The threat from Africa: Gaddafi warned it would happen

Western governments have not taken seriously enough the emergence of new networks of jihadi groups

Column LAST UPDATED AT 14:31 ON Mon 21 Jan 2013

KEEN to learn the lessons of the massacre and mayhem at In Amenas in Algeria, where latest reports put the death toll at 80-plus, David Cameron has declared that jihadi violence in North Africa "will require a response that is about years even decades, rather than months".

It is depressing that he has reached this conclusion only now and that he and his advisers hadn't been reading the warning signs from north and sub-Saharan Africa over the past two years – since the onset of the Arab Spring, in fact.

One of the victims of the Arab Spring, the ousted Libyan leader Col Gaddafi, gave a weird yet oddly prescient forecast should he fall. "Bin Laden's people would come to impose ransoms by land and sea... we will go back to the time of Redbeard, or pirates, of Ottomans imposing ransoms by boats."

For just over 20 years the authoritarian regime in Algeria has been battling Islamist jihadis – ever since the coup of 1992, when the military stepped in to stop the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) winning the second round of national elections.

The five-day siege and battle at the In Amenas complex is extraordinary in that western governments – and media - were taken by surprise. (Incidentally, the lack of reporting from the scene gives the lie to the claims of omnipotence for new media such as Twitter and YouTube.)

It need not have been so. Experts such as Dr Claire Spencer of Chatham House and Dr George Joffe turn out to have known a great deal about who was involved in both the attack in Algeria and the insurgency in Mali.

The actions of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and the split between its leaders Mokhtar Belmokhtar and Abdelhamid Abu Zeid, have been tracked for some time – as has the alliance of nationalist Tuareg tribesmen and Islamist jihadis who seized northern Mali last year.

But this kind of intelligence appears to have been given low priority. A Washington panel examining the security lapses leading to the murder of the US ambassador Chris Stevens in Benghazi last year said the US intelligence agencies had failed to understand the region's "many militias, which are constantly dissolving, splitting apart and reforming".

Neither the British nor US governments seem to have taken seriously enough the new networks of jihadi groups emerging across north and central Africa.

Last week, Major General Jonathan Shaw, a recently retired former SAS commander, wrote in The Independent how his job as international security adviser at the Ministry of Defence was shut down just a few months before the Arab Spring, because "nothing ever happens in the Middle East and North Africa region". One official told him: "My minister just doesn't want to hear the word Africa."

The invention of the National Security Council by this government in 2010, rather than enhancing strategic thinking and decision making, has led to the downgrading of the Joint Intelligence Committee with its carefully prepared ‘red books' of analysis of particular regions and threats, which would be the length of an average novel.

With intelligence now being directly presented to senior ministers in the National Security Council, it tends to be prepared on the basis of what the politicians might like to hear and can cope with, rather than the inconvenient truth they need to be told.

This explains why what is happening in Africa has been somewhat neglected.

There is also the problem of execution on intelligence and security. There needs now to be a joint operations command against terrorist threats. The Cobra meetings of ministers and officials are just that - meetings with no clear structure for emergency command and action. As one minister said to an Army officer at such a meeting during the foot and mouth emergency ten years ago, "I know we've discussed the problem, but I have no idea how I should order and carry out the action."

The warnings from the In Amenas hostage crisis are clear. Jihadi and insurgent groups like Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb, Boko Haram of Nigeria and Al Shabaab of Somalia, are moving into vast areas of ungoverned space where they can mount attacks across the region, and into Europe where they recruit and fund-raise in their diaspora communities.

They have a common denominator and force multiplier in the pervasive influence of hardline Wahhabism sponsored through thousands of mosques and madrassas (religious schools) built with Saudi and Qatari funds.

If David Cameron is serious about tackling this threat to British international interests across the region, he should spend money on a rapid overhaul of the security and intelligence apparatus, rather than costly items of marginal military value like the two giant aircraft carriers set to cost us at least £20 billion. · 

Disqus - noscript

It is blatantly obvious to me that Cameron, Hague, et al, are completely out of their depth when it comes to "cause and effect" thinking - or call it "strategic thinking" or just plain "common sense" when it comes to foreign policy.

Cameron is on record as having told his (very experienced) General Staff to "do the fighting" while he (Cameron) "does the thinking" with regard to Libya. Neither is this just all 20/20 hindsight - he was adequately warned, at the time, that the "Arab Spring" was a Pandora's Box and that he should tread very carefully before blundering about in the desert, seeking to earn brownie points on the world stage (a la Tony Blair).

His grasp of defence matters is parlous - he seems to dismiss the uncomfortable truths while welcoming comforting advice and news from his sycophants and chums in his inner circle.

It is becoming alarmingly clear that Britain now has no coherent or independent foreign policy when dealing with threats to our own national interests - this is manifest in the way that this government has allowed our intelligence - gathering and analysis capabilities to be eroded by so much in so short a space in time.

I have, recently, detected a shift in this mendacious man's stance towards defence of the Falklands - he now says "I have been advised" that our defences are adequate to deter any Argentine aggression - note the word "advised" - he is preparing to sidestep any flak and to divert any political fall- out onto the military in the, very likely, event that the Argentinians succeed, next time, in invading and holding the Falklands Islands. He should use his own judgement and take the lead, just for once. Hardly a national leader!!!

The Western media , especially the American one and its pundits,considered Qaddafi a joker.Now,he has the last laugh !
Remembar the clarion call of Hillary Clinton at that time ? "The impending humanitarian disaster in Benghazi ".Little did she know it was going to be an altogether different kind of disaster.The same gang is gung ho now to pull down Bashar Assad and usher in an era full d fledged democracy in Syria.

Those aircraft carriers are not entirely useless - we could station one in Afghanistan and tuther on the Mali/Algerian border...

I will always condemn the wanton murrder of Gadaffi by Cameron and his ill advisers. When you meet the ordinary Libyan in the very many places in which they have sought refuge, it is made clear by them that they are still mourning the loss of their father and leader. Western governments would never learn- once a leader is not doing everything they (UK, US and co) wish him to do, even if his policies benefit the majority of his people, then he must be toppled on one pretext or another. Gadaffi was an ally of the west, not an enemy. A pity that the so called astute Hillary Clinton and the not so FA savvy Hague could not see this.