Action against al-Qa'ida in North Africa could last decades, PM warns
Published 21/01/2013 | 11:08
The West faces a decades-long battle to defeat al-Qa'ida in North Africa, David Cameron warned yesterday as he signalled a dramatic shift in the UK's fight against terrorism.
The heads of MI5, MI6, GCHQ and the Chief of the Defence Staff meet tomorrow to begin planning Britain's response to the terror threat from Saharan Africa. Britain will offer money, military co-operation and security training to African states to block the advance of Islamist radicalism.
Special forces are understood to be preparing to hunt down the jihadist leader behind the siege and hostage killings in Algeria, Mokhtar Belmokhtar.
Britain will use its chairmanship of the G8 to focus militarily and diplomatically on the Sahara region, following the hostage crisis which claimed the lives of up to six Britons. One Middle East expert likened the long-term impact of the atrocity in Algeria to the 9/11 attacks.
Following the end of the four-day stand-off at the BP gas plant at In Amenas, Algerian forces discovered 25 more bodies and took five militants alive yesterday. The death toll had previously been put at 23 hostages and 32 captors.
Three Britons have been confirmed among the dead and another three are feared to have been killed during the siege, which ended with a shoot-out on Saturday. Last night 46-year-old Paul Thomas Morgan was the first British victim to be named by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
Kenneth Whiteside, an engineer from Glenrothes in Fife, and Garry Barlow, a BP systems supervisor from Merseyside, are also understood to be among the dead. Another UK resident was also believed to have been killed.
Twenty-two other British nationals have arrived home, many with chilling stories of how they evaded capture by jihadists belonging to an al-Qa'ida splinter group styling themselves Those Who Sign In Blood.
Alan Wright, from Aberdeenshire, told of how he hid in an office for 24 hours before joining Algerian workers who cut their way through a perimeter fence and fled.
Mr Cameron will update MPs on the attack today and hold a meeting of Whitehall's emergency Cobra committee to consider the implications of the attack.
French forces - with support from Britain - are attempting to oust insurgents from northern Mali, amid fears that neighbouring countries including Niger and Mauritania could fall under their influence.
As the French Defence Minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, described the hostage-taking as an "act of war", Belmokhtar was reported to be "ready to negotiate" in return for an end to the action in Mali.
Last night Mauritanian news website Sahara Media said Belmokhtar had claimed responsibility in the name of al Qa'ida for the hostage-taking in a video. He had said: "We in al Qa'ida announce this blessed operation. We are ready to negotiate with the West and the Algerian government provided they stop their bombing of Mali's Muslims. We had around 40 jihadists, most of them from Muslim countries and some even from the West."
A BP spokesman would not comment on reports in Algeria that Belmokhtar's men had infiltrated the gas plant as drivers, cooks and guards working on short-term contracts.
Mr Cameron spelt out the scale of the challenge posed by al-Qa'ida-affiliated groups operating in the region yesterday. "It will require a response that is about years, even decades, rather than months," he said. "And it requires a response that is painstaking, that is tough but also intelligent, but above all has an absolutely iron resolve. And that is what we will deliver over these coming years.
"What we face is an extremist, Islamist, al-Qa'ida-linked terrorist group. Just as we had to deal with that in Pakistan and in Afghanistan, so the world needs to come together to deal with this threat in North Africa... We need to work with others to defeat the terrorists and to close down the ungoverned spaces where they thrive with all the means that we have."
The Government has not ruled out giving extra help to the French-led operation in Mali.
However, Whitehall sources said yesterday the terrorist threat in the region would ultimately be best tackled by diplomatic means. Britain is to beef up its presence in nations where the UK historically had a limited presence and to liaise more closely with Paris over the challenges faced by the traditionally Francophone area.
Abdelasiem el-Difraoui, an al-Qa'ida expert with the Berlin Institute for Media and Communications Studies, told a French newspaper that the hostage-taking would for France make as "a huge bang as strong as September 11".
The French government distanced itself yesterday from suggestions among other nations caught up in the hostage crisis that Algeria's response was "heavy-handed". President Francois Hollande said: "When so many hostages have been taken and when the terrorists are ready to murder them in cold blood, I think the Algerian approach was the best one."