Algeria: Islamists a "large and existential threat"
Patrick Sookhdeo of Barnabas Fund writes "the world needs to come together to deal with the present threat in North Africa.
by Dr. Patrick Sookhdeo
Islamist rebels in Mali
The French-led intervention in Mali and deadly siege at a gas plant in Algeria have focused the world's attention on the growing strength of Islamist extremists in north Africa; they have been described by UK Prime Minister David Cameron as a "large and existential threat" requiring a response that may last for decades.
He said last week:
What we face is an extremist, Islamist, al-Qaeda-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.
Islamist rebels seized northern Mali last year His comments came after the siege on a gas facility in Algeria in which 37 foreigners, including a number of Britons, were killed. The militants behind the attack claimed that it was to avenge the French military campaign against Islamist groups in northern Mali.
Omar Ould Hamaha, a leader in one of those groups, the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (Mujao), said that France "has opened the gates of hell [and] has fallen into a trap much more dangerous than Iraq, Afghanistan or Somalia".
There are a number of Islamist groups operating in north Africa. Ansar Dine was the home-grown outfit that initially seized control of northern Mali, with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and its offshoot, Mujao, gradually asserting more control over the uprising.
Bertrand Soret, chief political adviser to the European Union delegation in Mali, said that the Islamist groups in Mali are being led by AQIM, whose goal is to "internationalise the conflict as best as they can".
The militants pose an increasing threat to Western targets in the region and beyond; last week, Britons were told by the Foreign Office to leave the Libyan city of Benghazi in response to a "specific, imminent threat" linked to events in Mali.
The Islamists are couching their campaign in religious language. Following the French intervention in Mali, a spokesman for Mujao said:
France has attacked Islam. We will strike at the heart of France.
And an Algerian employee, who managed to escape the Islamist siege at the gas plant, said:
Us Algerians were rounded up separately and treated with kindness. We were told that because we were Muslim we would not be killed, and it was only the Christians they were after.
Because the militants associate Christianity with the West, Christian targets and individuals - as well as Western ones - are extremely vulnerable.
Barnabas Fund is helping Christians in Mali Christians were driven out of northern Mali when the Islamists seized control of the territory last March. Churches were destroyed and a harsh version of sharia law imposed on the defenceless population.
The French intervention in Mali has been greatly welcomed by the country's beleaguered citizens, hundreds of thousands of whom have had to flee their homes.
Efforts to drive the militants out of the north have been intensifying this week. French-led forces have recaptured the key towns of Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal. David Cameron has announced that the UK will send 330 military personnel to support the campaign.
The Islamists have put up very little resistance; it seems they have retreated tactically and are said to be hiding in the vast desert or mixing into the population, where they can bide their time, retrain and plan their next moves. A counter-insurgency has been predicted.
AQIM is certainly not going to go away without a fight. The group has a long and bloody history; it developed out of the Armed Islamist Group (GIA), which fought the Algerian government in the early 1990s, and has been linked to attacks on the Paris metro system in the mid-1990s and other plots in Europe and the US.
David Cameron is right not to underestimate the threat posed by Islamists in north Africa.