Terrorism in north Africa - back to the future?

A French soldier holds his weapon in the village of Sarakala, Mali Image copyright Reuters
Image caption The prime minister said the international community could not ignore the situation in Mali

What was particularly striking about the prime minister's statement on the Algerian hostage crisis was not what he said about it but what he said about the wider threat posed by terrorism across north Africa.

The language he used had an uncanny echo of language Tony Blair used to describe the threat posed by terrorism in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Read the following statements and you'll see what I mean

"I would very much caution against anyone who believes that if somehow we stayed out of Iraq* and just said this has got nothing to do with us, that would somehow make us safer. I don't believe that is the case."

"We should be working with others to help make the world safe all over the place, Iraq* included, because if we don't the threat there will grow and actually we will face it as well."

"Those who believe somehow there is a terrorist, extremist, al Qaida problem in Afghanistan *** and it's a problem for them and we can somehow back off and ignore it, I think that is profoundly wrong.

This is a problem for them, it's also a problem for us and I think we need to be absolutely clear about that … it is vital we do not allow an al Qaida-sponsored regime to take over the entirety of that country."

Now let me confess. The words above are not Tony Blair's. They are David Cameron's speaking in the Commons except that I have replaced his references to Mali and North Africa with the words Iraq and Afghanistan (see below for the detail of how I edited the text).

I am not suggesting that the prime minister is planning invasions of those countries. However, it is clear that he and his military advisers are increasingly focussed on the threat posed by the spread of Islamic terrorism in North Africa and the region known as the Sahel.

David Cameron said that the Chief of the Defence Staff General Sir David Richards was examining ideas for military co-operation with African countries.

In a speech to the Royal United Services Institute just before Christmas, Sir David spoke of Mali as being a major cause for concern along with Yemen. In his speech Sir David talked about the creation of a new UK joint expeditionary force which could, in future, be used in support of governments in the region and elsewhere.

The former Conservative Foreign Secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind suggested that North Africa was, in a phrase he borrowed from Churchill, the "soft underbelly of Europe." What became clear today is that the prime minister agrees. All that remains to be seen is what exactly he does about it in the weeks and months to come.

Until a few days ago, the vast majority of British voters had never heard of Mali (let alone the Sahel) nor could they - or indeed I - have placed it on a map.

Now, I suspect we are all going to have to learn a great deal more about these places, what's happening in them and what our government might have in mind for them.


The stars *, ** and *** in the quotes above indicate where I've amended David Cameron's text adding the words below and replacing the words in brackets :

* these issues (NOT Iraq)

** Mali (NOT Iraq)

***parts of North Africa (NOT Afghanistan)