Mark Field MP: The first skirmish of many?
Mark Field is the Member of Parliament for the Cities of London and Westminster and currently serves as a member of the Intelligence and Security Committee. Follow Mark on Twitter
Thankfully few people have to endure the unimaginable terror that beset our nation’s hostages and waiting relatives as the Amenas gas plant siege dragged on last week. In a world of relentlessly demanding 24/7 media coverage, the frustration of senior government ministers was palpable as unreliable, piecemeal information trickled through from Algeria.
Whilst today’s attention rightly focuses upon the bereaved, little time should be lost in developing a diplomatic and intelligence strategy in this region. For we shall hear much more of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and the Nigerian fundamentalist terror group, Boko Haram, in the months ahead.
The sheer vastness of this part of North Africa is best illustrated by the fact that Algeria’s capital, Algiers, is nearer to London than it is to that nation's southern-most districts. Indeed the utter remoteness of the Amenas complex meant that any plans to engage British, French or US special services in the hostage rescue were fanciful. Besides, after a brutal civil war in the 1990s, the Algerian security forces are highly experienced, albeit uncompromising. Moreover, the lesson that the Algerian government will have learned from the West’s treatment of one-time ally, Colonel Gaddafi, in neighbouring Libya, is to act ruthlessly in the face of any perceived insurgency. It understandably fears similar betrayal by France (its old colonial master) and the West. So any suggestion that the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ might have extended to Algeria would have led to Western military assistance to rebel forces, in which AQIM would almost certainly have featured. What message would the Algerian government have been sending to its own people over recent days if it had allowed protracted negotiations over the siege or foreign armed forces to engage on Algerian soil?
Significant numbers of UK nationals live and work in Algeria and neighbouring states. They are by no means exclusively employed in the oil/gas and mineral sectors, whose international importance is likely to increase in the foreseeable future.
This is going to be a long and thankless diplomatic haul requiring boundless patience and a remorseless eye on the long-term. But if we can learn the lessons of our mistakes during the last ten years in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, the UK will be safer in the decades ahead.