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Europe Alarmed Over Threat of New Conflict in Africa

  • Henry Ridgwell

With Britain agreeing to send troops to Mali in a non-combat role, there is growing alarm in London that the country is being dragged into another battleground against terrorism, just as it tries to extract its military forces from Afghanistan.

British Prime Minister David Cameron took a stroll through Tripoli's Martyr's Square this week - part of a tour, which has taken him to Libya, Algeria and Liberia. It was on a balcony overlooking this wide plaza that former Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi gave speeches denouncing the West.

In September 2011, Cameron and then-French President Nicolas Sarkozy drew cheers in Benghazi after their intervention helped oust Gadhafi.

Eighteen months on, Cameron was in Libya to discuss a new threat.

"There is no true freedom, there is no true democracy without security and stability as well, and we are committed to helping you with that both here and also in your neighborhood," he said at a press conference with his Libyan counterpart on Thursday.

The fallout from the Arab Spring has generated a new threat for the West, says Rafaello Pantucci of the Royal United Services Institute in London.

"Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb and other radical terrorist groups, insurgent networks and criminal networks in North Africa were able to strengthen themselves from the flood of arms that came out of Gadhafi's armories," he said. "And this really helped to foment instability across the region."

The French military has aided Mali in driving out Islamist militants from strongholds in the north. Observers say they could now face a protracted guerrilla battle in the sands of the Sahara.

Britain has agreed to send at least 200 troops to Mali in a training role, and to boost security ties with Algeria.

Speculation that Western countries are being drawn into a new battleground against terrorism is wrong, says Rafaello Pantucci.

"Frankly there is no political appetite in Western capitals to get involved in that sort of conflict again," he said. "And I think also the approach that Western governments are taking at the moment, which is very, very focused on building up local capacity."

The attack last month on the In Amenas gas plant in Algeria resulted in the deaths of at least 37 foreign hostages. In a video posted online, the alleged mastermind, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, warned of further attacks.

Two security guards died as militants attacked an oil pipeline in Algeria Sunday.

"Al-Qaida's affiliates in North Africa have the means and the ability of creating large-scale terrorist activities and plots," said Sajjan Gohel is director for international security at the Asia-Pacific Foundation. "It also means that they are able to penetrate and bypass security. North Africa has had problems in the past; they haven't necessarily attracted as much attention as say situations in South Asia. But now I'm afraid we're looking at another theater of concern when it comes to terrorism."

Analysts say policymakers in Washington are content to play a supporting role as European powers take the lead in confronting the terror threat in the Sahel.

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