Field Mark Feb 2012Mark 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?

The French
decision to commence military action in Mali may well have brought forward the
attack on the Algerian gas refinery, but its sophistication clearly means such
an operation had been long in the planning. Arguably the US and Western success
in deconstructing al-Qaeda’s strongholds in Pakistan and Afghanistan over the
last decade or so has resulted in its reorientation in both the Arab Peninsula
(particularly Yemen) and more recently in the Maghreb and Sahel. Inevitably
these developments have stretched further our military and intelligence
resources. To a large extent, reflecting historical ties in the region, the UK
has sub-contracted some of the responsibility for strategic security to the
French. However if, as widely feared, the conflict in Algeria, Mali and Chad
extends to Nigeria then more significant UK commercial interests will be
directly threatened. The largely Muslim North of Nigeria is increasingly under
the control of the fundamentalist Boko Haram, whose separatist goals have
resulted in a refugee crisis and desperate food shortages. This regional
instability will require the UK government and our allies, especially the US
and France, to embark upon a patient campaign to win hearts and minds. This
will require judicious use of our international development budget and an
intensification of diplomatic efforts and intelligence gathering and sharing.

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.

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