Terror groups such as the Islamic State, al-Qaeda and their regional affiliates must not be allowed to exploit the increasing “fissures and fragilities” due to the psycho-social, economic and political stresses laid bare by the COVID-19 pandemic, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said on Monday.
“It is too early to fully assess the implications of COVID-19 on the terrorism landscape. But we know that ISIL, al-Qaeda, their regional affiliates – as well as neo-Nazis, white supremacists and other hate groups – seek to exploit divisions, local conflicts, governance failures and grievances to advance their objectives,” Mr Guterres said.
Speaking at the opening of the virtual Counter-Terrorism week, he said the ISIL is continuing its efforts to “reassert” itself in Iraq and Syria, while thousands of foreign terrorist fighters battle in the region, seek to engage in conflict elsewhere, or linger in temporary detention while their family members remain stranded.
Mr Guterres voiced concern that the pandemic has also highlighted vulnerabilities to new and emerging forms of terrorism, such as misuse of digital technology, cyberattacks and bioterrorism.
“Like the virus, terrorism does not respect national borders. It affects all nations and can only be defeated collectively. So we must harness the power of multilateralism to find practical solutions,” he said.
Outlining the key priority areas required for action in counter-terrorism, the UN chief said there is need to tackle the spread of terrorist narratives through pandemic-sensitive, holistic approaches.
“Psycho-social, economic and political stresses associated with COVID-19 have risen dramatically. Terrorists must not be allowed to exploit those fissures and fragilities,” he said.
The week-long discussions aim to provide a platform to discuss the strategic and practical challenges of countering terrorism in a global pandemic environment and will see participation from civil society representatives, private sector, women and victims of terrorism.
Guterres said the exchange of views and ideas this week will feed into next year”s High-Level Counter-Terrorism Week, including the 7th biennial review of the Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy, the 2nd Conference of Heads of Counter-Terrorism agencies of Member States, and the inaugural Congress of Victims of Terrorism.
The UN chief also stressed on the need for the international community to keep up the momentum in the fight against terrorism, saying this will include continuing to invest in national, regional and global counter-terrorism capabilities, especially for countries most in need of assistance.
Nations must also closely monitor evolving terrorist threats and evolving trends and be innovative in their responses. “That means ensuring we have the right technology, tools and concepts to stay ahead of terrorists,” he said.
He also underscored the importance of ensuring that counter-terrorism responses are always gender sensitive – recognizing the violent misogyny at the heart of so many groups – and protect and promote human rights.
“Counter-terrorism laws and security measures cannot be an excuse to shrink civic space, curtail freedom of association and deny other fundamental rights. Full compliance with international humanitarian, human rights and refugee law is essential,” he said.
Mr Guterres said nations also have a collective responsibility to facilitate the repatriation of foreign nationals, particularly women and children, from camps in Syria and Iraq, where the risk of COVID-19 is worsening the already dire security and humanitarian conditions.
UN Member States also need to strengthen information sharing to learn from the experiences and good practices of others in the COVID-19 security landscape, he said, adding that quality capacity building assistance to Member States will remain an important pillar of the United Nations counter-terrorism work.
“We must commit to do more and better. As in every other area of our mission, our work will be assessed by the difference we make in people’s lives.”