Following the barbaric murder of civilian oil workers in Algeria by Mokhtar Belmokhtar’s jihadist militia, David Cameron has called for the world to come together in order to confront the growing threat from violent Islamist groups across North Africa.
These sentiments, which have been echoed by leaders all over the world are perfectly understandable; recent years have seen an ominous resurgence in armed Islamist outfits throughout the Sahel and surrounding regions, including a large number falling under the banner of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Nonetheless, any practical steps flowing from such statements must be part of a coherent response that takes account of all nuances and local circumstances, rather than a knee-jerk reaction to the brutality that unfolded at the In Amenas gas field.
Talk of a “robust security response” to “hunt down” terrorists could easily backfire, as recent history in Iraq and Afghanistan has shown only too well. That is not to say the UK and other international powers should completely refrain from efforts to defeat fanatics like Belmokhtar, but this must never be allowed to happen in a manner that alienates the people of North Africa or ultimately acts as a recruiting tool for extremists as so many ‘Western’ interventions have before.
France’s decision to put troops on the ground in Mali, ostensibly one of the reasons for Belmokhtar’s offensive, was seemingly necessary due to the speed Ansar Dine’s advance on the capital and delays in deployment of troops from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). However, a number of questions now hang over the next step, not least concerning the broader political instability in Mali and the role of secular armed Tuareg groups who have alternately supported and fought against the multitude of Islamist militias at various points over the past year. Whilst French deployment has brought welcome immediate relief therefore, it could yet turn disastrous if the wrong decisions are made on these issues.
Similarly, in Algeria the situation is far from a clear-cut case of helping the government to defeat violent jihadists. Algerian politics is still heavily influenced by the 1990s civil war that began with a military coup following the electoral victory of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), and subsequently developed into a multi-faceted conflict between the army and various Islamist militias at the cost of more than 150 000 lives. Endless questions remain about responsibility for many of the worst atrocities committed during the war, with the only certainty being that no side fought without recourse to massacres and torture.
This raises another issue around Cameron’s pledge to “thicken ties” with governments in affected nations: in many cases their responses to terrorism are simply unjustifiable. One only needs to look to Nigeria, where the abhorrent and bloody insurgency by jihadist militia Boko Haram has been met with callous state actions including torture, secret detention and extrajudicial killings. ‘Local solutions to local problems’ is a worthy aspiration, but when those local solutions involve severe human rights abuses, it is rarely advisable or productive to throw support behind them.
Perhaps one of the most critical factors at risk of being eclipsed amidst the focus on tackling the African jihadist threat, is the dire humanitarian situation still affecting millions of people across the Sahel. A combination of drought and food prices has resulted in rapidly escalating food insecurity, malnutrition and disease over recent years; and whilst stabilising regional conflict zones is important to tackling this, it should never be forgotten that poverty and desperation themselves create fertile ground for extremism. Aid and development initiatives to address the crisis should not be side-lined in the rush to take military action against extremists in the region.
The threat to North Africa is clear and the involvement of the international community is important; but rushed, unwelcome or ill -conceived support will be no help at all.