More than 10,000 Islamic State fighters are estimated to remain active in Iraq and Syria two years after the militant group’s defeat, and their attacks have significantly increased this year, the UN counterterrorism chief said. Vladimir Voronkov told the UN Security Council that Islamic State fighters move freely “in small cells between the two countries.” He said the Islamic State extremist group – also known as Isis and Isil – has regrouped and its activity has increased not only in conflict zones like Iraq and Syria but also in some regional affiliates. “However, in non-conflict zones, the threat appears to have decreased in the short term,” he said. “Measures to minimise the spread of Covid-19, such as lockdowns and restrictions on movement, seem to have reduced the risk of terrorist attacks in many countries.” Nonetheless, Voronkov said, “there is a continued trend of attacks by individuals inspired online and acting alone or in small groups, which could be fuelled by Isil’s opportunistic propaganda efforts during the Covid-19 crisis.” He said the Covid-19 crisis has highlighted the challenges of eliminating the threat of terrorism, pointing to actions by Isis and other terrorist groups seeking “to exploit the far-reaching disruption and negative socioeconomic and political impacts of the pandemic”. Who is Mawla the ‘Destroyer’, the new leader of Islamic State? But Voronkov said the pandemic’s impact on Isis recruitment and fundraising activities remains unclear, and there is no clear indication of a change in the extremist group’s strategic direction under its leader, Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Quraishi. Turning to Africa, Voronkov said the Islamic State in West Africa Province “remains a major focus of Isil global propaganda, and its total membership of approximately 3,500 makes it one of the largest of the remote ‘provinces’.” He said it continues to reinforce links with the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, “which remains the most dangerous group in the tri-border area of Burkina Faso, Mali, and the Niger”. While Isis only has “a few hundred fighters in Libya”, he said, they have been exploiting ethnic tensions and represent “a potent threat capable of broader regional impact”. He also pointed to worrying attacks by the Islamic State Central Africa Province in Congo and Mozambique, “including complex attacks and brief takeovers of villages”. In Europe, Voronkov said, the main threat comes from “internet-driven, home-grown terrorist radicalisation,” citing three Isis-inspired attacks in France and two in the United Kingdom. He also noted “acute concerns … about radicalisation and failed rehabilitation in prisons, and the imminent release of dangerous inmates with a terrorism background or connections”. In Afghanistan, Voronkov said, Isis’ affiliate has conducted high-profile attacks in various parts of the country, including Kabul, and seeks to use Afghan territory “to spread its influence across the region” and to attract fighters who oppose the recent peace agreement between the US and the Taliban. Twin bombs in Philippines kill at least 14, blamed on Islamic State-linked rebels Elsewhere in Asia, Isis claimed its first attack in the Maldives in April, he said, and attacks on security forces in Southeast Asia occur regularly though government counterterrorism operations have kept up pressure on the extremists. Voronkov said the Covid-19 crisis has further complicated “the already dire and unsustainable situation” of thousands of people with suspected links to Isis who are stranded in camps in Syria and Iraq, especially women and children. “Repatriation, prosecution, rehabilitation, and reintegration and the protection of the vulnerable have become ever more urgent,” he said. While some countries have repatriated their nationals, especially children, many have not. Voronkov reiterated UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ call for all countries to implement international law and bring home all their stranded women, men and children. “The global threat from Isil is likely to increase if the international community fails to meet this challenge,” the head of the UN Office of Counterterrorism warned. US ambassador Kelly Craft said the United States shares the secretary general’s concern and has brought back American citizens and prosecuted them where appropriate. Afghan troops retake prison after deadly gun battle with Islamic State Despite the Islamic State’s defeat on the battlefield, she said, “we must work together to ensure that the population of detained foreign terrorist fighters as well as their family members displaced in Syria and Iraq do not become the nucleus of an Isis 2.0”. Russia’s UN ambassador Vassily Nebenzia, whose country is Syria’s main ally, said the global terrorist threat from Isis remains high, and its leadership is planning terrorist attacks in the border area between Syria and Iraq. Nebenzia said Isis’ organisation and tactics suggest “that it has now fully transformed into a network structure with a high degree of autonomy of branches and `sleeping cells’ in various countries and regions of the world”.