Sri Lankan soldiers stand guard at St Anthony's Shrine in Colombo on April 25, 2019, after the bombing. Photo: AFP/Jewel Samad

Islamic State is reinvesting in its ability to carry out sophisticated operations from Europe to South Asia by the end of 2019, a United Nations report has found.

“The ISIL covert network in the Syrian Arab Republic is spreading, and cells are being established at the provincial level, mirroring that which has been happening since 2017 in Iraq,” the UN Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team said.

In the near term, the Islamic State will rely on locally-planned attacks in “unexpected locations,” similar to the Easter bombings carried out in Sri Lanka, they assessed. But the report, presented to the Security Council in July, warns that externally-planned attacks in high profile locations could ramp up as early as four months from now.

“ISIL will reinvest in the capacity to direct and facilitate complex international attacks when it has the secure space and time to do so. The current abatement of such attacks, therefore, may not last long, possibly not even until the end of 2019,” it said.

Tens of thousands of Islamic State loyalists and their children are now corralled in desert camps in northeastern Syria, where they were detained by US-backed Kurdish forces following the surrender of the last pocket of the caliphate in March.

Neighboring Turkey has now threatened to seize the area from the Kurds – raising the possibility that some of Islamic State’s most hardcore members could escape.

Get out of jail

The UN report estimates that up to 30,000 foreign nationals who traveled to Syria and Iraq to join the caliphate are still alive, whether at large in the region, detained or relocated to Europe.

These caliphate veterans now pose a radicalization threat, whether in prison or out.

“The radicalization of criminals within the prison system remains a critical concern in Europe, where prisons provide a venue for inmates afflicted by poverty, marginalization, frustration, low self-esteem and violence to be influenced by radical ideologies,” it said.

“In addition, some of the first wave of returnees from the ‘caliphate’ to be imprisoned are expected to be released in the coming year.”

The monitoring team which carried out the report emphasized that data on the exact number of repatriations of foreign fighters to Europe and other regions remains sketchy.

Approximately 2,000 nationals from the former Soviet states are now detained in northeastern Syria. Central Asian nations including Tajikistan and Uzbekistan cite their own citizens returning from the battlefields of Syria and Iraq are currently their primary terrorist threat. Central Asian migrant laborer communities in Russia and Turkey are also seen as particularly vulnerable to recruitment.

The report also flags South and Southeast Asia as prime targets for Islamic State returnees, as evidenced by both successful and thwarted attacks.

“Two troubling trends observed are the targeting of places of worship and the continued prominence of women in operational activities,” it said.

Both returnees and attempted jihadists have been linked to attacks in Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines.

‘Start-up’ jihad

Islamic State has been resourceful in financing its activities post-caliphate, the report found, using small and medium-sized business to generate revenue, offering “seed money” to new affiliates and stashing valuable antiquities for a rainy day.

“One Member State described ISIL affiliates being treated in a manner similar to start-up businesses, receiving ‘seed money’ and advice from head office,” it said.

The group is estimated to have anywhere from US$50-300 million at its disposal to carry out its activities. However, “the group is adapting to its insurgency role with far fewer demands on its financial holdings.”

The UN investigators learned that monetary transfers persist, with family members of active militants using personal or small business bank accounts in countries neighboring a given conflict zone – the cash then passed on by courier.

Mobile payment applications and cryptocurrencies are cited as ripe for exploitation. A special ISIS unit – the ministry of “natural resources” – is believed to be responsible for the sale of antiquities which the group had excavated in Iraq and Syria.

“Details of traded antiquities, as well as the current location of any stored antiquities, are assessed to be known only by ISIL leaders.”

Preserving that leadership, at the top of which is self-proclaimed caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, remains the primary concern of the group.

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