Comment: North Africa is no existential threat

In a speech last week, the prime minister warned of a “large and existential terrorist threat” in North Africa’s “ungoverned spaces,” menacing not only the peace and stability of the region but as far away as the United Kingdom. This idea enjoys a high level of political support and is being taken seriously enough by David Cameron that he recently sought Tony Blair’s counsel,reportedly on the possibility of waging a war on terror in North Africa.

The concept has been uncritically received in most of the popular media and outright supported by journalists in Westminster. In a report on Cameron’s recent Tripoli speech, for example, Guardian journalist Patrick Wintourrefers to “a growing threat from al Qaeda-linked terrorists in the region.” In the Evening Standard, Matthew D’Ancona defended the government’s new interest in the region as a response to “the threat the region poses to our country.”

It’s not hard to determine why this belief has arisen. Following an abortive military coup in Mali, a secular secessionist group, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), unsuccessfully attempted to declare independence for the north of the country. It was then overrun by Islamist criminal organisations who seized the opportunity to take over northern Mali. In response, France has undertaken a military operation aimed at re-establishing the authority of the Bamako-based Malian government.

This brought the names of groups like al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Ansar Dine, and the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (Mujao), who have long run smuggling and hostage-taking operations in North Africa’s desert, to the attention of policymakers and the public. On 16th January, one of AQIM’s many splinter groups, al Mulathameen, captured a gas plant at In Amenas in Algeria and killed a number of foreign contractors who were working there.

But whatever these events show, there is no existential threat to the United Kingdom from North Africa. The combined state power of all five Maghreb countries and all the region’s warlords could not come close to threatening to the UK at anything like an existential level—and no such union is remotely conceivable.

The emerging fear of North African terror grossly misunderstands the nature of the relevant groups. Contrary to the descriptions supplied by, for example, Wole Soyinka, of “al Qaeda clones,” Ansar Dine, Mujao and al Mulathameen bear no real relation to the organisation. Al Mulathameen’s leader Mokhtar Belmokhtar has been running a criminal operation based primarily on cigarette smuggling for years—his proclivity earned him the nickname “Mr Marlboro.” Rudolph Atallah, the former US head of counter-terrorism for Africa, describes Belmokhtar as more “how do I negotiate and put extra money in my pocket” than anything else. Alhough Al Multhameen says it pays homage to al Qaeda, there is little evidence of a tangible link between them.

AQIM is not an al Qaeda cell. It grew out of a predecessor, the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), a splinter group of the Algerian Armed Islamic Group (GIA), which formed in the late 1990s. The use of the al Qaeda name was a 2007 rebranding of an existing, independent group. As professor Scott Atran puts it: “al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb is a logo, not part of an international organization.” Groups like AQIM are primarily criminal and their capability is limited. Talk of a threat to the UK from North Africa is at best mistaken, at worst an outright fabrication.

This does not mean that such groups are innocuous or wholly unthreatening. To the world’s weakest state apparatus, in particular moments of vulnerability (as was the case in Mali), they pose a threat. To regional business interests, as the events at In Amenas demonstrate, they also pose a threat. To Western aid workers, such as those recently evacuated from the refugee camps for Sahrawis in Tindouf, southern Algeria, they pose a clear threat.

Excluding talk of existential threats, then, what policy should Westminster adopt toward North Africa? A war on terror-style campaign is to be avoided at all costs. Rhetoric about “ungoverned spaces” and weak states must not be allowed to lapse into support for further violence in the region. Morocco and Algeria are still highly authoritarian states, posing a significant threat to their own populations. Fear of smuggling and kidnapping gangs must not be used as cover to extend or bolster support for them. Sending fewer British arms and limiting diplomatic support to such countries may in fact diminish the danger that groups like AQIM pose to the UK, as it would decrease the chances of radicalising the region’s criminal networks and pushing them towards political violence.

Most future threats in North Africa will not be international but national. If and when such groups do pose serious threats to the region, they should be dealt with using the framework of the UN charter and international law, and not unilateral military action. Otherwise, we will become a new source of violence in the region.

This article was originally published with Prospect magazine on February 8 2013.

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