British Leader Sees Wider Threat in Algeria Attack

Share with others:


Print Email Read Later

Correction Appended

LONDON -- With more than 60 hostages still missing and many feared dead, Prime Minister David Cameron told Parliament on Friday that the Qaeda-linked attack on a remote Algerian gas installation demonstrated the need for Britain and its Western allies, including the United States, to direct more of their diplomatic, military and intelligence resources to the intensifying threat emanating from "the ungoverned space" of the North African desert, treating it with as much concern as the terrorist challenge in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Mr. Cameron offered little new information about the showdown at the In Amenas plant, nearly 1,000 miles from Algiers, the Algerian capital, in the oil-and-gas-rich emptiness of the Sahara, saying the information reaching London about what he described as a "continuing situation" remained sketchy. He added that Britain learned overnight that the number of British citizens caught up in the hostage-taking and the subsequent shootout was "significantly" fewer than the 30 people feared on Thursday. As part of the effort to learn more, he said, a special plane had been assigned to carry Britain's ambassador in Algiers and other British diplomats to the area of the gas plant on Friday.

But in an hourlong session in the House of Commons, Mr. Cameron pointed to the somber implications of underestimating recent events in Mali and Algeria as a regional problem for North Africa rather than as an increasingly fertile arena for Islamic militants and their hostility to the West. He said he had discussed his concerns in a telephone conversation with President Obama on Thursday.

The British leader said the growth of Islamic terrorist networks in the countries of the Sahel, the broad area of North Africa that runs more than 3,000 miles from Mauritania in the west to Sudan and Somalia in the east, should be a renewed focus of Western counterterrorist concerns and resources. At one point, he said military assistance to the affected countries needed to be part of NATO military planning, though he again emphatically ruled out any British combat role in support of France's campaign against militants in Mali.

Pointing to the leading role played in the Algerian attack by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a terrorist ringleader and smuggler with links to North Africa's main Islamic terrorist group, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Mr. Cameron warned that the Algerian attack was symptomatic of a far broader threat.

"What we know is that the terrorist threat in the Sahel comes from Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, which aspires to establish Islamic law across the Sahel and northern Africa, and to attack Western interests in the region and, frankly, wherever it can," Mr. Cameron said. "Just as we have reduced the scale of the Al Qaeda threat in other parts of the world, including in Pakistan and Afghanistan, so it has grown in other parts of the world. We need to be equally concerned about that, and equally focused on it."

To some British commentators, Mr. Cameron's remarks sounded like an effort to prompt the United States to become more deeply involved in North African security matters. In the 2011 Libyan conflict, the United States stepped back from the lead role it has traditionally taken in NATO military operations and left Britain, France and Italy to conduct the bulk of the bombing in support of the Libyan rebels' successful campaign to topple Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi.

Since then, high-ranking British officials have expressed concerns that the Obama administration is stepping back from European political and security issues and turning its attentions increasingly to the nations of the Pacific.

With the approach of Mr. Obama's second inauguration on Sunday, The Spectator, a London-based weekly that is influential in Mr. Cameron's Conservative Party, devoted its cover this week to an article headlined "The Pacific President," and an illustration showing Mr. Obama in a brightly colored Hawaiian shirt and shorts surfing off a palm-lined beach. "As Barack Obama is sworn in again as president, his allies in the West will ask themselves the same nervous question they posed four years ago: how much does he care about us?" the accompanying article asked.

White House officials said on Thursday that Mr. Obama had used his telephone conversation with Mr. Cameron to underscore American concerns that Britain remain a robust force within the 27-nation European Union, a hot-button issue for Mr. Cameron. The prime minister had planned -- then canceled, amid the Algerian crisis -- a landmark speech in Amsterdam on Friday in which he was to have outlined his plan to negotiate a much sparer role for Britain in the European bloc.

In his remarks to lawmakers on Friday, Mr. Cameron offered what could have been construed as an oblique riposte to Mr. Obama, or at least to officials in the Obama administration who have urged that Europe take greater responsibility for confronting terrorist and other security threats at its own doorstep.  He may also have been addressing domestic critics in Britain, or other NATO countries that have been less active than Britain in counterterrorism efforts aimed at confronting the spread of Islamic militant groups.

"There is a great need for not just Britain but other countries to give a priority to understanding better, and working better, with the countries in this region," he said. "Those who believe that there is a terrorist, extremist Al Qaeda problem in parts of north Africa, but that it is a problem for those places and we can somehow back off and ignore it, are profoundly wrong. That is a problem for those places, and for us."

Mr. Cameron noted that Britain had been "the first country in the world" to offer France military assistance in its campaign in Mali, deploying one of the largest military transport aircraft it has, an American-made C-17 Globemaster, to ferry French troops and military equipment to Bamako, the Malian capital. He said it was time for Britain and France to move beyond their spheres of influence in Africa dating back to the colonial era, "and recognize that is in our interest to boost the capacity of all African states" confronted by the terrorist threat.

Correction: January 18, 2013, Friday

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the year that Libyan rebels overthrew Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi. It was 2011, not last year.

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

You have 2 remaining free articles this month

Try unlimited digital access

If you are an existing subscriber,
link your account for free access. Start here

You’ve reached the limit of free articles this month.

To continue unlimited reading

If you are an existing subscriber,
link your account for free access. Start here