Tuesday, January 22, 2013

An unending war against al-Qaeda

The west are slowly becoming drawn into what some have dubbed a never ending war against al-Qaeda and similarly inspired militant organisations. Such a war comes at a difficult time for the west. Already there is a sense of war fatigue after more than 10 years battling insurgents in Afghanistan and Iraq, and there is little public support for opening up a new front in another war on terror. Aside any public support, there is also concern amongst legislators and politicians. 

Many countries are still trying to drag themselves from an economic slump brought about after nearly 5 years of recession. It is a difficult balancing act. Ignoring the growing insurgency in Africa may open many western countries to attack as al-Qaeda inspired groups strengthen. But to take on these groups on the ground could itself stir up an even larger hornets nest.

Tipping point

The tipping point for western intervention was the Algeria hostage crisis, which some see as being precipitated by French forces attempting the rescue of a number of its nationals who were being held hostages in neighbouring Mali.

Apportioning blame on the French or Algerian authorities, who launched a rescue mission at the gas plant, has been dismissed by many commentators. The British Prime Minister weighed in saying that the only people responsible for the deaths in the Algerian hostage crisis were the terrorists themselves.

Cowardly attacks

"The responsibility for these deaths lies squarely with the terrorists who launched these vicious and cowardly attacks," David Cameron said shortly after it was reported that up to 6 Britons were amongst 37 hostages killed following the four-day siege at a gas plant in the Sahara desert.

A total of 29 militants were killed, but an unknown number may have escaped or be regrouping to plan further attacks on western interests.

There were 800 employees on the site when it was attacked, 135 of them foreigners. At least 40 were taken hostage and 12 killed, with a further 20 feared dead. Three Britons have been confirmed dead and three more, along with one Colombian-born British resident, are also thought to have been killed. The US said three Americans had died, meanwhile Japan's prime minister confirmed that seven Japanese people had been killed in the raid.

Claims of responsibility

Al-Qaeda-backed insurgent and kidnapping kingpin Mokhtar Belmokhtar claimed responsibility for the Algeria attacks and warned of further attacks on western interests if military action in Mali did not cease.

France is continuing its mission to track down insurgents with at least 2,000 troops on the ground. Britain has already committed its support to the 2,000 French forces that are continuing to battle Islamic insurgents, though the Defence Secretary Philip Hammond said there were "no plans to deploy troops."

Military cutbacks

In fact such deployments might prove more difficult in the future after it was announced Tuesday that some 5,300 soldiers were to be cut from Britain's armed forces.

"Defence like all areas of government must live within its means," Mark Francois, Britain's Defence Minister, said in parliament [BBC]. The statement came only a day after David Cameron praised the British military for their role in Afghanistan.

The news of cuts has been treated with dismay from military circles. General Sir Mike Jackson, retired, aired his concerns when speaking on Sky News saying, "This world is volatile and sadly it seems to me to be becoming more volatile."


There certainly appeared to be a series of contradictions with the Prime Minister talking of a war on terror that could last decades while his government spoke of cutting military spending and resources.

"This is a global threat and it will require a global response," David Cameron insisted. "It will require a response that is about years, even decades, rather than months."

"It requires a response that is patient and painstaking, that is tough but also intelligent, but above all has an absolutely iron resolve and that is what we will deliver over these coming years," he added.

Questionable support

Even if Britain is committed to to taking on Islamic insurgents, support may not be forthcoming from other allies. President Obama indicated he wanted to put the last decade of war behind and look forward to building America's economy. Speaking after his inauguration he said, "a decade of war is ending" and "economic recovery has begun". It is unlikely that America would stomach decades of further conflict in Africa.

Any effort to curtail Islamic insurgency is already a belated response, according to some academics who say that the attack on the gas plant in Algeria should have been predicted. Mark Almond, a historian at Oriel College in Oxford, says the attack came as no surprise. Writing in the Daily Mail he says that the west have taken their eye off the ball when it comes to the growing insurgency in Africa which has spread from parts of the Middle East.

Growing threat

In fact it is no secret that Osama bin Laden began his jihad against the west in Africa. From 1991 to 1996, Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaeda leaders were based in Sudan. And while the eyes of the west have diverted their attention towards Afghanistan, al-Qaeda have been reinforcing their bases across the Arab peninsula and northern Africa [al-Qaeda involvement in Africa].

In fact the attack seen recently sprang directly from a group allied with al-Qaeda. The Maghreb, more specifically, Algeria, Mauritania and Morocco, has been the subject of an insurgency since 2002 waged by the Islamist militia, Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, or, GSPC. The GSPC has allied itself with the Al-Qaeda Organization in the Islamic Maghreb against the Algerian government. Mokhtar Belmokhtar played a prominent role in these organisations but has since formed and now runs his own jihadist group, the Islamist al-Mulathameen (Masked) Brigade, or al-Mua'qi'oon Biddam (Those who Sign with Blood) Brigade. Nonetheless he continues to pledge allegiance to al-Qaeda emir Ayman al-Zawahiri. His group is also allied with the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, another Islamist militant group that had also split from al-Qaeda [BBC].

Complacency not an option

The attack on the gas facility was Belmokhtar's first big operation, showing that he remains influential despite his marginalisation within AQIM. It also clearly shows the threat from al-Qaeda and its associated groups remains just as high even some 12 years after 9/11. A major terror attack has not struck mainland Europe or America in over 7 years, though there have been several thwarted attacks.

The financial cost of taking on the terrorists is certainly high. Europe, including Britain, is still struggling through a recession and the US is only just seeing some signs of recovery. However the cost of complacency is likely to be much higher [BBC / CNN / Al Jazeera].

tvnewswatch, London, UK

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