Counterterrorism experts said Tuesday that Africa is now the world's terrorism hot spot, with half of the victims killed last year in sub-Saharan Africa, though al-Qaida and Islamic State affiliates remain widespread, persistent and active elsewhere around the globe.
Interpol, the international criminal police agency, also reported during a panel discussion at the U.N. that terrorism linked to extreme right-wing ideology increased an estimated 50-fold over the past decade, particularly in Europe, North America and parts of the Asia-Pacific.
The experts see other trends: Deteriorating global security is making the terrorism threat "more complex and decentralized." Extremists are increasingly using sophisticated technology, and drones and artificial intelligence have opened new ways to plan and carry out attacks.
The United Nations this week is hosting its third high-level conference of heads of counterterrorism agencies. Tuesday's panel on assessing current and emerging terrorist trends and threats brought together experts from the U.N., Interpol, Russia, the United States and Qatar, and Google's senior manager for strategic intelligence.
The overall theme for the week is addressing terrorism through reinvigorated international cooperation. U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said during Monday's opening session the key is to unite not only in foiling attacks but also critically to focus on preventing terrorism by tackling poverty, discrimination, poor infrastructure, gross human rights violations and other underlying drivers.
Africa 'key battleground'
At Tuesday's session, it was Africa that took the spotlight.
"Africa has emerged as the key battleground for terrorism, with a major increase in the number of active groups operating on the continent," U.N. Assistant Secretary-General Khaled Khiari said, noting that local political, economic and social "fractures," porous borders, and "identity-based mobilization" had fueled the emergence of al-Qaida and the Islamic State group, also known as ISIS.
Several areas of the continent, from Burkina Faso and the Sahel and more broadly to Chad and Sudan, still face the consequences of the flow of weapons and foreign fighters from Libya, Khiari said.
Oil-rich Libya plunged into chaos following the NATO-backed uprising that toppled and killed longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi in 2011. After the Islamic State's self-styled caliphate was defeated in Iraq in 2017, many of its foreign fighters fled to the North African nation.
Colonel General Igor Sirotkin, deputy director of Russia's Federal Security Service and head of its National Anti-Terrorism Committee, told the meeting that West Africa, especially the Maghreb and the Sahel, "are becoming the epicenter of the Islamist terrorist threat, with the armed terrorist groups expanding their influence, and we see the danger of ISIS being reincarnated as an African caliphate."
Qatar's special envoy for counterterrorism, Mutiaq Al-Qahtani, who said half the victims of terrorist acts last year were in sub-Saharan Africa, called for counterterrorism efforts to focus on the continent.
Justin Hustwitt, the coordinator of experts monitoring U.N. sanctions against the Islamic State and al-Qaida, said the situation in West Africa continues to deteriorate and IS "seems to be trying to position itself as a political actor."
He said IS in the greater Sahara is taking advantage of the lack of counterterrorism operations, especially in the tri-border area of Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger, and there are "growing concerns" about IS and al-Qaida taking advantage of any opportunity in Congo.
'Aftershocks' from wars
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Elsewhere, the U.N.'s Khiari said the Middle East also continues to suffer "aftershocks" from the wars in Iraq, Syria and Yemen.
Interpol's counterterrorism director, Gregory Hinds, said al-Qaida- and IS-related groups continue to inspire and carry out attacks in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, North America, Europe "and now across Africa and Asia at alarming pace."
Hinds said the 50-fold increase in terrorism linked to extreme right-wing ideology "is being influenced by global events and global agenda."
Secretary-General Guterres also said "neo-Nazi and white supremacist movements are fast becoming the primary internal security threats in a number of countries."
Number of conflicts growing
On the significant deterioration of global security in the last few years, the U.N.'s Khiari said the number of conflicts globally is on the rise again after two decades of consistent decline, and their nature has changed.
"Civil wars that start off locally are more likely to become internationalized, and conflict parties are increasingly fragmented," he said. "Civil wars aggravate grievances and foment regional international instabilities creating a fertile ground for non-state armed groups, including terrorist groups, to proliferate."
On a more positive note, Gregory LoGerfo, the U.S. State Department's deputy coordinator for counterterrorism, said IS has not only been defeated in Iraq and Syria but its leadership has been "taken out or captured," large-scale attacks have been prevented, and billions have been invested in stabilizing the region.
"But for all of our progress, we're not done yet," he said, expressing concern at increasingly frequent attacks by al-Qaida affiliates and expanding IS branches that are "ravaging" West Africa.
The U.N.'s Hustwitt echoed that Daesh's leadership has suffered serious attrition, adding that "the group's resources are depleting, and they are very focused on revenue generation."
Tobias Peyeri, Google's senior manager for strategic intelligence who formerly worked for the U.N. Office of Counter-Terrorism, said the company bans content produced by or supporting designated terrorist organizations, and is committed to fighting "the hatred and extremism that leads to terrorist violence."
But he said bad actors, such as extremist groups, "continue to become more savvy in evading detection," citing as examples their use of coded communications, complex narratives and conspiracy theories, and their modifications of existing popular computer games.
To counter these efforts, he said Google relies on expertise in local markets, "advanced AI-driven visual matching technologies," special detection technologies, and other measures.