Fighting terrorism: an impossible challenge?

« A terrorist attack on one country is an attack on humanity as a whole« , said Kofi Annan, former Secretary-General of the United Nations, in the aftermath of the 11 September 2001 attacks. 20 years on, terrorism continues to wreak havoc around the world. While the challenges facing governments are numerous and complex to grasp, a number of initiatives and cooperative ventures are now helping to curb this scourge.

By Camille Léveillé

The international jihadist threat is as pervasive as ever.

In 2023, there are still just as many hotbeds of terrorism around the world as there were in 2001. From the collapse of governments in West Africa to fear of the reconstitution of Daesh in the Iraqi-Syrian zone, not to mention the presence of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen and other groups in East Africa, the jihadist threat is far from over. Unsurprisingly, Afghanistan remains the country most affected by terrorist attacks, particularly since the return of the Taliban to power in August 2021. In 2022, for the fourth year running, Afghanistan will be vying for first place in the ranking of countries most affected by terrorism.1 The presence of some 20 terrorist groups in the country is making the situation increasingly complex, and the fear of small arms and ammunition falling into the hands of terrorists is becoming a reality. In the Al-Hol refugee camp in north-eastern Syria, tens of thousands of people are crammed together in deplorable conditions. The camp is a veritable pressure cooker where the influence of Daesh remains palpable, with some areas even described as a « mini-caliphate » by the camp manager. In particular, the camp manager fears that Daesh will recruit new followers. « It’s an incubator. A child aged 12 to 13 can easily be used by these groups, and there are a lot of them. We need a long-term plan to dismantle them« ,2 she maintains. In Africa, the West African jihadist front is worrying international observers. The increase in the number of attacks, the sophistication of the modus operandi, the growing corruption of local politicians, and the impoverishment of society are all indicators of vulnerability that merit particular attention. Five of the 10 countries in the world most affected by terrorism are African, with Burkina Faso making a worrying jump from 111th place in the Global Terrorism Index 10 years ago to second place this year. In 2022, more deaths due to terrorism occurred in the Sahel region of Africa than in South Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa combined, representing 43% of the world total, compared with just 1% in 2007. This is a worrying new reality, with the risk of contagion and a domino effect that the world is dreading. « During major terrorist campaigns against Western states, jihadists have always been able to maintain the terror thanks to an incubator, a land that they control and on which they can train, organize and recruit. Today, could West Africa become such an incubator? That’s the question. What we notice in this region is that jihadism tends to respond to local problems. Conflicts tend to be community-based, which is why I find it hard to imagine the creation of a common jihadist front in the region« , Alexandre Rodde, Terrorism and Mass Casualty Incident Analyst, points out.

What about the threat in Western Europe?

France is repeatedly the target of threats from propaganda magazines. A few weeks ago, a magazine belonging to Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, a publication that had been dormant for 12 years, threatened to attack a government ministry in France. « Several factors explain why France remains the country most targeted by jihadist terrorism. There is the issue of secularism in France, which is a catalyst in a jihadist attack, coupled with opposition to the 2004 law banning ostentatious religious symbols in schools. Finally, there is the domino effect. When there is an attack, it often leads to others« , Alexandre Rodde explains, before adding, « Since 2017, thanks to everyone’s efforts, we have managed to reduce the state of the threat on French ground. We can say that, after almost 3 years, the threat is mainly autonomous. French jihadists act on their own without needing the validation of a cell abroad, the majority of them have been radicalized in France without contact with abroad. Since they no longer benefit from operational support, they are using weapons that are easier to obtain, such as knives or cars, and the Arras attack of October 2023 is part of this dynamic of low-cost and low-tech terrorism ». This attack, carried out by a Russian national, which claimed the life of a teacher, has rekindled the debate on the expulsion of foreigners who carry out attacks. Gérald Darmanin, the French Minister of the Interior, is proposing: « Identifying dangerous people throughout the country, systematically withdrawing residence permits from foreigners, and systematically expelling any foreigner […] considered to be dangerous by the intelligence services ».In Belgium, the terrorist attack on 16 Octoberthat killed two Swedes was reminiscent of the country’s darkest years. « It seems to me that we were wrong to believe that the Islamist threat was behind us. It turns out that this is not the case, and I fear that vigilance has fallen a little too far in relation to the state of the threat as it exists. […] There has been under-investment in a number of counter-terrorism services. In 2017, 167 people worked in DR3, our counter-terrorism unit. Today there are fewer than 100 »,said Belgian MP Denis Ducarme after the attack.

Global scourge, global response

Last April, after a month of operations in five African countries, 14 people were arrested and explosives seized. This was a great success resulting from cooperation between Interpol and Afripol. A number of states are developing bilateral collaborations to best address these issues. For example, a new counter-terrorism academy, largely financed by France, has been set up in Côte d’Ivoire. Inaugurated in 2021, the Académie Internationale de Lutte Contre le Terrorisme (AILCT) offers three types of training: a unit training camp, a management training school, and a research institute, and has trained nearly 1,000 trainees from 26 African countries. « With this academy, we have one of the most modern, effective and sustainable weapons in the fight against terrorism« ,3 emphasized Chrysoula Zacharopoulou, the French Secretary of State for Development, at the AILCT’s first general meeting. Last April, around 20 magistrates and prison administration managers from Cameroon, Gabon, Djibouti, Nigeria, and Kenya attended a week of training on radicalisation in prisons, given by two French experts from the National Prison Intelligence Service.

Technology: an indispensable asset?

If there is any hope of winning the fight against the international scourge of terrorism, all forces must be deployed. Technology can make a difference. The HOTSPOT initiative, supported by Interpol, uses biometric data to help detect foreign terrorist fighters and criminals seeking to cross borders illegally, and to dismantle the networks that facilitate their movements. Artificial intelligence, advanced analysis, facial recognition and unmanned aerial systems are currently being used by several governments and UN bodies convinced of the opportunities offered by technology in the fight against terrorism. Technology-based initiatives have been established, such as Tech Against Terrorism, which works through a knowledge-sharing platform to train technology companies, governments, and the private sector. They have developed another platform, the Terrorist Content Analytics Platform, « automates the swift detection and removal of verified terrorist content on tech platforms, through work by open-source intelligence experts and AI-driven processes« .4 Particular attention is being paid to small technology companies, which do not always have the resources to moderate such content.

What is there to fear?

The development of new technologies is not just benefiting law enforcement agencies. Today, terrorist groups, aware of the potential benefits, are also seizing on them. In 2019, an ultra-right-wing militant killed two people with a weapon he had 3D printed. This is a new way of obtaining weapons that could inspire some jihadists. While the use of deepfake and generative AI by violent extremists is not yet a reality, it is not the stuff of science fiction. Imagine « […] if terrorist and violent extremist groups start using deepfakes and generative AI to, for example, create a false flag attack and spread disinformation on that account? »5 Anne Craanen, Research Manager at Tech Against Terrorism, asks.

1 Global Terrorism Index 2023