In response to the assessment, a senior lawmaker questioned whether race explains why the U.S. is not more involved in the fight there.
Obama administration officials testifying before the Senate said that even as Africans continue to struggle with militant groups such as Boko Haram and al-Shabaab, they face the specter of ISIS, also known as ISIL, working to infiltrate their continent in ways that could intensify the terrorist threat.
"We are concerned about the risk that the presence and potential expansion of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant on the continent will grow," Assistant Secretary of State Linda Thomas-Greenfield told the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, using one of ISIS' many names.
She said that the number of people killed by African militant groups was "as large, if not larger, than the number of people killed by ISIL."
As senators debated the role of the State Department and Pentagon in helping counter African terrorist movements, they noted that the continent's 54 countries contain seven of the world's 10 fastest-growing economies and now provide the U.S. with more oil than the Middle East.
But they also pointed to conflicts that continue to scar the continent, with eight of the United Nation's largest peacekeeping operations located in Africa as well as the growing terrorist threat.
Given these factors, Sen. Tim Kaine, a Virginia Democrat seen as a potential vice president to Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton, questioned why the U.S. isn't more active in Africa.
"We've got to look in the mirror and ask if race is a reason," Kaine said.
Kaine said history shows that race can color policy decisions. He pointed to the decision to intern Japanese-Americans during World War II when the vast majority of German-Americans weren't. And Kaine cited analysts who question why in the 1990s the U.S. was willing to intervene in the Balkans to stop a potential genocide but couldn't muster the same will to act in Rwanda.
He also pointed to media coverage of terror attacks in Mali, Burkina Faso and Chad that was greatly eclipsed by the attention paid to similar attacks in Europe.
It suggests, Kaine said, that "some lives are worth less than others."
Thomas-Greenfield said that to date, African terrorism has largely been focused on Africa and hasn't posed a comparable threat to the U.S. or Europe. She and other officials outlined U.S. efforts to fight the threat by addressing corruption, improving governance and strengthening economies. And they flagged the importance of working with women and girls to identify the seeds of radicalism.
Justin Siberell, the State Department's acting coordinator for counterterrorism, said that ISIS' shift into Africa isn't going completely smoothly, noting that in Somalia the al-Shabaab militant group has fought back.
But as other groups like Nigeria's Boko Haram declare an affiliation with ISIS -- changing its name last year to Islamic State West Africa Province -- it raises the specter that terrorist groups in Africa "will start to change their focus" and shift to more international targets, Siberell said.
"As we have seen elsewhere in the world, ISIL seeks to co-opt existing terrorist groups, as well as local insurgencies and conflicts to expand its network and advance its agenda," said Thomas-Greenfield, who heads the State Department's Bureau of African Affairs.