Top officials from 21 countries yesterday kicked off talks in London on pushing back Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria and tackling the growing threat of homegrown jihadists in Europe.
US Secretary of State John Kerry and British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond cohosted talks involving 21 of some 60 countries that are working together to tackle the militant Islamic State group, formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
It was the first time the US-led coalition has met since this month’s attacks in Paris against the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and a Jewish supermarket that left 17 people dead.
“Terrorists want to drive us apart, but in fact their actions have had the opposite effect, they’re bringing us together,” Kerry said ahead of the talks.
He also called for international action on “the root causes, so that terrorist appeals fall flat and foreign recruits are no longer enticed to go to a place and wreak havoc on it.”
A US Department of State official said foreign fighters would be a “real focus” of the meeting and that an expert working group would be formed on sharing information to stop militants travelling.
Twelve people were killed in a shooting at Charlie Hebdo this month by gunmen affiliated with al-Qaeda, while a third attacker who shot dead a policewoman and attacked a Jewish supermarket, killing four, claimed he was working on behalf of the Islamic State.
The attacks rekindled fears about the dangers posed by well-trained homegrown jihadists returning from foreign battlefields.
European police agency Europol estimates up to 5,000 EU citizens have gone to join the ranks of militants in Syria and Iraq.
EU High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini said the attacks in France “were a little bit like our own 9/11,” hitting at “symbols of our culture, of our values, like the media freedom, the police, the Jewish community.”
Meanwhile, Belgian authorities are still hunting for two men on the run after police broke up a jihadist cell last week, while French authorities charged four men with helping one of the Islamist gunmen responsible for the Paris shootings.
Looming over the meeting was also the deadline set by Islamic State members for Tokyo to pay a US$200 million ransom for the release of two Japanese hostages. Tokyo believes the deadline will expire on Friday.
Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida is not attending the London meeting, but held talks with Hammond on Wednesday as Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe admitted it was a “race against time” to free the men.
Speaking to BBC Radio 4 before the talks, Hammond said that the Iraqi army might be months away from mounting a sustained fight back against the Islamic State.
“We are renewing and regenerating the Iraqi security forces — re-equipping them, retraining them, reorganizing them — but it will be months yet before they are ready to start significant combat operations against [the Islamic State],” he said.
Hammond met with Kerry and French Minister of Foreign Affairs Laurent Fabius ahead of the main meeting at Lancaster House.
Across town in Downing Street, British Prime Minister David Cameron also held talks with his Iraqi counterpart, Haider al-Abadi.
Abadi defended his country’s efforts to repel the Islamic State, saying the “Iraqi people have sacrificed their lives” to halt its advance.
Ministers will also discuss efforts to support both Iraqi and Kurdish armed forces, how to cut financing to the Islamic State and how to aid for those caught in the crossfire.