Covid-19 pandemic rises threats in conflicts

KABUL (Pajhwok): The COVID-19 pandemic has increased the threat from the Islamic State and al-Qaida extremist groups in conflict areas including Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq, but the threat remains comparatively low in non-conflict areas despite a series of attacks in Europe, UN experts said in a new report.

The panel of experts said in a report to the UN Security Council circulated that the threat continued to rise in conflict zones in the last half of 2020 because “the pandemic inhibited forces of law and order more than terrorists” who were able to move and gather freely despite COVID-19 restrictions. The panel said UN member states, which it didn’t name, assess that as restrictions from the pandemic ease in various locations, “a rash of pre-planned attacks may occur.”

“The economic and political toll of the pandemic, its aggravation of underlying drivers of violent extremism and its expected impact on counter-terrorism efforts are likely to increase the long-term threat everywhere,” the experts warned. The panel said Iraq and Syria remain “the core area” for the Islamic State group — also known as IS and ISIL — and Syria’s northwest Idlib region where al-Qaida has affiliates is “a source of concern.”

But the experts said Afghanistan remains the country “worst affected by terrorism in the world.” Despite initial optimism after the Feb. 29, 2020 agreement between the United States and the Taliban and the beginning of direct talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban last September, the panel said the situation in the country “remains challenging.”

More than 600 Afghan civilians and 2,500 members of the country’s security forces have been killed in attacks since last Feb. 29, the experts said, and “terrorist activities and radical ideology continue to be a potential source of threats to the region and globally.” The panel quoted unidentified UN member states as saying the current number of ISIL fighters has fallen to between 1,000 and 2,200.

While prospects of reviving its former offensive and holding territory “appear remote” ISIL has claimed responsibility for many recent high-profile attacks, it said. “Al-Qaida assesses that its future in Afghanistan depends upon its close ties to the Taliban, as well as the success of Taliban military operations in the country,” the experts said, estimating the number of al-Qaida members and their affiliates in the country at between 200 and 500 spread across at least 11 provinces.