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 Wintour refers 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.