or other terrorist brands that may emerge."
European governments have estimated that around 5,000 to 6,000 of their citizens had traveled to Syria and Iraq to join extremist movements, most of them signing up with the Islamic State. While many were killed or detained, up to 40% are unaccounted for.
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The radicalisation of people held inside Europe's prisons "remains a critical concern," the report said, noting the first wave of returnees who had been jailed were expected to be released in the coming year.
Central Asian states said returning fighters were a worry, but they also cited concerns over terrorist threats in Afghanistan. The Trump administration is pushing forward with negotiations with the Taliban and has seemed eager to withdraw thousands of U.S. troops.
The Islamic State affiliate there has suffered military setbacks and has failed in its efforts to expand its influence across southeastern Afghanistan, the report said. Still, regional states estimated it had between 2,500 and 4,000 fighters and a "robust capability" to raise money.
Turning to al-Qaida, the report said the movement "remains resilient" despite reports this past week of the death of Hamza bin Laden, who had been groomed by his father to take over its leadership. Its affiliates were stronger than those of the Islamic State across north-central and West Africa.
The movement, the analysts said, "considers Afghanistan a continuing safe haven for its leadership, relying on its long-standing and strong relationship with the Taliban leadership."
Written by: Nick Cumming-Bruce
Photographs by: Ivor Prickett
© 2019 THE NEW YORK TIMES