According to the 26th report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team, published on Thursday, most of these fighters were Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) members and were led by Amir Noor Wali Mehsud.
The UN report was on Daesh and al-Qaeda and associated groups operating around the world.
On the topic of COVID-19, the monitoring team said the pandemic was having an effect on terrorism but the impact of coronavirus was varied.
In some regions, groups were using the pandemic to advance propaganda and fundraising, and in some regions, these groups are seeking to take advantage of perceptions that the attention of security forces is diverted elsewhere.
“At the same time, the pandemic has made cross-border travel more difficult and targets more elusive, and the operational tempo of attacks has slowed discernibly in some regions,” read the report.
The report stated that al-Qaeda meanwhile is entrenching in regions beyond its historical stronghold in Afghanistan, where it faces a serious challenge if the peace process develops momentum.
The group “exploits the tarnished ISIL (Daesh) brand and societal fractures to enhance legitimacy and gain local traction and recruits. The relationship between ISIL and al-Qaeda remains fraught and idiosyncratic, depending on regional dynamics.”
The report stated that Daesh had suffered severe reverses in its former Afghan strongholds of Nangarhar and Kunar Provinces, “but it is too soon to discount it as a threat”.
The report warned that Daesh does however hope to exploit changing dynamics between the Taliban, Daesh and al-Qaeda in the context of the Afghan peace process.
According to the agreement between the US and the Taliban, signed in February, it is envisaged that the Taliban will continue to fight Daesh and suppress any threat from al-Qaeda.
However, the report stated that al-Qaeda and Daesh in West Africa and Sahel continued to enjoy operational success in early 2020.
The report added that the strength of al-Qaeda in and around Idlib in the north-west of Syria and “the fragility of the situation” was troubling. Daesh “also enjoys safe haven in that region.” read the report.
Meanwhile, the UN stated that Daesh continues to suffer losses in Afghanistan’s Kunar province, to where it moved from Nangarhar at the end of 2019.
In April and May, the Afghan special forces conducted a series of countrywide operations that led to the arrest of leaders of the group, including Aslam Farooqi (aka Abdullah Orokzai) and other senior members.
The report stated that some entities claim Daesh is seeking to pursue “a global agenda” by implementing its core’s leadership approach, which considers Afghan territory a base for spreading terrorist influence across the wider region.
In addition, the report stated that although in territorial retreat, Daesh remains capable of carrying out high-profile attacks in various parts of the country, including Kabul.
“It also aims to attract Taliban fighters who oppose the agreement with the United States. In case of further military pressure on (Daesh) in Kunar, the group is expected to retreat to Badakhshan and other northern provinces,” read the report.
The UN’s Monitoring Team estimates the current Daesh membership in Afghanistan is around 2,200. They say the leader is Matiullah Kamahwal and Syrian national Abu Said Mohammad al-Khorasani.
The UN’s team was informed that two senior Daesh commanders, Abu Qutaibah and Abu Hajar al-Iraqi, had arrived in Afghanistan from the Middle East. No date was however given.
Through foreign terrorist fighters, Daesh has reportedly maintained contact with the new overall Daesh leader, al-Mawla.
The report stated a number of other terrorist groups are also active in Afghanistan, most operating under the umbrella of the Taliban but some aligned with Daesh.
The death of Abdukholik, the head of the Uzbek fighters in Daesh, in January 2020, contributed to the departure of some of the Uzbek component of the group, in particular family members.
One group of Central Asian fighters went to Faryab province, where they joined the 1,500-strong Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) group. Another reportedly traveled to Kabul province, planning to leave Afghanistan via Iran for Turkey to join the local pro-Daesh Central Asian diaspora.
The report also states al-Qaeda is covertly active in 12 Afghan provinces and the group’s Egyptian leader Aiman al-Zawahiri remains based in the country. The total number of al-Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan is between 400 and 600.
“The leadership maintains close contact with the Haqqani Network. In February 2020, al-Zawahiri met with Yahya Haqqani, the primary Haqqani Network contact with al-Qaeda since mid-2009, to discuss ongoing cooperation.”
The UN report also stated that al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) operates under the Taliban umbrella from Nimruz, Helmand and Kandahar provinces.
The group reportedly has between 150 and 200 members from Bangladesh, India, Myanmar and Pakistan. This group “is reportedly planning retaliation operations in the region to avenge the death of its former leader,” the report read.
This latest report comes after the US State Department issued its Country Reports on Terrorism 2019 last month.
In its report, the US stated Pakistan remains a “safe haven” for a host of regional terror groups, including the Afghan Taliban, and the al-Qaeda linked Haqqani Network.
The Long War Journal quoted the State Department as having said: “Pakistan continued to serve as a safe haven for certain regionally-focused terrorist groups.,
“It allowed groups targeting Afghanistan, including the Afghan Taliban and affiliated HQN [Haqqani Network], as well as groups targeting India, including LeT [Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jamaat-ud-Dawa] and its affiliated front organizations, and JeM [Jaish-e-Mohammad], to operate from its territory.”
After noting that Pakistan has taken “modest steps in 2019 to counter terror financing and to restrain some India-focused militant groups,” the State Department criticized Pakistan for failing “to take decisive actions against Indian- and Afghanistan-focused militants who would undermine their operational capability.”
The State Department also blasted Pakistan for harboring wanted terrorists, including JeM emir Masood Azhar and LeT commander Sajid Mir, who was a mastermind of the November 2008 terror attacks across Mumbai, in India.
Azhar and Mir “are widely believed to reside in Pakistan under the protection of the state, despite government denials,” the Long War Journal stated.