Publications on the internet
UNCORRECTED TRANSCRIPT OF ORAL EVIDENCE To be published as HC 56-i
HOUSE OF COMMONS
TAKEN BEFORE THE
FOREIGN AFFAIRS COMMITTEE
EXTREMISM AND POLITICAL INSTABILITY IN NORTH AND WEST AFRICA
TUESDAY 21 MAY 2013
IMAD MESDOUA and PROFESSOR PAUL ROGERS
Evidence heard in Public
Questions 1 - 49
USE OF THE TRANSCRIPT
This is an uncorrected transcript of evidence taken in public and reported to the House. The transcript has been placed on the internet on the authority of the Committee, and copies have been made available by the Vote Office for the use of Members and others.
Any public use of, or reference to, the contents should make clear that neither witnesses nor Members have had the opportunity to correct the record. The transcript is not yet an approved formal record of these proceedings.
Members who receive this for the purpose of correcting questions addressed by them to witnesses are asked to send corrections to the Committee Assistant.
Prospective witnesses may receive this in preparation for any written or oral evidence they may in due course give to the Committee.
Taken before the Foreign Affairs Committee
on Tuesday 21 May 2013
Richard Ottaway (Chair)
Mr John Baron
Sir Menzies Campbell
Mr Frank Roy
Sir John Stanley
Examination of Witnesses
Witnesses: Imad Mesdoua, Political Analyst, Pasco Risk Management, and Professor Paul Rogers, Professor of Peace Studies, Bradford University, gave evidence.
Q1 Chair: I welcome members of the public to this first evidence session in the Committee’s inquiry into the UK response to extremism and political instability in North and West Africa.
I am delighted to welcome our first two witnesses: Professor Paul Rogers, who is professor of peace studies at Bradford university; and Mr Imad Mesdoua, political analyst with Pasco Risk Management. Thank you both very much indeed for coming along. Is there anything you want to say by way of opening statement?
Professor Rogers: Just thank you for inviting us here this afternoon.
Q2 Chair: My pleasure. May I start the ball rolling by asking if Mali is a textbook example of good international intervention, or is the jury still out?
Professor Rogers: It is very much the case that the jury is still out. I would be much happier if I were able to look back from five years in the future. We are in the very early stages of what may develop in Mali and in its relationship to surrounding areas. At the moment, it looks like some progress is being made, but one has to be very cautious. In particular, we are coming into the hottest part of the year, when traditionally there is much less movement; for that reason alone, there may be something of a hiatus.
Imad Mesdoua: I tend to agree with what the professor said. Whether Mali will be seen as a success will depend to a large extent on how the elections go in the month of July, and whether these elections are able to bring about a free and fair choice for the people of Mali and legitimate institutions, but also redefine the role of the military within Mali. Whether it was a success will depend on the long-term objectives that are set out for the development of Mali and its political institutions, rather than just focusing on the security agenda that has been looked at thus far.
Q3 Chair: Do you think we have underestimated the complexity of it?
Professor Rogers: I certainly think so, yes. It is a combination of a number of different factors: the complexity of the ethnic make-up in northern Mali; the role particularly of the Tuareg; the relative roles of Islamist tendencies; the extent to which the Islamist elements last year became quite embedded, not just in the towns, but in some of the mountainous areas; and, perhaps most worrying of all, the early evidence that paramilitary elements from other countries have been moving into Mali. There was the incident two or three days ago, in which four Egyptians were killed-one was quite well known-who had clearly been in Mali for some time. That suggests that our fear that it might become a magnet for a wider group, quite apart from the Tuareg who came across from Libya, may be coming to pass.
Chair: We will probe that shortly.
Imad Mesdoua: I tend to agree. We have underestimated the complexity of the situation in Mali. One error that was and is currently being made is that we tend to view the crisis in Mali in the sole context of northern Mali, rather than looking at the broader regional implications. We also tend to look at it in a very specific and limited timeline. We tend to look at events in Mali starting from the coup or crisis in 2012, but many of the problems facing the international community in Mali and elsewhere in the Sahel go far back. The border issue, smuggling and drug trafficking, as well as drought and famine, go back decades. The Tuareg issue, as the professor rightly noted, goes back at least 30 or 40 years. We have, to a certain extent, underestimated the complexity of the problems in Mali at the moment.
Q4 Chair: If the French had not intervened and the Islamic forces who were pushing south had taken Bamako, what do you think the impact would have been on Britain’s interests, or the interests of Europe and the wider world?
Imad Mesdoua: I think there would have been very serious consequences for western interests, not only in Mali but elsewhere. Mali is a key country, geo-strategically. Where it is situated is extremely important to western interests, and it is a key country for the stability of the broader Sahel region. You have Mauritania, Niger, Algeria, Morocco and other countries that depend on the stability of that country for them to be stable. That may explain Algeria’s reluctance to get involved in the conflict. It would have presented a major threat, especially in terms of security. I was at a talk a few months ago here in Parliament, where the key question was: is Mali the next Afghanistan? I think if the French had not intervened, we could probably have answered that question with a "probably" or a "yes." It would have become a haven for terrorist groups.
Professor Rogers: One thing I would add is that the French obviously intervened at relatively short notice. It was clear that there was going to be foreign involvement from the ECOWAS states, probably this coming September; that was the original possibility. What is not clear is whether the movement of the Islamist faction south was actually to have a chance of taking Bamako, or whether it was to pre-empt any counter-move north. The information at the time suggests that what they were about was moving south to prevent one major airstrip from being in Government hands, so it is not clear that they would have gone as far as Bamako. If they had, I would certainly agree with my colleague.
Q5 Sir John Stanley: You said that the jury was out as to whether the British intervention in Mali was a good decision or a not-so-good decision, and I understand entirely why you should have said that. Given that we are where we are, could you both tell us what you consider the British Government’s top policy priorities should be, as far as Mali is concerned, from now on?
Professor Rogers: My own view is clearly that the main requirement is to try, in the short term, to see whether anything can be done to facilitate successful elections. That is going to be particularly difficult in the north, although there are some useful negotiations apparently starting between the Government and some of the northern groups. In the slightly longer term, one has to address the underlying problems. As my colleague said, this is a long-term, historical problem. It relates largely to the relative neglect of the north over a number of decades, so anything that can help Mali, in terms of both promoting better governance and getting at the root of the underlying socio-economic differences, I think would be of value. Where Britain can help, it should. It may not be a priority for Britain, but Mali is a very significant country, and if it were really to fail as a state, the consequences would be serious.
Imad Mesdoua: I think the UK should be commended already for what it has done in terms of helping Mali, notably in the conference that was recently held on helping the country to find funds to run its state, because this is the major issue. I think $4.22 billion was put in by a large group of donors, and the UK provided quite a bit of assistance.
One major thing I would add that the UK can and should be helping out with is the issue of policing borders and intelligence sharing. That is a key issue that is to a certain extent being overlooked by the French as they turn their attention towards mediating talks between the MNLA and the Government, and as they focus on the Islamic insurgency. One thing the UK can do is come into the region and the country and talk with their Malian counterparts about sharing intelligence and providing the material to gather intelligence and monitor and police the borders, bringing British expertise to a country that needs specifically these key things to maintain security and to help these elections go smoothly.
Professor Rogers: On the question of the $4.2 billion, that is indeed very welcome, but there is a proviso. When these kinds of pledges are made in this kind of circumstance, it is not at all uncommon for there to be double pledges-for countries basically to pledge the same money in two different votes-and then the money actually is not delivered. The $4.2 billion, as it is now, is very good news, if it is implemented. I think it is fair to say that the British overseas development system is one of the best-regarded internationally, and one hopes that that would not be a problem for Britain-in fact, I doubt that it would be-but it is a feature, when you have a number of major pledges made by many countries, that the amount that actually gets delivered can be very much less. We hope that it is not like that in this case.
Q6 Sir John Stanley: There are the Syrian refugees right now, and the commitments that have not been fulfilled there.
Professor Rogers: Precisely.
Q7 Mr Baron: You both rightly say that the jury is out on Mali, and that we need to see how things progress from here. Can you address the wider issue of whether the West’s involvement in Mali feeds into a wider perception of Islam being under attack? Al-Qaeda has been written off as a military force, yet it remains potent in a reasonable part of the Muslim world. Part of that narrative, a number of commentators are suggesting, is the one, spun by one or two Muslim stations and the media, that Islam is under attack. To what extent do you think our involvement in Mali feeds into that? Are there any wider ramifications?
Professor Rogers: I think our involvement in Mali will not feed into that too strongly, because our involvement is relatively small. We do not officially have any combat forces there. We have assets, and we certainly have aided the French in their combat missions-
Q8 Mr Baron: Sorry, can I qualify my question? When I say "our", I mean the West’s.
Professor Rogers: Certainly, as far as the West is concerned, yes. That will relate primarily to France at present. If you look at the entire picture across the world, one tends to forget that from a radical Islamist perspective, it is all part of a single picture. It is absolutely correct that al-Qaeda as a central, hierarchical organised entity has been hugely diminished, not least over the past three or four years, because of the impact of the special forces and drone attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but as a potent idea, it is a very different measure, and that goes from the Caucasus Emirate through to the Swahili coast, to Yemen, Somalia, then parts of West and North Africa and, of course, pre-eminently at present, Iraq and Syria. There is this perception-a minority perception, but a significant one-that Islam is under attack. It is a mirror image of the view that you get in western quarters that Islam is the threat. It is powerful and potent, and is aided a lot by the 24-hour news channels, and particularly the social media, and the way propaganda can spread so rapidly.
Imad Mesdoua: I think that western intervention in Mali will definitely be a key element now of Islamic militants’-I would not focus specifically on al-Qaeda, and I will explain why-narrative in the coming years. I am thinking specifically of Mali, but also Syria, which is now a major hot spot for recruitment, or a major topic used to recruit new jihadis. That is nothing new; it has existed for some time. There is the classic narrative that al-Qaeda has used of beit al-harb and beit al-salam-the house of war versus the house of peace, the house of peace being Islam and the house of war being what comes into the house of peace. That narrative will not change, in my opinion.
You spoke about al-Qaeda being diminished as a military force. I would tend to agree with you that that is more and more the case in regions such as Afghanistan and elsewhere. What we should not do is forget that al-Qaeda as an idea, franchise, or business model, almost, in this arc of instability, as some are calling it, which ranges from West to East Africa, is still a very strong and potent idea. That will come to replace the idea of al-Qaeda as a potent military force. Al-Qaeda and its agenda and narrative is a potent franchise. We should keep that in mind, in my opinion.
Q9 Mike Gapes: I am going to take you back to your remarks about the potential for this to turn into an Afghanistan. Given the internal political crisis in Mali, the coup last year, and the difficulties between the north and south that you have talked about, how easy is it going to be to turn Mali into a state that is both stable and democratic? Will it be like Afghanistan, or will it be worse?
Imad Mesdoua: It is a very difficult question to answer. There are reasons to be positive; there are signs that are positive for Mali’s development and construction as a stable state, but all will depend, as I said earlier, on the elections-not necessarily the outcome, but the process, and whether or not they are free and fair. I think the French and international presence will do a lot to ensure that they are free and fair elections. More importantly, on the issues of identity and neglect of the north, those are going to be the key elements in creating a stable state in Mali. Negotiations between the MNLA, the Tuareg group which, to a certain extent, initiated this whole crisis in the north of Mali, and the transition Government are going to be vital for Mali’s development in the coming years, because they might set up the framework for not only political representation, but a fair distribution of the country’s wealth. The north has been neglected in terms of infrastructure and political representation, and those issues are going to be on the table when these talks take place.
I want to add that the UN presence in the country, which is expected, and which will not focus on the Islamic insurgency-it will leave that to the French troops that will remain on the ground-will secure towns, roads and the country’s territory, and that will be vital to creating a stable state. It is a positive sign, but, again, Malian problems require Malian solutions, and it is up to the international community to help the Malians strengthen themselves and take care of their own country progressively as they start finding their way politically.
Q10 Mike Gapes: So there cannot be a stable situation without the MNLA being involved? How does that go with the fact that there has been an attempt in Kidal to drive them out? Are they part of the solution or part of the problem, or both?
Imad Mesdoua: In my opinion, they are part of the solution. Some analysts will tell you they are not part of the solution; some people in the south of the country will tell you they are not part of the solution. We have to understand that there is a great deal of tension between Tuareg populations in the north and populations in the south, which are mainly composed of Bambara and Fulani, or Peul, people. Part of the reason why the MNLA refused to hand Kidal over to the army is that they fear persecution. They also do not want to give up some of that autonomy; holding that city is a bargaining chip for them at the moment. You have to include every key actor that is in the north; you cannot just disregard a major military force that has been able to topple a state. For the Malians, it is in their best interests to include them in the solution, but I do not know if the professor agrees.
Professor Rogers: As I hope my evidence made clear, I am not a country specialist-my evidence looks more at the wider remit-but as far as Mali is concerned, and from talking to colleagues who know the country well, it is pointed out that one of the problems of recent months has been the behaviour of the Mali army elements of the forces. In fact, if you look at the Mali army and the surrounding ECOWAS states, it is generally thought that only the Chadian military groups have been really effective, and they have either withdrawn or are going to be withdrawn.
The Mali army, or elements of it, have a really bad reputation. There have been some real atrocities. There have been examples of people being killed and thrown in wells to poison the drinking supply. In a sense, from the point of view of the Tuareg elements, in particular, that is what they feared. Unless that can be reined in, it is going to be really quite difficult to get negotiations going. I am not in any way saying there have not been atrocities on the other side as well, but this is a significant element. A long-term, stable security situation is not being achieved at present, and a lot of the success of the elections in the longer term-over the next year or two-will be bound up with improving the security situation.
Q11 Mike Gapes: I have some more questions about the UK role, but on this point about elections, the elections in July are presidential elections, and there are supposed to be parliamentary elections after that. Is the July timetable firm? I have been told that there may be a delay, that it may not necessarily be July and that the parliamentary election may be delayed until September, in the autumn. Is there a firm date for both?
Professor Rogers: There is said to be, but I do not think one should take that as read. If one wants to be optimistic, there may be an advantage to some delay if there are negotiations, particularly with some of the groups in the north, but the problem is that any delay can be seen as a delaying tactic to prevent improvements in governance, and that is the quandary.
Imad Mesdoua: I personally feel as though the country will not be ready logistically to have elections on the set date, which I believe is 28 July, but the French President and authorities have been clear that they would like that date to be a firm one.
Q12 Mike Gapes: So that they can leave?
Imad Mesdoua: Well, they have already started to withdraw troops, but more specifically it is to pressure their Malian counterparts to move ahead with the political transition. One reassuring aspect of the elections that I should add is that the transition Government, namely the President and his Cabinet, have given assurances that they will not be running in these elections or the parliamentary elections. I think that is a very good sign for Mali.
Q13 Mike Gapes: Could the election be held in the whole of Mali or would it be difficult to hold it in the north?
Imad Mesdoua: It is obviously going to be difficult, in my opinion, to hold it in the north, given the situation simply in Kidal. You have an entire city run by the MNLA, and that is out of Government hands. There are French and African troops in the city, but you do not have control-the Malian Government-over that town. That is just one example of the impediments to running the elections so soon, but you have other issues as well. When it comes to the voter registry, I think that the Malian authorities are not ready yet. They have expressed that on several occasions, I think, in meetings behind closed doors with their French counterparts. That is not necessarily reported in the media, but it is a factor that we should all consider.
Q14 Mike Gapes: Can I take you on to the fact that the UK is involved? Is nation building, which is effectively what is now being undertaken, something in which we should try to play a leading role or, given that this is a French-led operation and we are very much the junior partner, should we accept that we are playing only a minor role?
Professor Rogers: My personal view is that we should accept that we should play a relatively minor role. If you are looking at the whole of West and North Africa, Libya and certainly Nigeria are far more important in this whole thing. The development of Boko Haram and Ansaru in Nigeria is, in my view, a lot more significant even than what is happening in Mali, and that is where Britain has much stronger connections and can probably play a better role. That does not mean that we should not be involved in Mali, but relatively speaking, it is less important in the wider region.
Q15 Mike Gapes: Do you agree?
Imad Mesdoua: To a certain extent, but not fully. The UK has something to offer when it comes to the transition in Mali.
Q16 Mike Gapes: Is that because we are not France?
Imad Mesdoua: Exactly. That is exactly why. The French come with quite a bit of historical baggage. There are accusations, which I am sure you have all heard, of neo-colonialism-Françafrique, as it is called. The accusation is that the French have a tendency to get involved when their interests are at stake-gold mines in the south of Mali and uranium mines in Niger. I definitely think that it is in the interests of the UK to get involved. How the UK gets involved is obviously up for debate, but the UK should bring its expertise in various areas. It does not have to be a military contribution, but can be assistance in development or in consolidating and strengthening the capacity of the Malian state to run its everyday affairs. The UK is very good at that and it would be able to do it without its hands being tied, because it does not have the historical baggage that France does.
Q17 Mike Gapes: That is helpful. Finally, may I ask about ECOWAS? Professor Rogers, you referred to the fact that they were due to go to Mali in September, but events moved and as a result France had to intervene. Is it a failure of ECOWAS that they were unable to get their act together more quickly? What does that tell us about their future capacity to deal with conflict in the western Sahel?
Professor Rogers: It was something of a failure, but I think one has to recognise that if you look at just about all the ECOWAS states, with the possible exception of Chad, the nature of their armed forces means that they are simply not trained for this kind of operation outside their own countries. If you look at the very extensive training and support that you have had with African Union interventions in Somalia, you are dealing with armed forces, such as the Kenyans and Ugandans, that have a greater capability for this, which really does not exist in West Africa. One could not really anticipate even the more elite groups in the Nigerian army having any great capability in intervening in another country. If the failure is there, it is probably a failure to look longer term and to have units available that are able to do this. There is a huge difference between maintaining security in your own country and doing it in another country. Some people could argue that one of the problems is that we have never ever had this idea of a United Nations emergency peace service with troops always available, drawn from many different countries.
Q18 Mike Gapes: That is Boutros-Ghali’s "An Agenda for Peace" idea from 1992.
Professor Rogers: Absolutely. Supposing there was a series of brigade-strength units available, including some from African countries, for intervention under UN Security Council agreement, that could have transformed the situation, but there have been 20 or 30 years’ worth of efforts to get that and we have failed so far.
Imad Mesdoua: I have one additional point. It is also an issue of funding for ECOWAS. One of the major problems in the run-up to discussions about sending troops to Mali was not the lack of political will-everybody was on the same page-but rather a lack of funds and financial clout behind most states to invest in what is a costly exercise. Even though the political will was there and the western powers had given their assurances that they would aid ECOWAS and, indeed, the African Union, the funds just were not there. That is the bottom line.
Q19 Mr Baron: May I draw us back from Mali and look at Mali’s neighbours? As a Committee, part of what we are trying to do is better understand the struggle that is taking place with regard to extremist groups linked with al-Qaeda. Could a Mali situation occur in any of its neighbours, whether Niger, Chad, Mauritania or anywhere like that? Could we have a similar sort of situation? When answering that question, could you also reflect on the importance or not of the fact that the US has just established a drone base in Niger?
Professor Rogers: The drone base established in Niger is said initially to be for reconnaissance purposes, but going back to the earlier comments about how it is viewed from the other side, that is not how it will be viewed. The very idea of any kind of drone base in West Africa, relating to Mali or other countries, would be viewed among the radical Islamist propagandists as a gift, because they will make the immediate connection with Yemen and with Pakistan. There are also reports that the French air force, which does not have these kinds of facilities at present-it is involved in several drone programmes-is now thinking seriously about buying in Reapers for use in Mali and elsewhere. Britain of course does have the Reaper, but there are no plans to base it in West Africa. On that particular point, from a western perspective, this makes a great deal of military sense. From the other side, I am afraid that it is something of a propaganda gift.
As to your specific question, I think my colleague is probably more equipped to answer than me, except that I would come back to the point that Nigeria remains hugely significant. I hope the Committee will be looking at that in its studies.
Imad Mesdoua: To answer your specific question about the risk of a Mali scenario occurring elsewhere in the region, the factors that led to the crisis in Mali exist elsewhere in the region and, in some instances, in countries that we do not necessarily expect, such as Tunisia and Libya. Niger and Mauritania are two particularly fragile states with fragile institutions and with similar grievances at the local level when it comes to identity. Tuareg rebellions have occurred before in Niger for example, so it is not a new issue for them. The leadership of these states is very cognisant of the fact that this is a threat to their own stability, which explains even Chad’s reaction and involvement as the conflict could spill over into its territory. Another aggravating factor that might lead to similar crises in Niger or Mauritania, and perhaps even Burkina Faso, is the fact that these states and their institutions are under a tremendous amount of stress having to deal with a tremendous number of refugees, which they are unable to cope with alone. The free flow of peoples and arms-another set of factors which led to what occurred in Mali-is still there for these countries and they are unable to deal with that. The US drone base is going to actually act, to a certain extent, at the tactical level and at the operational level, as a slight deterrent for groups who freely move throughout these territories-the desert territories-because a lot of groups are going into Libya now and using arms stockpiles and returning to their countries or flowing through this Saharan belt, into countries like Chad and as far as Sudan and Somalia. So what that drone base can do is serve as a deterrent, if it is used effectively, to help states locally to police their borders.
Q20 Mr Baron: May I press you a little bit on what makes up al-Qaeda in the region? Help us to better understand the threat-its attraction. Some commentators would suggest that what al-Qaeda tends to do is hook on to local discontent, and when you look at the religious extremists in Maghreb or the Sahel or, indeed, Nigeria, there seems to be a common theme there. We know al-Qaeda is not a homogenous group as such, but a collection of local factions expressing discontent in an obviously very local area. How does that play here? Is that your understanding of the threat from al-Qaeda and other extremist groups? In which case, is the answer to address the individual grievances as a way of combating the terrorist threat?
Professor Rogers: If one looks at al-Qaeda overall and takes it in its form about 10 years ago, it had two distinctive features which are not typical of localised revolutionary movements. It is a revolutionary movement. It wants revolutionary political change. It was transnational from the start, more or less-it has its origins in Afghanistan in the 1980s-but by the end of the 1980s it was looking much more transnationally at the near enemy of the unacceptable regimes in the middle east and the far enemy of the United States.
The second point is this extraordinary and almost unique aspect as a revolutionary movement: it is eschatological, in that it looks beyond this life. That is the real key. The elements in al-Qaeda do not see, necessarily, their achieving their aims in their own lifetime, because it is a religious ideology, not neo-Maoist, for example, like the Naxalite alliance. That is crucial to understanding the change from a more narrow, semi-hierarchical paramilitary movement to an idea. We are dealing with time scales which may be 50 to 100 years, in their view. Their idea of establishing a middle east-wide caliphate, maybe extending to the world, is measured in 50 to 100 years or more, so they do not follow our kind of political time scales.
That was 10 or 12 years ago. How does that relate to now? Well, there are elements of that still, and there are elements which are-it is entirely looking long term, but the individual elements may not be transnational. So, for example, I think-you may correct me if I am wrong-broadly, the more Islamist paramilitaries active in Mali are much more focused on Mali. Boko Haram is more focused on Nigeria itself. Ansaru, this offshoot of it, is more transnational, hence its kidnapping of foreigners.
If you look more worldwide, there are elements of the al-Qaeda idea in Yemen which look transnationally, hence the attempts to attack the United States. There are elements in diasporas that are very much transnational. Whereas if you take Syria, which is the most important current area of Islamist paramilitary development, that is primarily focused on Syria, but the extraordinary thing there is the way in which it has drawn in dedicated young paramilitaries from around the region. So there is that transnational element there.
I would also support what my colleague said about Libya. I think we underestimate the extent to which the brutal Gaddafi regime suppressed Islamist dissent in Libya, which meant that many such young Libyans went overseas and got combat training. Quite a lot of them are back now. In spite of its innate wealth, it is taking far longer for Libya to make a transition to a stable, peaceful society. We may have some years to go yet.
Imad Mesdoua: To answer your question, I think that we have to view al-Qaeda or the rise of radical Islamism-militant Islamism-in north Africa strictly through a north African lens. As my colleague was saying, groups like Ansar Dine, which are operating in Mali, are very much based on local agendas, establishing Sharia law in the north, establishing Sharia law in the country. That might have changed if Bamako had fallen, but as far as we know groups like Ansar Dine, MUJAO and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb are operating in northern Mali. Groups that attacked the BP and Statoil gas pipe in Amenas in Algeria are also groups that may use the internationalist jihadi narrative, but in practice are very much focused, I would say, on local agendas, so we have to see them through that prism. We also need to understand that their capacity to recruit, and their capacity to thrive and to operate in this region, depends primarily on local factors.
Q21 Mr Baron: Can I just press you on that? The Prime Minister has used-I am sure he is not the only one-words such as "generational struggle", which actually feeds into the jihadist narrative quite nicely. How do we then address the extremists in the region? Are you suggesting that you could do it on an individual basis-address each local grievance? I suggest that is not, perhaps the answer; but how do we address what the Prime Minister has described as the "poisonous narrative" that religious extremists feed on?
Imad Mesdoua: They may be groups that have a regional and local focus, but the space in which they operate, and their capacity to thrive, depends, as I mentioned earlier, not only on the weakness of states in which they operate but on their capacity to move freely through the Sahara. So we are talking about groups with local identities, but that are actually transnational threats, which require-and I would tend to agree with the Prime Minister’s view on this-a transnational solution.
This is not something that we can address just locally in an isolated context; but we have to understand it from a local perspective. We have to view it from the perspective of local grievances. We tend to talk about this strictly from the point of view of Islamist ideologies, but I would tend to focus on the economic incentive these groups have. A lot of them are smugglers-criminals, bandits-that have reconverted, or have used this franchise, this al-Qaeda model, to expand. We have to look at the economic agenda that they push forward, which is one of economic predation, above all. That requires a transnational solution.
Q22 Mr Baron: If you had a hit list of things that you would want to address in the region, to lessen the link of local grievances and extremists with al-Qaeda-addressing the economics and poverty, and so forth, would obviously be high on that; closing down large ungoverned spaces would probably, as best you can, be top of it. What else should be part of the mix? How should the West respond, in other words, to these threats?
Professor Rogers: Certainly, there are two elements in which the economic aspect is important. One, as my colleague is saying, is criminality, and one can’t underestimate the importance of some west African states-Guinea-Bissau, through to Mali and others-in terms of the drug route in use: primarily South American drugs and the route through into Europe. It is hugely important and it is very profitable.
The other economic element, as we alluded to earlier, was the relative neglect of the north-the socio-economic divide. That is a fundamental thing, which you find in many areas where you get this kind of radical movement developing. Terrorism does not come from the poorest of the poor-let’s be clear about that; but I think relative deprivation is a different matter: the perception that you are relatively more poor than another group. Given the huge improvements in education and literacy of the last 40 years that is a much more common factor. It goes a long way to explaining some of the neo-Maoist rebellions, particularly the Naxalite in India. One has to really go beyond the immediate threat, always avoid the risk of seeing it purely as a radical, religious threat, and see what lies behind the motives of people, even if they are falling back on that part of their identity.
Imad Mesdoua: I would add one more nuance to that, which is that in my opinion there is a difference between the radicalisation of, for example, youth in the north of Mali or elsewhere in West Africa, and the radicalisation of youth that is currently occurring in North Africa-Tunisia, Libya and Egypt-where you have the very worrying rise of Salafist groups with pretensions towards armed conflict or a willingness to engage in that. There are differences. In the north of Mali, I would say that it is more an issue of development and policing, whereas in other countries in North Africa, the issues are more deep-rooted in marginalisation, political repression and, obviously, unemployment, which is perhaps the key word in cutting off recruitment methods and possibilities for these groups.
Professor Rogers: I saw one figure-I cannot give you a reference for it now, but I think that it is correct-that Tunisia, with a population of 10 million, has 140,000 unemployed graduates. That is a very large group of educated people on the margins. If we go back-I think that this is relevant-to Saudi Arabia in the 1990s, the Saudi economy dipped somewhat because of their oil prices. That meant that there were far more young men-tens of thousands-coming out of the technical schools and the high schools into an economy with relatively little employment, unless maybe they had a connection with one of the 1,000 princely families. That again is where they can get a kind of conviction that there must be another, more radical way, and it is very easy for the radicalisers to have an effect in that sort of population.
Q23 Chair: Professor, do you think that a high level of population growth is a factor?
Professor Rogers: It is probably the one region of the world where the demographic transition is still relatively slow. Population growth is far less significant than, for example, 20 years ago in Latin America, Southern Africa or much of South and South-East Asia, with some exceptions. Across much of the Middle East you have this demographic bulge; the birth rates are falling, but you still have a very large proportion of the population aged between about five and 25. They are far better educated than they have been in the past, because there have been some improvements, but with far fewer employment prospects.
The demographic bulge, combined with the economic divide, lies at a lot of the heart of what my colleague was saying about the development of more radical groups in Egypt and elsewhere. The problem is that as Egypt makes a transition to what we hope is more democratic governance, whatever form of governance has an incredible task ahead of it at a time of world economic recession and all these internal problems.
Q24 Chair: You say that population growth rates are falling; Niger is going to see its population nearly quadruple by 2050.
Professor Rogers: There are exceptions, as I say. There are exceptions across that belt.
Q25 Chair: It is patchy.
Professor Rogers: It is very patchy, but the point is that across the Middle East-I am personally more familiar with Iran-you have this huge proportion of younger people coming through who are really quite well educated. That demographic bulge has still to run, and I think that it goes to explain, for example, the very high levels of graduate unemployment in Tunisia.
Imad Mesdoua: If I may add one point, another key factor that we tend to overlook, which is essential in all this, is explosive urbanisation, which feeds into relative deprivation. The idea that you have large numbers of people-I will give you the example of my home country, Algeria-who migrate from the smaller cities and villages into the major cities: Algiers, Oran, Annaba. It is the same in Tunisia, Libya and Morocco, I would say. Once they reach the city with the hope of finding a job, being educated and finding housing, they find a housing crisis, rampant unemployment, 12 to 15 people living in houses made for two people-all the unintended consequences that come with rapid urbanisation and that are out of the control of Governments in the region. I am talking specifically about North Africa, not necessarily West Africa, but it all contributes. There has been research that shows that it contributes, or has contributed, quite substantially to the expansion and rise of radical youth in these countries.
Q26 Mark Hendrick: I would just like to pursue the economic aspects and how they play into the ideological aspects, as well as the way in which criminality is involved. Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb has made millions and millions of dollars, mainly from smuggling but also from kidnapping. The French Government in the past have paid ransom money for the release of French citizens. How important is that supply of money from smuggling and kidnapping to the extremists in the region? If we could cut off that money, would it make the region safer?
Professor Rogers: If I may start very briefly, I think in that region-that is the key phrase-it is relatively more important than elsewhere. I think you find that, across the activities of groups that are generally under the banner of al-Qaeda across the Middle East-apart from Afghanistan, which had a huge income from opium in the past, if I can include the Taliban very loosely in this category, although I know they are not part of the al-Qaeda group-by and large, away from the Maghreb, the elements of criminality and kidnapping are not so dominant as sources of funding. My understanding is that that is much more important in this region.
Imad Mesdoua: Again, we have to look at regional specificities. In West Africa, I think it is important to cut off that source of funding. Every little bit helps. Groups such as MUJAO rose to prominence particularly because they were able to get money from hostage taking and the kidnapping of, for example, western foreign aid workers in the western Sahrawi refugee camps in Algeria. Cutting off that source of funding is vital-more importantly, it is a deterrent-to ensure that it does not serve as an example for such groups to keep kidnapping western or other hostages. I tend to agree that, in North Africa or the Maghreb, this is not the prominent or key source of funding. We have to look at other, more complex sources of funding, particularly emanating from very wealthy individuals and organisations in the Gulf, as well as states that are funding groups. You have a very complex network. There is a whole spider’s web of terrorist funding networks that operate more prominently in North Africa, but that is different from the Sahel.
Q27 Mark Hendrick: What practical steps do you think we in the UK could take with international partners to cut off the flow? As I mentioned earlier, the French are actively paying ransoms. That is not a deterrent; it is an encouragement. What do you think needs to be done to cut off the flow of finance?
Imad Mesdoua: I think through greater transparency and encouraging states, particularly Gulf states, first of all to police these banking transactions that go relatively unnoticed. Those funds take different shapes and sizes. They can be investments made through local business ventures and business partnerships, and they fall under the radar, so it is going to be very difficult. I think the UK can put pressure on states to monitor these things and to increase transparency.
To go back to the hostage-taking, kidnapping and payment of ransoms, I think that policy is changing in France under François Hollande. At least rhetorically speaking, the narrative has changed to say, "France does not negotiate with terrorists, and France will not pay ransom money." The French might be paying ransom money without saying that they are, but at least the narrative has changed, and I think the UK should stick to its policy of not negotiating with terrorists. That is the best solution to protect British interests.
Professor Rogers: On the other aspect of funding, particularly through the drugs trade, including the very large trade in illicit tobacco, you have the problem of demand in the receiving countries, including, in terms of cocaine, Western Europe. It is the same problem with the drugs trade as a whole. Do you try to cut it off at source? Do you try to interdict it? Or do you have different policies for the recipient countries, where there is actually a demand? I think that applies as much to how we deal with things in West Africa as it does in relation to South America.
Q28 Mark Hendrick: We have seen the trigger of thousands of Tuareg fighters that Libya had recruited in the 1990s going back into Mali, and some people are calling it in Libya a post-blowback blowback, with the French coming in and pushing the Tuareg back further north and into Libya. What part, if any, do you feel the collapse of the Gaddafi regime has played in bringing in the forces that have put Mali under threat and that obviously necessitated the movement of the French into Mali?
Professor Rogers: Within Libya itself, there is now a stronger element of Islamist-orientated militias than existed in the population five years ago under Gaddafi, when there was pretty tight repression of that kind of outlook. So you have that anyway, and then you have the transnational element. That relates, as you say, very much to the Tuareg who were part of the Libyan armed forces.
Therefore, there is certainly a double blowback within Libya itself. You have a stronger Islamist element, because of the lack of control in what was a very repressive regime, but you also have the blowback in terms of blowing back, first, into Mali and then, possibly, back into Libya. Again, it relates to this issue of almost completely permeable borders. We are not seeing a set of geographical entities; we are seeing an entire region with extraordinary abilities for people to flow across borders and no real policing of borders in most cases.
Imad Mesdoua: I would also say that what contributed, to a large extent, was the availability of arms. I think a lot of militias were able to use the arms that were at their disposal immediately after the revolution and during the revolution, either to achieve local objectives, which they are now parading in the north of the country and showing that they utilise these weapons as a show of strength to maintain control over their respective territories, but also those arms obviously served the Tuareg, who are able to come-Libya became an arms bazaar in the aftermath of the revolution, because of the borders and because there was a lack of central Government authority over regions that are difficult to control in the kind of unstable situation that came after the revolution.
One thing I would say is that the demise, or fall, of the Gaddafi regime contributed, but was not necessarily the sole causal factor behind the Malian crisis. The seeds for the Malian crisis were there anyways. I would say it was just an aggravating factor.
Q29 Mark Hendrick: You say "aggravating", but would you say it was perhaps an accelerating factor? And do you think that Britain and France, in their zeal to see the removal of Gaddafi to help the opposition, perhaps overlooked the fact that it would have this impact on Mali?
Imad Mesdoua: Yes, I think it’s the law of unintended consequences. Arming the rebels might have seemed in the short term a good policy in the specific context of Libya, but the problem and the reality in this region-as I mentioned earlier-is that any decision at the local level in one state will affect the other states, because of the very geographic nature and because of the geo-strategic and geopolitical factors in that region. The fact that the borders are so porous means that if you are about to inject, or if you do inject, a certain quantity of arms or fighters, or a certain set of new political realities, in one given political landscape, it will have an immediate effect on the country nearby. It just so happened that Mali had the ingredients, or the seeds were planted, for the crisis to be accelerated, as you say.
Q30 Mark Hendrick: I think we can see that in hindsight, but my question was: do you think that should have been foreseen by Britain and France?
Imad Mesdoua: I think it could have been foreseen, yes. I think it could have been foreseen, but it doesn’t mean-I don’t think the intention was there. I think that in trying to assist one country to achieve what were very noble objectives in the short term, people-policy makers, decision makers-perhaps did not necessarily look at what possible consequences could come after that.
Q31 Mark Hendrick: That is my point. I am sure it was not Britain’s and France’s intention to cause the problems that we have seen in Mali. Professor Rogers, would you like to comment on that?
Professor Rogers: Yes. If you look more broadly, at the time of the termination of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan there were people warning against long-term consequences. There were much stronger analytical voices warning against the consequences of terminating the Saddam Hussein regime. There were a few people who were rather concerned about how Libya would turn out, whatever the rightful motives.
There is a certain irony, in that when Gaddafi came in from the cold about seven years ago, for about five years Libya went on quite a decent arms-buying spree, mainly from European countries. Indeed, just a week before the French and American intervention started, you had one French company upgrading the Libyan air force Mirages and an Italian company upgrading some of the army’s equipment. That meant that, in a sense, the level of equipment among the Libyan armed forces had improved since Gaddafi came in from the cold, and some of that equipment has been of use now to people who have gone through to Mali. That is an unexpected consequence, I’m afraid. Again, perhaps it could have been foreseen.
I am bound to say that people who were warning about the likely outcome in Afghanistan and Iraq were more prominent than people who were rather more cautious about Libya. In broad terms, as far as western countries are concerned, there was a lot of support for the French-led intervention in Libya. Even so, it has been very disappointing to see the consequences and the state of the country now, in spite of the fact that it is inherently a pretty wealthy country.
Q32 Mark Hendrick: Mr Mesdoua, you are originally from Algeria, and Algeria appears at least to have avoided many of the repercussions of the Arab spring and seems to be quite politically stable. Do you think it is as stable as it appears?
Imad Mesdoua: It is a country that shows signs of stability and that is important for the region at the moment, for western powers looking to find some kind of anchor in the region. At the macro-economic level, the country is stable because of its large revenue from oil and gas exports. Politically it is a country that is stable because you have a system that has cemented itself following what was a very deadly and tragic civil war throughout the ’90s that cost the lives of 200,000 Algerians.
One of many reasons that Algeria was able to avoid or remain immune to the Arab spring-I don’t necessarily like those terms-was because the country had already gone through an Arab spring. A lot of people said the start date for the Arab spring was in Tunisia with the jasmine revolution, but in Algeria people very much consider it to have started in 1988 with the Berber spring. Algeria considers itself to be a stable country. Throughout the crisis in Mali it really wanted to give that image of a nation that could be a stable partner for European powers.
That said, I think the country does have quite a few factors, a lot of the ingredients that existed in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and elsewhere in the Arab world, where the Arab spring did take place. You do have unemployment, a housing crisis, a political system that has failed in many ways to regenerate itself, bringing in more post-revolutionary youth into the system. However, the system cannot be compared with the regimes of Ben Ali, Mubarak or Gaddafi. You still have enough space, as it were, in the political arena to operate. That has helped the country to remain relatively stable.
Q33 Mark Hendrick: Are you saying that, because of that, perhaps young people have not radicalised as much as they have in other countries?
Imad Mesdoua: Algeria peaked, in terms of radicalisation, throughout the ’90s. A lot of the groups and leaders of groups that you currently see operating in Mali find their roots in the Algerian civil war. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb is an offshoot of the GSPC and the GIA, which are groups that operate in Algeria. Abdelmalek Droukdel is the head of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. All these groups-the names and the leaders-are known quantities to the Algerian authorities and security forces. The country has already experienced this peak of radicalisation, and it has sort of fizzled out in society. Islamists no longer have a foothold in society, because they have to a certain extent been delegitimised by the civil war, and fragmented as political entities following that civil war.
Professor Rogers: I shall briefly move to the west, because I think Morocco is a very interesting case. Leaving aside all the controversy over its control of the western Sahara, what you have seen there, as Mohammed VI has speeded up the rate of reform in the light of the experience of the Arab awakening, has so far-it may be fingers crossed-meant you have not seen the kind of problems in Tunisia and Egypt reflected in what has happened in Morocco. I am bound to say that the same is not necessarily true for Jordan, where I think analysts are far more concerned that there could be a sudden upsurge against King Abdullah.
Q34 Chair: You see Morocco as very stable.
Professor Rogers: Relatively stable, yes. To be fair, the present King was already more reformist. As I understand it, the monarchy in Morocco is held in higher regard than, say, the equivalent monarchy in Jordan. Essentially, the rate of reform was sped up in the light of events in Tunisia and Egypt, and so far that has meant there is a stability. There are still the underlying economic problems-the problems of educated people on the margins-and the other problem of the relationship with the western Sahara, but so far Morocco is a case where, indirectly, the Arab awakening has actually had an effect that people perhaps do not fully recognise.
Imad Mesdoua: I agree to a certain extent, but I would warn the Committee against dismissing the western Sahara as an issue that does not require any kind of attention. It is an issue that really needs to be addressed. What is considered a low-level conflict actually has the potential to escalate, given the demographics and the fact that the status quo has not addressed the kind of political solution that is necessary.
The Saharan youth currently in the refugee camps in Algeria are threatened by the prospect of radicalisation, because they feel as though the Polisario, the Government in exile, has failed. They feel it has maintained peace and the status quo with Morocco. By maintaining talks with Morocco, and without engaging in an armed struggle, that Government has failed them. You have the prospect of youth taking up what is a Saharawi intifada of sorts, or even joining some of the groups in Mali. The geographical proximity is there. The last thing we want is to see Saharawi youth engaging in criminal activities in the north of Mali, or engaging in a full-on armed intifada, when the option for a political, negotiated solution with Morocco is on the table.
Professor Rogers: This has been going on for 38 years.
Q35 Chair: For the final question, can we go back to Algeria? Do you think the attack on the In Amenas refinery indicates that Algeria’s grip on the security situation is not quite as strong as you might think?
Imad Mesdoua: Yes and no. The gas plants and the oil facilities in the south of the country remained a sort of fortress throughout the ’90s, even at the peak of violence and at the peak of the civil war. Algerian authorities and security forces were very good at maintaining security at those facilities, but a lot of the factors that existed throughout the ’90s have been greatly altered by what is going on now in Libya. What explains the Algerian security forces’ reaction in In Amenas-it was a strong, forceful reaction-was that they were sending a message to other Islamist groups in the region to not replicate the same thing. It is very difficult-this is me speaking from a personal perspective-to maintain full security at these facilities in the current climate, in the current context. We are dealing with a very mobile, very fluid threat. Full security will never be entirely guaranteed, but In Amenas became a wake-up call for Algerian security forces. They saw that they needed to review, along with western companies operating in their country, the whole set of security dispositions and the apparatus that was in place.
Professor Rogers: It was exactly the same thing with the Saudis seven years ago, when you had the attack on the Abqaiq oil processing plant, near Ras Tanura. That more or less failed, and it led to the Saudis putting tens of thousands more security people into the oil facilities.
Chair: Can I thank you both very much? It has been a really helpful session. Your sparing your time is very much appreciated.
Examination of Witness
Witness: Jon Marks, Associate Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme, Chatham House, gave evidence.
Q36 Chair: I welcome back an alumnus of the House of Commons, Jon Marks, who is now an associate fellow of the Middle East and North Africa programme at Chatham House. Mr Marks, welcome. Thank you very much for coming along. Is there anything you would like to say by way of an opening statement?
Jon Marks: There are a few points from the session before, which will tie in with what I was going to say on the laws of unintended consequences, and the view that something has to be done as a mode of foreign policy, which is not a concept that I feel particularly comfortable about. While the previous witnesses were giving evidence, I thought back to two days before the UN declared its no-fly zone in Libya. I was eating some couscous with a family in Benghazi, and someone phoned me up and said, "Jon, you’d better get back to the hotel. The whole thing is unravelling." It was that moment when the Libyan revolution was turning backwards. The Gaddafi regime was, surprisingly, at the gates of Benghazi-a city of a million people. I was sitting around eating couscous with a family, in which there were two young men and two young women, who had just been listening to the strangely blood-curdling noises that Saif al-Islam al-Gaddafi had been making, and I thought, "Well, how does one respond? How does one turn round to those people and say, ‘we don’t have the responsibility to step in and stop what is going to be really terrible to people who look and behave like my own kids?’" It is that unexpected consequence.
The fact is, we could not know. If you walked around Benghazi at that time with the different factions, no one-be they on the policy side, be they Libyans-knew which factions were even going to put themselves forward, and who the players were. There was all that talk, remember, about African mercenaries, which is extremely pertinent to what is going on now, but there was the view that things had to happen, just as when it seemed that the Islamist alliance that was heading towards Bamako in January was about to take the Malian capital. Something had to happen, but again, I do not think anyone had an idea of the consequences.
The difference between Libya and Mali, if I may be so bold, is that at the time-in February 2011, when the Libyan revolt started to take off and was looking as if it was going to pose a challenge to the Gaddafi regime-in London, Paris and in other capitals, people at the very highest levels knew very little about what was going on, whereas at least the case of Mali was an accident that people saw was going to happen. In the case of the change of leadership in Paris-Imad made this point-at least the narrative changed on doing things like paying ransoms. In terms of preparedness and policy with Britain, at least there was a degree of consultation between the Governments, and preparation. For example, we were able to get those couple of transport planes into Bamako with remarkable speed. There was therefore more preparedness, but again, how the situation was going to turn out was a very difficult call. It was also disappointing.
The last point that I want to make is that ECOWAS was not united; there was talk before about the ECOWAS force. If you look at it, there are two militaries in the ECOWAS framework-the Senegalese and the Ghanaians, both of whom have a terrific record of working with the UN. In the conflict in Mali, they were the two that showed themselves to be reticent. In fact, they said they were not going to go. The third force, which was going to make up the centre of the force, was the Nigerians. As I understand it, people in Mali were extremely scared because of the potentially heavy-handed Nigerian forces, who after all have delivered up to us the Niger Delta conflict over many years, and who have been creating a fairly bad buzz up in northern Nigeria-a place where something has to be done, although quite what, we can possibly explore later.
Finally, in trying to make policy and to work with people over these episodes, there is a real disappointment. There was on the part of the permanent members of the Security Council-P3-and other partners and stakeholders on the western European side, a real view that Africa should take a lead, and that this should not be seen as a neo-colonialist enterprise, particularly given the leading role of the French, and there has been mention of Françafrique. The fact is, however, that the partners have been problematic. The AU did not respond in any way as quickly as people would like, and the ECOWAS force was not able to assert itself in the way that people would like. It strikes me that even if our policy expectations have changed, actually we were trying to force policy by projecting on to our potential partners abilities, and indeed volitions, that they might not actually have. That counts all the way around the region; the west, and in particular the UK in this case, are feeling their way. We could end up with just one word, which would be Algeria.
Q37 Chair: In your written evidence to us, you cautioned against us getting too close to Algeria. Are you concerned about the stability of Algeria? What is your thinking there? Can you elaborate on that point?
Jon Marks: I first went to Algeria 33 years ago, and it is a country that I have been going to ever since-a country that formed me-so I am somewhat saddened to say that we should not embrace Algeria with all the enthusiasm on all fronts that we might. I merely want to observe that, as Mr Baron cited earlier, the Prime Minister’s use of the generational struggle language, which unfortunately I found personally unhelpful at the time, is softening; I am pleased to see that. There was, however, the need to find a partnership in Algeria, and a need to be able to pick up the phone and talk to someone in what was, after all, an extremely dramatic episode involving British citizens: the In Amenas attack. Yet to some degree that person to talk to was not necessarily there, for a number of reasons that are specific to Algerian politics.
Clearly, Algeria has a strong willingness to have a deeper-I would not actually say better-relationship with the United Kingdom on a number of levels. I think that the United Kingdom feels the same. I have observed this over many decades of watching the two sides trying to do business with each other. I merely say that it is a difficult relationship, and one that people should be aware of. Just to dig into that a little bit, I think on the question of the Algerian system-the stability that Mr Mesdoua talked about-stability is certainly one word that you can use for a system that does not necessarily move, but in the case of Algerian decision making, it is still extremely hierarchical at all levels. For example, if you analyse the state energy company, Sonatrach, the military security apparatus, or Algerian politics, it very often comes out as being an extremely hierarchical system in which very few people are in a position to take decisions. That is something that people find very hard to get to grips with, and it does make for problems in building a strategic relationship.
There is another point that should be strongly mentioned. Algeria, on its strong side, coming out of that very long war of independence from ’52 to ’62-we know the history; it was one of the great and most convulsive of the anti-colonial struggles-was a country that remained troubled, divided between potential civilian leaderships and the military security apparatus that eventually took full control of the state in the ’65 coup that overthrew Ahmed Ben Bella. After all, that coup was launched by Houari Boumediene, whose key aide-and, for all his presidency, Foreign Minister-was Abdelaziz Bouteflika, the current President of Algeria. These issues matter.
There is a political system that is quite hard to address, but also there is a vibrant nationalism that has a very defined way of looking at things. One of the reasons why Algeria sees itself, I think-I do not wish to speak for the Algerians, but this is my perception-as a strong regional power is reflected in the fact that Algerian politicians, and particularly senior members of the Algerian military security establishment, have long held influence and been players in the politics of countries such as Mali and Mauritania.
The second fact is that out of the nationalism, there is a very vibrant Algerian view of how politics should be enacted, which is absolutely right and proper. It is a country that looks to protect and reflect its national interest. One of the key factors that is enunciated in Algerian foreign policy making, and has been for ever, is that they do not like foreign intervention. There is also, of course, at a state and public level, an even greater dislike of any foreign intervention that involves the major powers: the United States, one would have to include the United Kingdom, and of course, top of the list, France; theirs is one of the most complex relationships in global politics. Those are at least two problems to make it difficult.
The third problem, in the hierarchical nature of things, is: who do you talk to? Algerian politics is still marked by faction fighting and internal complexities that seem to define how the country responds to its interlocutors. That makes it difficult.
Q38 Mike Gapes: Given all you have just said-if I can summarise, it is not an easy ally-what can the UK gain from trying to be a strategic partner of Algeria on security issues? How easy will it be for us to get anything out of that relationship?
Jon Marks: We can actually get quite a lot out of it. It is just understanding the extent of the amount of things that we have to put into it, and also, I would say, the possible disappointments that may come out of it. All the signals from Algiers are that it wants to have a very solid relationship. There are issues of intelligence sharing, and I can remember several episodes in which there has been intelligence sharing. During the whole conflict between the Algerian state and the Islamist movement, the Algerian authorities were co-operative in trying to put together evidence. I have personal experience of that, dating back to the last decade. The Algerian authorities also have shown a real enthusiasm over a long period of time for closer military co-operation. Going right the way back into the civil war of the ’90s, there was continual tension over the fact that the Algerians were very keen to get equipment, such as night-vision goggles, that we would not actually give because of the prevailing human rights situation.
In many respects, I do not think that those issues have changed, but the Algerian military are acquisitive. As Imad said, the Algerian economy has built up a very large amount of money, partly because they have problems spending it because of their inability to spend as much as they might do. You have a country that has got $200 billion-worth of foreign reserves-about 5 or 6 years ago, it replaced the UK in the list of countries with the top 10 foreign reserves-and it likes to buy military equipment. That poses a question: is that a place where Britain should be selling?
In terms of understanding Islamist movements, the Algerian security services clearly have an experience-somewhat ruthless, but they are very knowledgeable-in tackling underground Islamist and jihadist groups that dates back 20 years, so presumably there is more room for intelligence sharing and things like that.
I am not trying to say, "Don’t let’s have this relationship." I believe hugely that we need a very positive and strong relationship with the Algerian authorities. All I am really trying to say is: let us go into this with our eyes wide open and with a really clear view of what the policy goals, demands and desires are on both sides.
Q39 Mike Gapes: The previous Government had a memorandum of understanding arrangement, with regard to potential terrorist transfers and so on, but there are still big issues about rule of law and human rights, and there is the Polisario issue, which was touched on in a previous conversation, where the UK has a view internationally which is, I suspect, a problem for the Algerian Government. France, as I understand it, has a view that is slightly different.
Jon Marks: On Polisario, where there is an issue, in the camps, it is an issue that is being allowed to fester. And the camps keep on growing: there are more and more people there. I have found that if you go down there, the UN and old Polisario guys come up to me-I got shot at down there in about ’86, and since ’91 there has been a ceasefire. People have not actually seen it. For the Algerians, I do not think that that is an issue with Britain, because if you look at the bottom line of the western Sahara dispute, it is whether the former Spanish territory should be decolonised under the full UN process-basically, offering a referendum on independence-or continue to be subsumed into Morocco. As for the Algerian point of view, which Britain would support as a Security Council member, I do not think that there is an issue at all; the issue would be more with the Moroccans.
On the other issues, the human rights situation in Algeria has considerably improved; the situation of civil war is not there. When you visit Algeria, you happily walk around the streets and go into cafés and have a cup of coffee. You are in a normalised, normal place.
Q40 Mike Gapes: Can I take up your point about the knowledge that the Algerian state has of extremist groups? There is the al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb organisation, and some of those people will have come out of the Algerian conflict-
Jon Marks: Many, yes.
Q41 Mike Gapes: How much are they connected into the wider al-Qaeda network, or is it more of a franchise than an organisation that receives instructions or orders?
Jon Marks: The collapse of Mali, opening up the prospect that there was going to be a failed state right in the centre of this region, really revived the al-Qaeda franchise. I have never been the hugest of believers in it. Clearly, the ultra-radical Algerian Islamist groups have existed in an underworld where other groups feed in and, clearly, at times the al-Qaeda franchise, in particular at the moment when the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat turned into al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, was on the up and had some appeal.
However, these are very fluid episodes. Mali has revived al-Qaeda. It has almost been a prophecy that confirmed those who said that the potential for a failed state in the middle of the region could actually do this, but it is very much an Algerian group. If you look at the attack on the BP-Statoil-Sonatrach gas plant at Tiguentourine near In Amenas in the middle of January, you have a group that was led by Algerians. It seemed to have, to a degree, Algerian motivations, although it is a very complex and difficult episode to understand. However, if you actually look at the group, it reflects a wider and newer north African franchise. If you look at the number of people involved, you had nearly a dozen Libyans and nearly as many Tunisians, which is a first and which shows the evolution of that north African jihadist franchise.
What were they looking for? That is the most intriguing question that has not fully been answered. If you look at the attack on the gas plant, it actually seems to have had two very diverse targets. It seems to have involved Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a real old veteran of the Algerian conflicts and rumour mill and a poster boy for us Algeria analysts over many years. When that group first came, it looked actually as if they were looking for the usual kidnapping and ransom, which is a big business. There is the well known case of the Germans and French in the middle of the last decade, where the figures that I have heard and have been widely bandied about was that Belmokhtar and his associates pocketed about €32 million.
Q42 Mike Gapes: In ransoms.
Jon Marks: Yes, from one major attack. It is a big and successful business. There are those who say that if you go to places around the Sahel, south of Algeria and whatever, you can actually see villas built by these guys out of the ransom money. I have written many times that it has been a business model, and it looked like business as usual, but the attack had another part to it and tying the two together I have found extremely difficult.
The other part was when there was clearly a component of suicide bombers, which we have seen remarkably rarely in recent times, who were putting on the explosive vests and going in and tying themselves and hostages to the main gas processing unit. That, of course, would have created an extraordinary "spectacular" as they say. Remember that this gas plant, which had so many workers there because it was being expanded, already produces some 2% of the gas that comes into the European gas system, so you are talking about one hell of an explosion.
One the one hand, you had traditional business as usual and, other the other hand, you had a "spectacular" that owes its conception, which clearly went on over several months, and delivery to the changes in the region and what happened in Libya, the number of different groups and players coming in and, indeed, in time-honoured fashion, the Islamist groups in northern Mali falling out among themselves even before the French came in and started bombing them.
Q43 Mike Gapes: In summary, would it be right to say that, although there has been this visible upsurge in extremism because of the events that you have just referred to and the developments elsewhere in Mali, the violent jihadism in Algeria itself, apart from this "spectacular", has actually been going down?
Jon Marks: Totally. It is very much diminished. If you look at the levels of activity, there are still the old groups that were the GSPC and now call themselves al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. They have proved extremely difficult to budge, which is a separate question in itself. They are up in the Kabylie mountains to the east of Algiers, although they are starting to go. It has been remarkably limited.
There is another in the west and most of that activity has taken place in those vast Saharan spaces, which has allowed people to go to places where they could take refuge and regions where they have family and people who will give them some form of support. It has basically been extremely limited. I would say that the big Algerian political challenges for a significant amount of time have come from places other than jihadists.
Q44 Mark Hendrick: Mr Marks, in your submission you referred to claims that the Algerian security services have cultivated jihadist elements as assets in their efforts to control the region. How much credence do you give to those claims?
Jon Marks: A lot of this is speculation. If you look at the issues surrounding Mali, as the previous witnesses said, the roots go back to a whole different number of tendencies. The fact is that these players have been around. When the In Amenas attack happened in January, I must have got 50 or 60 calls from tabloid journalists asking, "Can you help us? We want to do a timeline for the life of Mokhtar Belmokhtar." Suddenly they have a new superstar and the Bin Laden they have been missing, but that is not the case. These guys have been around for a long time.
It has long been said that the Algerian security services have penetrated radical Islamist groups, and I think that that is fairly well documented. It is, after all, standard practice. The way that you have to look at this is that for a long time the Sahara has had a dark undergrowth. It is one of those places-I don’t like making comparisons, so I dare not-that is a question like Northern Ireland, where you would have underground security people mixing with political ideological people mixing with criminal people. I have an old friend who used to mix in several of those circles and he concluded, "It is quite problematic. Sometimes I get rather confused as to who I am and which one of the three I am representing." There is a degree of that in the Algerian situation.
Clearly, the Algerian security services are very significant political players, reaching all the way across Algerian society. You can see that very clearly in the leading role they are playing in the anti-corruption campaigns and the huge number of arrests across Algeria. During the conflict of the ’90s, there were clearly people who penetrated some groups, both abroad and within Algeria. There are many narratives that would say that things got out of hand and that it went much further than that and the Algerian military security establishment acted as an agent provocateur and were players in the game. The huge debate from both sides runs on over that.
Clearly, there have been intense contacts, as one would expect, because, after all, we have discussed before the experience and knowledge of the Algerian military security establishment in this business, and you do not get that staying at home reading Google.
Q45 Mark Hendrick: Following on from that, what influence and knowledge should the Algerian security services have had in the In Amenas incident? How much did it tell us about the control they have over the peripheral areas of Algeria?
Jon Marks: That is a very good question. One of the things with the In Amenas incident is that although we have a long history of terrorist incidents-although as Imad said, quite correctly, when we had the hydrocarbons fortress there were not really any major attacks-it reflected a couple of things.
First was a need to be more assertive and more international on the part of members of the traditional Algerian underground: it struck me that here was Mokhtar Belmokhtar’s franchise really changing the way that it operated. Secondly, people were involved who were difficult to identify or who were not identified, but there were security lapses and the Algerians themselves have recognised that.
After the intense years of the civil conflict, things had just got relaxed. We have talked to people who were working as security advisers and operatives down in the south, and clearly things had got very lax: it wasn’t the sharpest security performance that you have ever seen. All sorts of questions have been asked and are still being asked as to where the group that got to In Amenas came from-it seems it was Libya-and how they crossed the border. It seems that they were in vehicles that had Libyan number plates and were wearing Libyan uniforms, and were kind of saluted through. There are a lot of issues, and people on all sides have realised that the situation was allowed to happen because things had got very lax.
Q46 Mark Hendrick: Is it just a regional thing, though? Is it that round Algiers and that area there is the most focus and the security services are keeping an eye on the capital and the Government?
Jon Marks: The security forces are pervasive. One of the major job creation schemes in Algeria has been to recruit police, so when you are in and around Algiers there are an extraordinary number of uniformed officers, and many in plain clothes as well. Clearly that is under control. I think it is actually that the nature of the threat up north in terms of terrorism is relatively limited. The gas attack was a genuine spectacular the like of which we have not seen before. That spoke for different and changing perceptions on the part of people doing the attacks.
The other point I would make about the gas attack-there was clearly a degree of laxness, but that also shows how difficult it was to control-is that, although at the time it was immediately announced that this was a response by the Islamist movement against the French intervention in Mali and that is what the communiqués said, that was clearly a post-facto rationalisation of an attack that had actually been quite meticulously planned. There have been arrests since of various drivers, and even the odd engineer. Clearly there were people on the inside, so it was an attack that had been planned over a reasonably-
Q47 Mark Hendrick: Are you saying that attack would have taken place whether the French had gone into Mali or not?
Jon Marks: It seems like they had put in an awful lot of effort for it to do so. Yes; I think that you have the criminal side, you have the ideological side and you also have the political side. Who doesn’t love to rush out a good communiqué to rationalise your move when the time is right? It does look so, because the plant was being softened up for such an attack, at least as far as we understand at present.
Q48 Mark Hendrick: Smugglers connected to extremist groups appear to be making good money from the illegal trans-Saharan trade. Are they travelling through southern Algeria? As with the In Amenas incident, is southern Algeria being neglected to some extent by the security forces in Algeria?
Chair: The business in the Chamber is quite busy and I can see that a winding-up speech is possibly going on, which means that there may be a vote, so can I ask you to keep your answers relatively brief?
Jon Marks: It would be a pleasure. Yes, I think that one of the interesting areas of dialogue that you could have with the Algerian authorities could be on the levels of criminal activity in the Sahara. The view came up before about the porosity of borders and the number of routes, and cocaine smuggling out of the other failed state in the region, Guinea-Bissau. These are all tried and tested, time-honoured smuggling routes that have merely become more efficient. It is a bit of business that is booming.
Q49 Mark Hendrick: In that case, how can Algeria shut itself off from the instability that is taking place in Libya and Tunisia?
Jon Marks: I think it has a much stronger security backbone. With the current Government of Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal, there is a perception that it is trying to get projects done faster, implement policy faster and get houses built faster. I think that that is actually the really big issue, because although people talk about the stability of Algeria, you are in a country where the authorities themselves record 9,000 to 10,000 incidents of strikes, social protest and localised dissent very year.
It is a country where people can at least be vocal now about what they feel about the lack of housing, the lack of jobs and all the social pressures. That is what I was saying. This can provide the foot soldiers for terrorist groups, but the really big question is the disconnect between what a lot of the population think they are getting from the authorities and what the authorities think they are giving.
Chair: Thank you very much indeed. That is a really interesting insight into a part of the world that we have not looked at enough. Thank you for your wisdom and expertise.