US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighters gather as they prepare to expel hundreds of the Daesh jihadists from the Baghouz area in the eastern Syrian province of Deir Ezzor Image Credit: AFP

United Nations: The UN counter-terrorism chief warned Monday that recent losses by Daesh extremists “should not lead to complacency at any level,” saying the extremist group remains a global threat with up to 18,000 militants in Iraq and Syria.

Vladimir Voronkov also told the Security Council that Daesh is reported to have created a network of cells in various cities in Afghanistan, including the capital Kabul, and is closely linked to its leaders in Syria and Iraq.

He said Daesh’s “centre of gravity” remains in Iraq and Syria, where it reportedly controls between 14,000 and 18,000 militants, and its central leadership maintains “an intent to generate internationally directed attacks.”

His briefing on the latest UN report on extremist threats from Daesh and Al Qaida comes as President Donald Trump has ordered a US troop withdrawal in Syria, saying Daesh has been defeated, and a potential troop pullout in Afghanistan.

Voronkov, the undersecretary-general of the UN Office of Counter-Terrorism, said the threat from Daesh has increased because of combatants who fought with the group returning home, relocating or being released.

Michele Coninsx, head of the UN Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate, said Daesh’s dramatic loss of territory “has driven its evolution into a covert and more locally focused network in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere.”

She told the council Daesh aims to undermine stabilisation and rebuilding in its former strongholds in Iraq and Syria.

The extremist group “remains one of the international terrorist groups most likely to carry out a large-scale, complex attack in the future,” Coninsx said.

US deputy ambassador Jonathan Cohen said the significant military setbacks Daesh has suffered, notably in Iraq, Syria and the southern Philippines, are “a testament” to the work of a global coalition to defeat the extremist group.

But he said “much more work remains to be done to defeat ISIS [Daesh].”

Cohen made no mention of any troop withdrawals from Syria or Afghanistan but said “ISIS [Daesh] is seeking to survive, reconstitute and ultimately re-emerge in Iraq and Syria.”

“ISIS [Daesh] is also coordinating with affiliates to plan attacks elsewhere, including Afghanistan, Southeast Asia and West Africa,” he said.

Cohen encouraged all countries to adapt to the changing threat from Daesh, praising the coalition for severely degrading its ability to raise funds and finance its operations “through destroying ISIS [Daesh]-controlled energy assets and removing key ISIS [Daesh] commanders responsible for finance.”

The UN’s Coninsx stressed that Daesh, along with other extremist groups and their affiliates, have “consistently demonstrated their intent and ability to exploit new technologies and seek innovative ways to circumvent obstacles to its financial, technical and recruitment capabilities.”

As examples, she said her experts noted “an increased use of mobile payment services by terrorist groups” in West Africa, and “the misuse of cryptocurrencies for malicious, criminal and terrorist purposes.”

Russia’s UN Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia said that while Daesh’s income from contraband fuel continues to fall, the extremist group seized a number of oilfields in Syria’s eastern province of Deir Al Zor last autumn which enabled it to sell oil at $30-$35 a barrel for a number of months through intermediaries.

He said Daesh and other extremist groups continue to take hostages, participate in the illegal trade in drugs and agricultural products, and the sale of organs and cultural artefacts — and they are constantly looking for new sources of income.

“Their coffers are being filled through trading in industrial products including sulphuric and phosphorous acid and cement,” Nebenzia said. “They’re also investing in fishing in Iraq. They’re speculating on the stock markets, receiving income from cryptocurrencies, playing in online casinos, and also making use of scams on the internet and deliveries of fake medicines.”

He said some fighters are also “compelled to sell the weapons and ammunition that they have.”

And in a number of Afghan provinces, Nebenzia said, there has also been “active illegal mining, processing and deliveries abroad of iron, copper, gold, jewels and semi-precious stones.”