The threat from Africa: Gaddafi warned it would happen
Western governments have not taken seriously enough the emergence of new networks of jihadi groups
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. ·