Explained | ISIS deploys cryptocurrency, NATO-grade weapons to revive its reign of terror

Islamic State terrorist group is reported to be using regional versions of cryptocurrency, including so-called stablecoins, and is increasingly relying on virtual assets for international funds transfers, according to a UN report. 

The 17th report of the Secretary-General on the threat posed by ISIL (Da’esh) to international peace and security said that the group continues to use extortion and kidnap-for-ransom as the primary means for raising funds for its operation. 

The report added that illicit taxation of the population and the ‘collection of charitable donations are other sources of funding’. 

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Illicit gold panning, smuggling, arms trafficking, cattle rustling, poaching, levies on economic activity, taxes on goods shipments and the provision of transport services and escort or protection services serve as other nodes of funding of its increasingly decentralised terror activities. 

Focus on decentralisation of the ISIS

While assessing the threat posed by the group, the report notes that the ISIS has adopted less hierarchical and more networked, “decentralised structures”, with operational autonomy in the affiliated groups. The report adds that the countries have little evidence to claim that the core leadership is exercising command and control of regional affiliates. However, financial, propaganda and other connections remain, it noted further. 

The report further elucidates that that despite group’s previously well-developed external operations capability becoming diminished with time, its “ambition to reconstitute is clear”. 

ISIS now has access to NATO-calibre weapons

The report noted that with the takeover of Taliban extremists in Afghanistan, the NATO-calibre weapons were being transferred to ISIS-affiliated groups by the groups affiliated with the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, such as Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan. 

In the core conflict zone in Syria, the ISIS has reportedly transitioned to producing fewer, simpler and smaller improvised explosive devices and to now using suicide vests only as a last resort, to avoid the loss of manpower. 

The group has also created a so-called Industry Committee within its structures to explore new avenues for advancement in weaponry, such as improvised explosive devices and increased payloads for drones.

ISIS continues its ‘Cubs of the Caliphate’ programme to recruit children

The report noted that the ISIS continues to maintain its “Cubs of the Caliphate” programme. According to NATO Defense College Foundation, the ‘Cubs of the Caliphate’ was purportedly started to recruit the children who were exploited by group during the armed conflicts in its quasi-state within Iraq and Syria. The programme was created to serve one purpose, to ensure the continuity of the so-called Caliphate and to convey ISIS ideology and message to future generations all over the world.

The UN report characterises the programme “as more operationally experienced and more organised”. 

One Member State reported that children continued to be recruited within the camp for Da’esh suicide operations, noted the UN report.

How many ISIS members left?

The manpower ISIS had at the peak of its reign of terror in the early 2010s has diminished due to sustained counter-terrorism operations. At present, with its diminished force is terrorists, the group is becoming increasingly risk-averse to personal losses, with plans to release its prisoners and recruit from vulnerable communities. 

The UN report said that despite the sustained counter-terrorism operations by Member States, the ISIS “core persists and continues to command between 5,000 and 7,000 members across Iraq and the Syria, most of whom are fighters. 

“The group deliberately adopted a strategy to reduce attacks, in order to facilitate recruiting and reorganiation. Although most senior Da’esh leaders remain in the north-west of the Syrian Arab Republic, the group has relocated some key figures elsewhere,” it added. 

In Yemen, however, the strength of ISIS has further declined to be around 100 fighters. But in what can be described as a sign of desperate times, the UN report noted “opportunistic cooperation and profit-sharing between Al-Qaeda in the Arabian peninsula and the ISIS affiliate in Yemen in kidnapping-for-ransom operations. 

ISIS has increased its operational capabilities in Afghanistan: UN report

The UN report assessed the ISIS affiliate active in Afghanistan as the “most serious terrorist threat” in Afghanistan and wider region. 

The group has reportedly focused on a strategy of carrying out high-profile attacks to undermine the Taliban’s ability to provide security, the report noted. 

What has boosted the morale and subsequently the purported recruitment of ISIS-Khorasan group is successful attacks against high-profile Taliban figures in Balkh, Badkhashan and Baghlan provinces. 

What is happening to suspected ISIS members in conflict zones?

The report noted that in the north-east of Syria, some 55,000 individuals remained in the closed Hawl and Rawj camps for their alleged links or family ties to the ISIS.

“Approximately two thirds of the population in the camps are children, including 11,838 Syrian children, as well as approximately 15,800 children from Iraq and 6,730 children from more than 60 other countries,” it noted.

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