Thankfully few people have to endure the unimaginable terror that beset our nation’s hostages and waiting relatives as the Amenas gas plant siege dragged on last week. In a world of relentlessly demanding 24/7 media coverage, the frustration of senior government ministers was palpable as unreliable, piecemeal information trickled through from Algeria.
Whilst today’s attention rightly focuses upon the bereaved, little time should be lost in developing a diplomatic and intelligence strategy in this region. For we shall hear much more of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and the Nigerian fundamentalist terror group, Boko Haram, in the months ahead.
The sheer vastness of this part of North Africa is best illustrated by the fact that Algeria’s capital, Algiers, is nearer to London than it is to that nation’s southern-most districts. Indeed the utter remoteness of the Amenas complex meant that any plans to engage British, French or US special services in the hostage rescue were fanciful. Besides, after a brutal civil war in the 1990s, the Algerian security forces are highly experienced, albeit uncompromising. Moreover, the lesson that the Algerian government will have learned from the West’s treatment of one-time ally, Colonel Gaddafi, in neighbouring Libya, is to act ruthlessly in the face of any perceived insurgency. It understandably fears similar betrayal by France (its old colonial master) and the West. So any suggestion that the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ might have extended to Algeria would have led to Western military assistance to rebel forces, in which AQIM would almost certainly have featured. What message would the Algerian government have been sending to its own people over recent days if it had allowed protracted negotiations over the siege or foreign armed forces to engage on Algerian soil?
The French decision to commence military action in Mali may well have brought forward the attack on the Algerian gas refinery, but its sophistication clearly means such an operation had been long in the planning. Arguably the US and Western success in deconstructing al-Qaeda’s strongholds in Pakistan and Afghanistan over the last decade or so has resulted in its reorientation in both the Arab Peninsula (particularly Yemen) and more recently in the Maghreb and Sahel. Inevitably these developments have stretched further our military and intelligence resources. To a large extent, reflecting historical ties in the region, the UK has sub-contracted some of the responsibility for strategic security to the French. However if, as widely feared, the conflict in Algeria, Mali and Chad extends to Nigeria then more significant UK commercial interests will be directly threatened. The largely Muslim North of Nigeria is increasingly under the control of the fundamentalist Boko Haram, whose separatist goals have resulted in a refugee crisis and desperate food shortages. This regional instability will require the UK government and our allies, especially the US and France, to embark upon a patient campaign to win hearts and minds. This will require judicious use of our international development budget and an intensification of diplomatic efforts and intelligence gathering and sharing.
Significant numbers of UK nationals live and work in Algeria and neighbouring states. They are by no means exclusively employed in the oil/gas and mineral sectors, whose international importance is likely to increase in the foreseeable future.
This is going to be a long and thankless diplomatic haul requiring boundless patience and a remorseless eye on the long-term. But if we can learn the lessons of our mistakes during the last ten years in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, the UK will be safer in the decades ahead.