The attacks on Algerian gas installations and the Mali insurgency has led the UK Prime Minister to describe this as a 'generational struggle'. However, what is happening across the Sahel region is a different terrorist challenge altogether, requiring a reappraisal in strategy.
The Prime Minister should mind his language; especially when he speaks about a new terrorist campaign that threatens, he says, 'our citizens, our companies and our interests [in a] generational struggle'. The hard-line jihadists in Africa and the Middle East could not, one suspects, agree more. Of course, the Prime Minister needs to put the events in Algeria and Mali into a perspective that defends Britain's helplessness in this case and defuses the condemnation that the Algerian government might attract for putting the crushing of terrorists ahead of the protection of international hostages.
The migration of the international terrorist threat away from the Al-Qa'ida core areas in south Asia and into Yemen, Somalia, northern Nigeria and now across the Sahel has been taking place for some time, and it is one of the unintended consequences of the Libyan crisis of 2011 that Mali has been destabilised by a northern revolt among the Tuareg tribesmen. What has been happening at various speeds in Nigeria, Mali, Libya and Algeria has come together in a new zone of instability in the Sahel region and runs from West Africa to the shores of the Mediterranean.
The international community is right to take this very seriously, but it would be wrong to regard it merely as a continuation of the same jihadist challenge that produced the 9/11 attacks and much else thereafter. This is not just more of the same. In some respects what is happening across the Sahel region is a different terrorist challenge altogether.
The Terrorist Challenge, Then and Now
There are, of course, elements of continuity. In one sense, jihadism has come full circle in basing its latest efforts in North Africa. The core of Al-Qa'ida in the 1990s and the individuals that the Saudi, Osama bin Laden, and the Egyptian, Ayman Al-Zawahiri allied with when they established Al-Qa'ida were predominantly North African.
The original target of the jihadists in the 1990s was Algeria as they fought a vicious civil war with the autocratic military regime in that country. The revolutionary ambitions of the early Al-Qa'ida core fighters all lay in North Africa, the Sudan or Egypt and it was a second-best option for them to accept the hospitality of the Taliban government in Afghanistan and run their campaign from south Asia. They become the 'Afghan Arabs' who were tolerated but never fully accepted by their Pashtun and Asian allies.
There is some continuity, too, in the way Al-Qa'ida ideologues try to hijack other Muslim political movements and then whole governments if they can. Just as Al-Qa'ida effectively hijacked the Afghan government in 2001, so there is now an attempt to do the same by anti-democratic means in Libya and by outright warfare in Mali.
Nevertheless, the difference between what is happening in the Sahel now and what happened in south Asia, are more evident than the similarities. For one thing, the jihadists are aligning themselves with separatist movements more than revolutionary ones. Al-Qa'ida was always based more on guerrilla warfare than international terrorism as such. It was what they trained for and how they saw themselves pursuing - 'Qur'an-style' - a proper jihad against the infidels.
The separatist movements in Yemen, Somalia, Nigeria and Mali provide a platform for the way Al-Qa'ida ideologues would prefer to fight. Then, too, the international glamour of the Al-Qa'ida brand encourages separatists and warlord/criminals like Mokhtar Belmokhtar to declare themselves for the idea of Al-Qa'ida's global caliphate and create a common cause with the ideologues. But their alliance is not a natural, long-term one and will tend to break up as their naturally different interests become clear.
Separatists, still less warlords, are seldom fierce ideologues and want the freedom to run their own 'liberated areas' in their own way, not to be dictated to by a perverted Salafism that is, in effect, 'Islamo-fascist'. So alongside Ansar al-Dine which is dominated by Tuareg fighters who want to impose Sharia law, is the entirely secular Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, also dominated by Tuareg fighters. Alongside the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, which is dominated by Sharia thinking, is the much more pragmatic Boko Haram which seems to have made common cause with the notion of a global caliphate on a very temporary basis in order to dominate territory across the north of the country.
Time to Rethink Strategy
The danger of the Prime Minister's rhetoric and what might follow from it, is that it can serve to unite forces that might otherwise be fractious and ineffective. Just as in Afghanistan in 2001, where the Taliban were on the point of breaking with Al-Qa'ida, but international demands then made this impossible, the Western world must be very careful to keep Al-Qa'ida ideologues isolated, not buttressed by the support of fellow traveller groups.
Not least, the territories in which the insurgencies in the Sahel is taking place are so big that it is difficult to see what military action can realistically achieve that will not make the situation potentially worse. French operations in Mali, even if they become more internationalised, will still be a military drop in the ocean in terms of the space that insurgent groups can operate within. Specific military objectives can be achieved, of course, such as defending a particular town or dispersing potential insurgents from a given area.
The only realistic strategy that can flow from this is that international forces may be able to keep jihadist fighters on the move and prevent them from concentrating or consolidating their influence in any one area. In theory, French intervention is designed to buy time for an African Union force to arrive. But in truth, such a force will be faced with exactly the same strategic logic. It will be able to keep the insurgency moving, but not to eliminate it in such large spaces.
So Western governments need to rethink both the drivers of this latest manifestation of terrorism and their own strategy. In the short term, this instability, allied to the civil war in Syria, is likely to take the pressure off terrorism on the streets of Britain. These conflicts provide a glamorous incentive for would-be jihadists to go abroad to win their spurs fighting for the cause. For them this is much more rewarding than plotting in terrorist cells in the suburbs of a British city. After some time, however, some of these individuals will come back to Britain with the benefit of experience, some training and almost certainly the motivation to carry on the fight in other ways.
This new front in terrorism cannot be easily ignored. Nevertheless, the importance of good intelligence, a policing-led approach to interception, and proper international co-ordination has never been more important than it is now. None of this will be easy and will test our counter-terrorist procedures more severely than has been the case since 2006, when the last big plots in the UK were foiled.
The Government should begin, however, by being acutely aware of the dangers of early strategic mistakes. And the most obvious strategic mistake would be to unite forces which will otherwise become more disparate in the natural course of events. Playing for time in the Sahel is not the worst option, since time is on the side of the counter-terrorists in this case. But chasing different groups round the open spaces of the Sahel has strictly limited utility.
This blog also appears on the RUSI website