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UN official: Terrorists using pandemic to stoke extremism

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This photo provided by the United Nations on Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2021, shows Vladimir Voronkov, the U.N. counter-terrorism chief, as he speaks during a videoconference at the U.N. Security Council's 20th anniversary commemoration of the pivotal resolution to fight terrorism, adopted after the 9/11 attacks on the United States. (Loey Felipe/UN Photo via AP)

CAMEROON – The U.N. counter-terrorism chief warned Tuesday that terrorists are exploiting the COVID-19 pandemic and appealing to new “racially, ethnically and politically motivated violent extremist groups.”

Vladimir Voronkov spoke at the U.N. Security Council’s 20th anniversary commemoration of the pivotal resolution to fight terrorism adopted after the 9/11 attacks on the United States -- and six days after a violent assault on the U.S. Capitol by a pro-Trump mob.

He said that throughout the past two decades, “the threat of terrorism has persisted, evolved and spread.”

Al-Qaida, which was responsible for the 9/11 attacks that killed almost 3,000 people from 90 countries, is still proving resilient despite the loss of numerous leaders, Voronkov said. The Islamic State extremist group, which lost its self-declared caliphate in Iraq and Syria, is still carrying out attacks in the two countries “and seeking to reconstitute an external operations capability.”

Voronkov, who heads the U.N. Counter-Terrorism Office, said terrorists have sought to exploit the COVID-19 crisis, “riding on the wave tops of polarization and hate speech amplified by the pandemic.”

Terrorists have quickly adapted to exploiting cyberspace and new technologies, linking with organized crime figures and finding regulatory, human and technical gaps in countries, he said.

“Their tactics are appealing to new groups across the ideological spectrum, including racially, ethnically and politically motivated violent extremist groups,” Voronkov said.

Assistant U.N. Secretary-General Michele Coninsx called the Security Council's adoption of the U.S.-sponsored anti-terrorism resolution on Sept. 28, 2001, “a seminal moment at which the council and international community acknowledged the severity of the threat posed by transnational terrorism.”

The resolution ordered all countries to criminalize the financing of terrorist acts and ban recruitment, travel and safe havens for anyone involved.

It also established a Counter-Terrorism Committee to monitor implementation of the resolution. Coninsx heads the committee’s Executive Directorate, which was established in 2004 to assess how the U.N.'s 193 member nations are implementing counter-terrorism measures, recommend ways to address gaps, facilitate technical assistance, and analyze counter-terrorism trends.

In recent years, Coninsx said, Islamic State affiliates have emerged in many places, including South Asia, Southeast Asia and several regions of Africa -- the Sahel, Lake Chad Basin and the continent’s south and east.

“The proliferation of extreme right-wing terrorism is also a cause of increasing concern,” she said, adding that included racially and ethnically motivated violence.

Britain’s Foreign Office minister of state, James Cleverly, urged greater attention to “terrorist misuse of social media and other new technologies” and the longer-term impact of COVID-19 on “the terrorism dynamic.”

More specifically, Estonian Defense Minister Juri Luik warned, “We are facing new complex security challenges like cyber and hybrid threats and capabilities like drones that increase the real threat from terrorists to civilian populations and our men and women on operations and missions across the world.”

Ireland’s foreign minister, Simon Coveney, welcomed the committee’s efforts to assess the impact of the pandemic and stressed that “addressing the evolving threat from politically motivated violent extremism and terrorism, especially the growing number of far-right attacks, is part of our responsibility, too.”

U.S. deputy ambassador Richard Mills made no mention of the Capitol attack but said “the United States takes the threat from racially or ethnically motivated terrorist attacks very seriously, and we continue to take action to combat that particular form of terrorism.”

“Last year, for the first time, the State Department designated a white supremacist group as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist,” he said.

Mills also weighed in on the dispute between the council’s Western members and Russia and China over the importance of human rights in tackling terrorism.

It began with Britain’s Cleverly pointing to China’s “severe and disproportionate measures” against the Muslim minority Uighurs as an example of counter-terrorism measures being used “to justify egregious human rights violations and oppression.”

He said Beijing’s detention of up to 1.8 million people in Xinjiang without trial and other well-documented measures runs counter to China’s obligations under international human rights law and to the Security Council’s requirement that counter-terrorism measures comply with those obligations.

Chinese Ambassador Zhang Jun rejected Cleverly’s remarks as “groundless attacks,” calling them “purely politically motivated” with no basis in the facts.

“As a victim of terrorism, China has taken resolute measures to firmly fight terrorism and extremism,” Zhang said. “Our action is reasonable, is based on law, and conforms to the prevailing practice of countries of the region.” He added that its actions protect minority rights.

Without naming China, Mills said the United States “will continue to object to certain countries’ actions to engage in mass detention of religious minorities and members of other minorities, engage in repressive surveillance and mass data collection, and to use coercive poplation control like forced sterilization and abortion.”

Russian Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia called the terrorist threat one of today’s “biggest challenges." But he said the Security Council and its counter-terrorism committee operations put “extra attention to rights aspects of countering terrorism to the detriment of priority security-related tasks.”