UN Chief: Terror groups are winning online, even if they are losing territory

António Guterres criticised internet companies for not doing enough to tackle extremism online

The UN Chief has hit out at internet companies for not doing enough to tackle terrorists' online activities. AP
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Terror groups still gaining ground online even as Isil loses ground in Iraq and Syria, the Secretary-General of the United Nations has said.

António Guterres today warned that despite a global initiative by the technology companies not enough was been done to prevent extremisms exploiting the internet as an asset.

“Modern terrorism is being waged on an entirely different scale, and notably its geographic span. No country can claim to be immune,” he said, citing the central role social media now plays in the recruitment of violent extremists to ISIL’s terrorist campaigns. These sentiments have been echoed today by UK Home Secretary Amber Rudd met French Interior Minister Gérard Collomb.

“It has become an unprecedented threat to international peace, security and development,” Mr Guterres added.

Outlining five key counter-terrorism priorities, he stressed that efforts must not compromise the human rights.

This year has seen a number of high-profile Western attacks, including five in Britain alone, as well as scores of terrorist incidents across the world.

Last year, at least 11,000 terrorist attacks occurred in more than 100 countries, resulting in more than 25,000 total deaths and 33,000 people injured.

It was estimated that the global economic impact of terrorism reached US$ 90 billion in 2015, but this cost may be far higher. In 2015, terrorism costs amounted to 17.3% of GDP in Iraq, 16.8% in Afghanistan.

Speaking at an event in Britain’s capital, Mr Guterres told the audience, “Based on all my experience, and with a sense of urgency, I am here in London to deliver a message: Terrorism is fundamentally the denial and destruction of human rights… We must relentlessly fight terrorism to protect human rights.”.


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The UN chief outlined the ways in which terrorist groups are growing: through the exploitation of conflict zones and ungoverned territories, the lack of development and pervasive poverty working as drivers for terrorism and violent extremism, and through the ease of information dissemination and fund raising through the internet.

“The threat of terrorism is real, dangerous, and unfortunately here for years to come,” he said.

Noting the recent successes in Syria and Iraq, Mr Guterres warned that military operations alone will not be enough to eradicate terrorism.

He outlined the need for stronger international cooperation on counter-terrorism, more work on prevention, investment in the youth, upholding human rights and the rule of law, shutting down terrorist ideology and the need to listen to the victims of terror.

Mr Guterres has put plans in motion to develop a new UN system-wide Global Counter-Terrorism Coordination Compact. Next year, Mr Guterres intends to convene the first-ever UN summit of heads of counter-terrorism agencies with the aim of forging new partnerships and improve trust between organisations.

He urged governments and security agencies to collaborate more effectively in the fight against terror and put pressure on them to implement the 19 different international conventions on counter-terrorism more effectively.

The former prime minister of Portugal added that member states will need to increase international efforts to address terror financing, as well as encouraging security services to improve how they exchange information and act on it.

“It is time for a new era of intelligence-sharing, and collaboration to save lives,” he said.

Violence and poverty are breedings grounds for terrorists. The Secretary-General emphasised the importance of preventing conflict and encouraging sustainable development to curtail these vulnerabilities. Mr Guterres said there remained a need for strong cross-border cooperation to ensure terrorists face prosecution under national laws to serve as a deterrent.

With most new recruits to terrorist organisations being between the ages of 17 and 27 years old, investment in young people must now also be a major element of any prevention strategy, Mr Guterres said.  “Extremist groups can exploit feelings of disillusionment and alienation, offering a twisted sense of purpose to disaffected young people, including women and girls,” he said.

The 68-year-old also raised that although terrorists are losing physical ground in Syria and Iraq, they are gaining virtual ground in cyberspace. Critically, he said the work done by Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter and YouTube in launching an anti-terror partnership was only a start and more has to be done.

Mr Guterres continued to say the importance of upholding human rights and the rule of law “is the safest way to prevent a vicious circle of instability and resentment”.

“Terrorism is fundamentally the denial and destruction of human rights.

“The fight against terrorism will never succeed by perpetuating the same denial and destruction,” Mr Guterres said.

He also outlined the importance of talking about the evils of terrorism and fighting bigotry, as well as listening to and learning from victims of terrorism.

Natalie Samarasinghe, Executive Director, UNA-UK, said: “Whether you’re talking about a sustained campaign by a group or state, or a single attack carried out by a lone actor, the causes of terrorism are complex, rooted in the causes of conflict and political strife, as well as criminality and other social ills. But all are connected, in some way, to the harsh inequalities that exist between and within countries. The impacts of terrorism provide a sobering example: despite the horrific attacks in Europe last year, the continent accounted for less than 1% of terrorism-related deaths. Just five countries – Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Nigeria and Somalia – accounted for more than 70%.

“The UN’s role in preventing conflict and protecting human rights is crucial to countering terrorism. Our governments must do more – politically and financially – to ensure the UN works better for all of the world’s people.”

Meanwhile, UK Home Secretary Amber Rudd met French Interior Minister Gérard Collomb today and discussed joint efforts to fight terrorism. The ministers emphasised the need to maintain and strengthen bilateral cooperation on security and law enforcement and reinforced their commitment to the British-French action plan to ensure the internet is not used as a safe space for terrorists. The ministers committed to push internet companies to go further and faster in taking down terrorist material online.