Cameron’s denunciation of the Algerian In Amenas gas plant terrorist attack as a “large and existential threat…which is global and will require a global response that will last decades” totally misunderstands, or totally misportrays, what has happened. It is not an existential threat, though the 3,000-strong jihadist group in Syria and Islamic militancy in Yemen remain serious local concerns.
Al-Qaeda has been greatly weakened since 9/11, less because of counter-terrorist activity (though that has certainly taken its toll of the wider leadership) than because of declining support among local communities over violence on their streets and enforcement of extremist Islamist mores.
Nor is a ‘global response that will last decades’ – another war on terror ’a la George Bush? – a rational or sensible interpretation of this attack. This bloodbath, awful though it is, is part of a much more nuanced landscape and needs a much more thoughtful strategy to deal with it.
Firstly, crudely passing off the attackers as al-Qaeda is misconceived – it’s rather a chaotic patchwork of rival factions only loosely connected to AQIM (Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) and enhancing the rivalry between themselves through their murderous assaults.
Second, it is significant that this attack occurred in Algeria which endured a vicious civil war for 20 years which left over 150,000 dead after the army in 1992, with Western support, cancelled the second round of national elections which the Islamic FLN was set to win. Though the militants were in the end defeated by 2007, the presence of major Western business interests in the country remains a target with deep historical roots.
Third, the French intervention in neighbouring Mali – ostensibly to stem the development of a second Somalia – may well have influenced both the timing and the location of the In Amenas attack. But that points to another deeper implication of this incident – the failure of the West to forestall the looting of Libya’s armoury by Gadaffi’s Tuareg mercenaries after the fall of the regime. That triggered conflicts similar to the looting of arms after the Albanian meltdown in 1997. That then required strengthening the security of neighbouring countries, but again the failure to do so (this time because of the distraction of the US and French presidential elections) left an ill-equipped Malian army no match for much better equipped and more strongly motivated Tuareg gangs.
The real lessons of this bloody attack are three-fold. Counter-insurgency strategies need to be much more aligned to local conditions and meeting the needs of local communities rather than dismissed with calls for a new war on terror. Islamic militancy will only finally end with a Western withdrawal from defending its oil interests in the Middle East and northern Africa. And meanwhile much more Western attention and money must be expended on helping to build effective states in Africa.