Between 20,000 and 30,000 members of the Islamic State remain scattered across Iraq and Syria despite near total territorial losses, giving the terror group a pool of militants who can carry out attacks in the region and beyond, a United Nations report says.
The report released Monday by UN sanctions observers concluded that a diminished “covert version” of ISIS will persist in both countries for the foreseeable future, The Associated Press reported.
While ISIS no longer holds large swaths of territory, many of its fighters escaped detection by retreating to remote areas outside the control of security forces or “hiding out in sympathetic communities and urban areas,” the report stated.
“Among these is still a significant component of the many thousands of active foreign terrorist fighters,” the report added.
The UN’s sanctions monitoring team provides independent reports on ISIS and al-Qaeda to the Security Council every six months. The team’s estimate of ISIS ranks in Iraq and Syria came from regional governments that were not identified.
ISIS first overran much of northern and western Iraq and eastern Syria in 2014, capturing sparsely populated territory and major urban areas including Mosul — Iraq’s second largest city — and Raqqa, the self-declared capital of its “caliphate.” After two years of setbacks, a U.S.-backed coalition began to swiftly take back much of the ISIS-held territory, culminating with the liberation of both cities by the end of 2017.
Today, ISIS-controlled territory is mostly limited to small pockets in eastern Syria and mountain hideouts in Iraqi Kurdistan, where disputes between the regional and national governments have drawn attention away from fleeing militants. ISIS “does not fully control any territory in Iraq, but it remains active through sleeper cells,” the UN report stated. (RELATED: Security Forces Repel Suspected ISIS Attack In Iraq’s Kurdish Capital)
One reason for the persistence of ISIS fighters in Iraq and Syria is that the departure of foreign members “remains lower than expected” even as the addition of new foreigners has “essentially come to a halt,” according to the UN report. The group also retains a significant, if much diminished, reserve of capital in the “low hundreds of millions” of U.S. dollars, thanks in part to revenue from oil fields in northeastern Syria. (RELATED: ISIS Kills Hundreds In Syria Bombing Spree)
Elsewhere, ISIS affiliates have gained or maintained strength despite losses in the group’s geographical center. The UN monitors say there are between 3,500 and 4,500 fighters in Afghanistan, and that the numbers there are growing. The group also has up to 4,000 militants dispersed across Libya, and up to 1,000 fighters in Egypt’s Sinai peninsula.
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