UNITED NATIONS • Leaders of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) extremist group are aiming to consolidate and create conditions for an "eventual resurgence in its Iraqi and Syrian heartlands", United Nations experts said in a new report.
The panel of experts said in a report to the UN Security Council last week that the process is more advanced in Iraq, where ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and most of the militant group's leadership are now based, following the fall of the so-called "caliphate" that he declared in the two neighbouring countries.
In Syria, where the last ISIS stronghold was toppled in March, the ISIS covert network is spreading and sleeper cells are being established at the provincial level, mirroring what has been happening in Iraq since 2017, the report said.
As for Al-Qaeda, it said the extremist group "remains resilient" though its immediate global threat is not clear, with its leader Ayman al-Zawahiri "reported to be in poor health and doubts as to how the group will manage the succession".
The report said "the most striking international developments" during the first six months of this year include "the growing ambition and reach of terrorist groups in the Sahel and West Africa", where fighters from ISIS and Al-Qaeda are collaborating to undermine fragile countries.
"The number of regional states threatened with contagion from insurgencies in the Sahel and Nigeria has increased," said the experts, who monitor UN sanctions against both extremist groups.
In a video message in late April, al-Baghdadi said ISIS "still aspires to have global relevance and expects to achieve this by continuing to carry out international attacks", the panel said.
The experts said ISIS is dependent on attacks it inspires, like the Easter Sunday church bombings in Sri Lanka. Al-Baghdadi mentioned the bombings but the panel said ISIS leaders "clearly knew nothing" in advance. Whether or not the Sri Lankan attacks were motivated by the March attack on Muslims at mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, "the narrative of interfaith conflict is concerning", the panel said.
Looking ahead, the experts said ISIS "will reinvest in the capacity to direct and facilitate complex international attacks when it has the secure space and time to do so".
The panel added: "The current abatement of such attacks, therefore, may not last long, possibly not even until the end of 2019."
It said up to 30,000 foreign fighters and others who travelled to the so-called "caliphate" ISIS established may still be alive "and their future prospects will be of international concern for the foreseeable future".
Outside Syria and Iraq, the experts said, ISIS and Al-Qaeda are contending "for dominance and international relevance".
They said that in Afghanistan, concerns remain about short-term and long-term threats posed by groups affiliated with both ISIS and Al-Qaeda as well as "foreign terrorist fighters who have established themselves on Afghan territory".