Security Correspondent Dr Dave Sloggett looks at the changing rhetoric from political leaders in the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attack on the gas facility at In Amenas in Algeria in which 23 hostages and 32 militants were killed:
In a press conference held on 19 January with his United Kingdom counterpart the United States Secretary of Defence made it clear that the Americans would go after Al Qaeda ‘wherever they are’. The comment by the Secretary of Defence is interesting in so far as it marks a change in tone from some of the rhetoric that had been emerging over the past few months. Not very long ago Leon Panetta was making it clear that as far as he was concerned the end of Al Qaeda was in sight. The message was that despite people’s reservations the drone strikes in Pakistan were working. Al Qaeda could no longer pose a threat to the United States.
Similar noises had started to emerge from the United Kingdom’s National Security Council. Debates it has been reported have followed a similar reasoning, even venturing to suggest that cyber-crime and espionage was a bigger threat to national security. After all, some may have argued, aside from a failed attack at Glasgow Airport in 2008 Al Qaeda has achieved nothing in the United Kingdom since the attacks in London in July 2005.
It seems the audacious attack by an Al Qaeda affiliated group in Algeria had made Washington change its stance. In what was a tacit acceptance of the inherent manoeuvre room both ideologically and physically that Al Qaeda enjoys in the current international security landscape the Secretary of Defence changed tack. It would seem that Al Qaeda is not now about to be defeated.
That new realism about Al Qaeda’s enduring ability to cause destruction was also echoed a day later by the British Prime Minister. His remarks whilst giving a press statement on the latest information to emerge from the attack on the gas production facility in Algeria sounded a sombre note about the current international security landscape. For the first time David Cameron started to set realistic expectations about what could be achieved in the so-called Global War on Terror. He said this was something that could ‘last decades’.
Whilst several months ago conversations at the National Security Council had reportedly discussed life after Al Qaeda and how the threat from cyber-space was more worrying than the activities of Al Qaeda a new harsh dose of reality has hopefully emerged. This is a group that has created an entirely flexible business model that is mobile and able to exploit any ungoverned spaces in the world. Not so long ago the former head of the Central Intelligence Agency General David Petraeus compared tackling Al Qaeda to trying to eliminate moles. Each time the United States and its allies think they have really disrupted Al Qaeda’s activities in one country they spring up somewhere else.
Anyone who thought Al Qaeda was dead or in decline was frankly seeing the world through a pair of highly tinted glasses. Any look across the world on a daily basis shows just how its adherents and acolytes continue to perpetrate acts of mass terrorism. Only a few days ago in Pakistan over one hundred people were killed in a suicide attack. This follows a similar pattern that has lasted for at least four years and with ominous regularity. The pattern of terrorist activity in Pakistan has changed little in that period.
The success of the drone strikes in Pakistan in containing and disrupting the activities of the remnants of the so-called core of Al Qaeda is difficult to dispute. Indeed in the first two weeks of the New Year a further brief surge of seven drone strikes occurred in Pakistan. Had that run-rate been sustained a new record annual figure for drones strikes may have been on the cards in 2013 beating the previous peak of 117 in 2010. But that has not created any downward pressure on terrorist activity across Pakistan. Indeed some argue the drone strikes are creating a new pool of radicalised people keen to become involved both in Pakistan and overseas.
Aside from Al Qaeda’s leader Dr Ayman al-Zawahiri the number of high profile targets remaining in Pakistan is low. Many recent attacks have targeted mid and low level operators. Many of those with experience have left Pakistan as it is simply too dangerous a place to try and coordinate international terrorist activity. This reduces the target set for the drone strikes in Pakistan. In the light of Leon Panetta’s new realism it will not be long before drone strikes are being reported in West Africa. As Al Qaeda manoeuvers so must the United States and its allies. This is why France’s intervention in Mali is so important. Their action has stemmed a tide that was flowing in the Islamists favour. Now that tide must be turned back.
Some of those who have left Pakistan are no doubt making their way to Kidal in northern Mali were the groups fighting French forces appear to have established a stronghold. Others may have stopped off on route in the Yemen and Somalia where other conurbations of Al Qaeda supporters take shelter in the remote desert area of the Hadramawt. Some will have headed to Syria and the Sinai where new Al Qaeda affiliated groups have sprung up recently.
All of this points to one simple thing. Political leaders anxious to cut back of spending need to think very carefully about the message that has emerged from Al Qaeda in the wake of In Amenas. That over 30 terrorists could be assembled in a remote desert location and take so many hostages in what was clearly a well-planned assault points to an organisation that is far from being defeated. The fact that the terrorists achieved what they did can also act as a catalyst to those operating on the fringes of Al Qaeda at the moment.
So for those attending the National Security Council meetings chaired by the Prime Minister a stark reality emerges. This is not the time to suggest that international terrorism is in decline. Several indicators in fact point in the other direction. Far from trying to switch resources from counter-terrorism to countering cyber-crime and espionage the focus on countering terrorism needs to be maintained.