The Algerian hostage crisis is over and the Prime Minister has warned that the focus of the al-Qaeda’s franchise has shifted westwards. In his statement on the situation, he was channelling Tony Blair, which at least makes a change from channelling the Foreign Office. But the initial reaction from Downing Street was deeply unimpressive. The BBC’s Nick Robinson quoted a nameless, sneering voice, apparently exasperated at the Algerian response to the crisis. It would be interesting to know whether this patronising individual had ever spent any time working outside SW1 or had any idea that the Algerian people have lived on the frontline of the struggle with violent Islamists for more than 20 years. Still more disheartening was to hear William Hague speaking on the BBC Today programme in classic colonial ‘spheres of influence’ terms about North Africa being a largely French concern.
Nick Robinson wrote a good blog on Mali and Algeria a few days ago, which concluded: ‘I suspect we are all going to have to learn a great deal more about these places, what’s happening in them and what our government might have in mind for them.’ Some might argue that this learning process should have started a little while ago.
The historical amnesia of the political class is a wonder to behold. There is nothing new about al-Qaeda activity in Africa. Indeed, the organisation first came to international prominence after the bombing of the US embassies in Tanzania and Kenya in 1998. The idea that terrorist activity in the Maghreb is a new phenomenon is also deeply insulting to those who lived through the decade-long civil war in Algeria (and the tens of thousands who died). And have we so quickly forgotten the Casablanca bombings of 2003 against largely Jewish targets that left 45 people dead?
When I was living in Paris in the early 1990s, Algerian dissidents, caught between a murderous regime and an Islamist insurgency, told me of their concerns about the wave of ‘Afghan Arabs’ who had returned to their country after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989 intoxicated by violent jihad. These dissidents told me that their problem would soon become the world’s problem and they were absolutely right.
The British government didn’t listen when the French warned them of the dangers posed by Algerian Islamists seeking refuge in the UK in the 1990s. When the authorities finally caught up with what was happening a decade later, the danger had moved elsewhere. I still remember the senior officer who spoke to me with utter conviction on July 7th 2005, immediately after the suicide bombers hit London. ‘It’ll be the Algerians, no question,’ he said.