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Security and Terrorism: Taking a Backseat at Biarritz?

Genevieve Zingg, G7 Research Group
September 7, 2019

Overshadowed by the ongoing trade war between China and the United States, this year's G7 summit in Biarritz, France, on August 24–26, was notably light on discussions about terrorism and global security. Bilateral meetings between leaders in Biarritz were principally concerned with economic interests, with security and international flashpoints relegated to the backseat. The shift in focus reflected the growing divisions among the G7 members, with the group forced to look inward and smooth inter-group turbulence at the expense of substantive plurilatilateral diplomacy on a broader scale.

Iran and the Future of the JCPOA

The security agenda in Biarritz was largely dominated by Iran, particularly with the surprise arrival of Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif on Sunday, the summit's second day. Zarif held "extensive" bilateral talks with his French counterpart Jean-Yves Le Drian as well as with President Emmanuel Macron, following which he attended a joint briefing with the British and German delegations. French officials called the discussions "positive." On Twitter Zarif remarked that the "Road ahead is difficult. But worth trying."

At their joint press briefing, U.S. president Donald Trump and Macron sought to diminish rumours that Zarif's arrival had blindsided the American delegation. Trump insisted that he had foreknowledge of the parallel talks with Iran. Macron reiterated that the talks merely indicated the obvious interest of other parties to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in negotiating a solution. American foreknowledge of Zarif's arrival at the G7 was arguably supported by Trump's unexpectedly calm and receptive reaction: when asked at his final G7 press briefing if it was realistic to expect a meeting with Iranian president Hassan Rouhani in the coming weeks, Trump responded positively.

Zarif's surprise arrival at the G7 came a year after Trump had unilaterally pulled the United States out of the multilateral JCPOA nuclear deal, and amid a "maximum pressure" U.S. sanctions regime imposed on Iran. The other five countries committed to the JCPOA — France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Russia and China, in addition to the European Union — have grown increasingly concerned by Iran's escalation of tensions in response to sanctions. Just before Biarritz, Iran had seized a British oil tanker in the Strait of Hormuz and test fired new missiles.

Paris had led attempts to broker a détente between Washington and Tehran, suggesting the easing of sanctions or the provision of an economic compensation mechanism to address Iran's lost oil revenues. Specifically, Paris proposed providing Iran with a $15 billion credit line. At his final briefing at the G7, however, Trump dismissed French proposals for providing compensation, stating that he would only consider a loan secured by oil: "They're out of money and they may need a short-term line of credit or loan to get over a rough patch. If they do need money it would be secured by oil; it would be by numerous countries, would expire in a short term and be paid back immediately."

The immediate question following the G7 summit whether Macron's gamble on Iran was a strategic folly likely to anger the United States or a smart diplomatic manoeuvre that might successfully break the stalemate on Iran. Despite cautious optimism in the press briefings at Biarritz, U.S.-Iran relations have deteriorated rapidly in the weeks since the summit. On August 27, only a day after Trump expressed his willingness to meet his Iranian counterpart, Rouhani rejected any possibility of a meeting until economic sanctions imposed on Iran were removed, likening the sanctions to "economic terrorism" and warning that Iran would only change its behaviour toward the United States "if they show remorse." On September 4, the Trump administration announced new sanctions on an oil shipping network with ties to Iran's Revolutionary Guard. Then, Rouhani said that Iran would abandon restrictions on its nuclear research and development, including on the advancement of centrifuges used to enrich uranium.

The downward spiral in relations with Tehran was due in part to diplomatic negotiations surrounding the Adrian Darya 1, an Iranian tanker seized by British commandos off Gibraltar in July. The Adrian Darya 1 has become a source of particular political embarrassment to the West, after a Gibraltar court ordered its release on the basis of Iranian assurances that the vessel's 2.1 million barrels of oil would not go to Syria, the tanker went dark near the port at Tartus. Iran appears to have reneged on its promises to the United Kingdom, delivering the $130 million cargo of crude oil to Syria in violation of EU sanctions.

The Adrian Darya 1 situation also threw an awkward spotlight on the United States, as it emerged that the Trump administration tried and failed to bribe the tanker's captain with several million dollars in return for docking the ship in a country that would allow the United States to seize the vessel. The failure prompted mockery from Iranian officials and further strained relations between Tehran and the G7 members, particularly the United States and United Kingdom. At this point, it certainly seemed that Macron's efforts in Biarritz to renew talks between Tehran and Washington had failed to bear fruit.

Stability and Security in the Sahel

The Sahel was the second most prominent security issue at Biarritz. The G7 members codified their commitment to security in the region through the Sahel Partnership Action Plan (SPAP), which recognized a formal alliance between the G7 members and the G5 Sahel, a regional bloc formed in 2014. Composed of Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger, the G5 Sahel was created to foster economic development as a path to increased regional security, and to improve joint cooperation on fighting jihadist groups operating in the Sahel, particularly Boko Haram and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

In an official document released by the French presidency, the G7 voiced its alarm at the "deteriorating security and humanitarian situation" and the "spread of inter-community violence in the Sahel region, which has been compounded by growing instability in the Lake Chad Basin." The SPAP aimed to address these issues by supporting security sector reform and strengthening security forces in the G5 Sahel countries in an effort to enhance their defence and internal security capabilities.

The G7 further called for a stronger presence of the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) in order to enhance the protection of civilians, reduce violence, and reestablish state presence and basic social services. France and Germany made clear that they would not send troops to the Sahel region: the idea of the partnership was to support and strengthen local military, police and security apparatuses rather than sending European military units.

At a joint press briefing held by Macron, German chancellor Angela Merkel and Burkina Faso president and G5 Sahel chair Roch Marc Christian Kaboré on August 25, the overarching aims of the partnership were outlined in greater detail. Merkel emphasized the two-pillar approach of the G7 strategy in the Sahel: support for the G5 Sahel forces and for the MINUSMA training mission. Merkel stressed that stabilizing the region was imperative to ensure wider global security objectives by disrupting the oprations of major Islamic jihadist terrorist groups: "One thing has become clear yet again: we are in a race with terrorists. We cannot say that the security situation has improved. Germany is committed to this and sees this as a very important initiative."

Though Boko Haram has primarily been active in Nigeria, Chad, Niger and Cameroon, the group's recent pledge of allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and status as one of the world's deadliest terrorist organizations has rendered it a threat to security on an international scale. AQIM, whose central objectives include the overthrow of "apostate" governments in North Africa, the replacement of Western-friendly regimes in North Africa with hardline fundamentalist governments, and the forced withdrawal of Western military operations from Mali and Libya, posed a similarly transnational threat. AQIM had explicitly named France and Spain as two of its primary enemies, the former due to its colonial history in North Africa and the latter targeted in an effort to reclaim the former Islamic regions of southern Spain. Although AQIM was primarily active in Algeria, and had not yet perpetrated attacks within G7 members, arrests of suspects with links to AQIM have occurred in the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy, Portugal and the Netherlands. American intelligence also warned of AQIM plans to attack the United States. In sum, stabilizing the region and supporting the G5 Sahel's fight against Islamic jihadist groups was of critical importance to the national security of G7 members, particularly its European members.

At the joint press briefing, Kaboré highlighted Libya's importance to stabilizing the Sahel. The collapse of the Gaddafi regime and an ill-planned western military intervention in Libya, which shares its southern border with Sudan, Chad and Niger, had a critical impact on terrorism in the Sahel and surrounding areas since 2011. Taking advantage of the instability in Libya, AQIM and ISIS used the country as a base from which to launch attacks in Algeria (2013) and Tunisia (2015–16). At the G7, Kaboré urged all partners to find a solution to the ongoing problems in Libya in order to stabilize the situation in the Sahel.

The stability and security initiative for the Sahel was criticized by the humanitarian and development sectors. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs), among them the Norwegian Refugee Council and Action Against Hunger, issued statements immediately following the G7 expressing deep concern over the "lack of strong measures" to address the crisis in the Sahel. The humanitarian sector criticized the partnership for focusing exclusively on military cooperation and counterterrorism support while failing to address development-related crises of food insecurity and extreme poverty, factors generally considered major driving causes of terrorism. The Norwegian Refugee Council statement reads: "What civilians in the Sahel need right now are ambitious financial commitments to guarantee access to basic services (health, water, education), but no new funds have been pledged for the Sahel region by G7 leaders." Moreover, NGOs warn that the delivery of humanitarian aid may be affected by increased military mobilization in the region.

Combating Extremism Online

Third on the security agenda at Biarritz was the growing problem of online extremism and the role of the Internet in modern radicalization processes and terrorist operations. In Biarritz, the G7 sought to address this issue together with its guest leaders of Australia, Chile, India, South Africa and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), publishing a joint strategy for an "Open, Free and Secure Digital Transformation." The official document recognised the issue of online abuse, particularly its disproportionate impact on women and minorities, and affirmed the need to reinforce democracies "against illicit and malign behavior and foreign hostile interference by state and non-state actors."

The rather general rhetoric in the published strategy was meant to be supplemented by the creation of a new charter against online hate speech. Directed at both national governments and global social media platforms, the Charter for an Open, Free, and Safe Internet would have committed parties to several concrete measures aimed at preventing the spread of dangerous content on the internet. According to the French presidency, the charter aimed to combat extremism online by imposing new requirements on social media platforms in relation to the removal and moderation of content, the improvement of responses to complaints, and better support for victims of hate speech and abuse online.

The charter failed to gain traction at the G7, largely as a result of Trump's refusal to endorse it. Initially scheduled for Friday on the official G7 program, the charter signing ceremony was pulled from the agenda. Macron confirmed on the final day of the summit that the United States had not agreed to sign the charter, citing "legal reasons." The United States was the only G7 member that failed to agree to the proposed charter. Trump reportedly pressured the executives of American social media platforms including Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter and Snapchat against signing the charter. Washington later denied these reports and suggested instead that U.S. tech companies had felt "bullied" by France to agree to it.

A second initiative related to combating extremism online was set to be launched by Australian prime minister Scott Morrison, attending the summit as a guest. In cooperation with New Zealand and the OECD, Morrison was scheduled to announce on Monday a global voluntary code that would require digital platforms to regularly report detailed data on their efforts to prevent, detect, and remove terrorist and violent extremist content. This announcement was similarly removed from the G7 agenda, likely having run into the same U.S. objections as the aforementioned charter. The Australian initiative was intended to build on successful efforts at the 2019 G20 summit in Osaka, where world leaders sent a joint message to social media platforms urging them to step up efforts against the proliferation of extremist and violent content online.

The G7's lack of progress on combating extremist content online was a disappointing outcome, but one arguably reflecting the First Amendment–based differences in legal culture between the United States and its G7 counterparts rather than significant internal discord on this issue. Nonetheless, the G7's failure to produce anything substantive in this regard was a major failure, which highlighted an insufficient response to emerging security concerns.

Well known for being used by radical Islamic terrorist networks to plot attacks and radicalize new recruits, the internet has been increasingly recognized as a key facilitator of white supremacist and right-wing terrorism as well as misogynistic violence against women. The stateless character of the internet has allowed violent extremists of various persuasions to connect across borders, prompting new discussions of what constitutes international terrorism and posing new threats to domestic and global security. The G7 leaders missed an important opportunity to acknowledge the rise of white supremacist terrorism and discuss how existing counterterrorism techniques can better detect and prevent this particulary strain of violent extremism. Moreover, given the French presidency's intended focus on gender equality at this year's G7 summit, it was a sorry oversight not to recognize and discuss the links between misogyny, violence against women and terrorism.

Failure to Address Pressing Global Security Flashpoints

Several global security flashpoints of joint interest to all G7 countries were conspicuously absent from the security agenda in Biarritz. For example, only briefly discussed at the G7 was North Korea. Asked about Pyongyang's recent string of short-range ballistic missile tests, Trump said he was "not happy" about it but also noted that Kim Jong un "is not in violation of any agreement." Trump's nonchalance was at odds with the position of Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe, who viewed the launches as a serious breach of relevant United Nations resolutions and called them "extremely regrettable." Nuclear disarmament experts voiced concern about the muted response to Pyongyang's missile tests, warning that Trump's casual dismissal was viewed by Kim as a licence to escalate its weapons program. Japan and G7 members with allies and interests in East Asia seemed unwilling to make the issue of North Korea a priority at the summit, an unwelcome byproduct of Trump's notorious sensitivity to both bilateral and multilateral diplomatic pressure.

A second issue that should have generated substantive discussion in Biarritz was the situation in Kashmir. Since revoking Article 370 on August 5, India had imposed a curfew and lockdown on seven million residents of Kashmir and a complete communications blackout, triggering the worst political crisis between India and Pakistan in more than 70 years. Rights activists say that at least 3,000 people were detained by security forces in the disputed territory while journalists reported harassment, threats and unlawful restrictions on movement and expression. Both India and Pakistan are among the world's nine nuclear powers, rendering the tensions a critical threat to global security. Yet the issue barely arose at the G7: Macron urged Indian prime minister Narendra Modi, who attended the summit as a guest, "to ensure the rights of Kashmir civilians are respected," and Trump deferred to Modi during their bilateral talks, saying when asked about Kashmir: "The Prime Minister really feels he has it under control." G7 leaders were remiss not to prioritize a joint diplomatic effort to temper growing India-Pakistan hostilities.

Finally, the ongoing armed conflict in Syria merited serious discussion at the G7 on several fronts. First, five G7 members were militarily engaged in Syria and all had strategic, economic and political interests in countering Russian and Iranian influence in the country. Further, given Turkey's membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and historical alignment with several G7 members, Biarritz presented an opportunity to formulate a strategy to stop Ankara's drift toward Moscow and to discuss threatened Turkish aggression against western-backed Kurdish militias in northern Syria.

Biarritz should have further provided a forum for progress on the issue of repatriating and prosecuting ISIS detainees being held by the Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The Al-Hawl detention camp in northern Syria, for example, was holding 64,000 ISIS women and children, thousands of whom were nationals of G7 members. With only 400 guards patrolling the camp, the SDF had warned repeatedly that Al-Hawl and other ISIS detention camps presented significant security risks and could not constitute a long-term solution. Recent Pentagon and UN reports had similarly found ISIS camps to be hotbeds of festering radicalism and "incubators" of possible ISIS resurgence. Leaders at the G7 in Biarritz should have learned from previous multilateral military withdrawal failures, like those in Iraq and Libya, and developed solutions to eradicate lingering radicalism in Syria so as to prevent future terrorism and security risks.

Security in Syria is key to encouraging stability in the wider Middle East. But it also has significant ramifications for the so-called "refugee crisis" Europe has experienced in recent years. Despite dwindling media attention, the crisis is far from over: days after the G7 summit concluded, nearly 700 refugees arrived to the Greek island of Lesbos in one night, the highest single influx since the height of the crisis in 2015. Hundreds continued to arrive in Greece from Turkey on a weekly basis, and extremely poor conditions in the refugee camps continued to cause deaths and violence. Turkey warned that a fresh assault by the Syrian government on Idlib province would likely trigger a new exodus of people fleeing to Europe.

Refugee and migration-related issues in Europe had been met with a rise in right-wing violence and hate crimes in G7 countries, particularly in Europe. They have a critical influence on domestic and regional security. Similar effects arose in the United States and Canada as a result of asylum seekers fleeing conflict and violence in South and Central America. Issues related to migration and refugees should have been a far higher priority on the security agenda at this year's G7 summit.

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Genevieve ZinggGenevieve Zingg is legal fellow at the Syria Justice and Accountability Center and a research analyst specializing in security, terrorism, armed conflict, human rights and international law. She holds a graduate diploma of law from City University of London, an MA in international human rights from Columbia University in New York, and a BA in political science from the University of Toronto. She has previously conducted research for a number of international organisations, including the International Criminal Court, the NATO Association of Canada, the United NationsDepartment of Economic and Social Affairs, and the Oxford Monitor of Forced Migration. She has conducted fieldwork in Palestine (West Bank) and Turkey and has completed several humanitarian missions to the refugee camps in Greece. She is an affiliate of the Canadian Network for Research on Terrorism, Security and Society, a member of the International Bar Association, and a trained OSCE/ODIHR international election observer.


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