Events dictated that prime minister had to drop long-awaited EU briefing to deal with ‘existential terrorist threat’
Politics does not travel on dependable tramlines, but rarely can David Cameron’s compass have been as badly scrambled as this.
At 9am on Friday, the exhausted prime minister sat down to chair a meeting of the Cobra emergency committee on the gathering Algerian hostage crisis and to reflect on northern Mali, the world’s newest “ungoverned space”. He had been expecting to be standing in a striking concert hall in Amsterdam, delivering a long-awaited speech warning that the over-governed space of the European Union might force the British people to drift to the exit door.
Instead of briefing EU leaders on the diplomatic consequences of his speech, he was on the phone to Algerian prime minister, Abdelmalek Sellal, for the fourth time in three days asking anxiously about the fate of UK hostages. Instead of questioning EU solidarity, he went to the House of Commons to stand shoulder to shoulder with the French president, François Hollande, and support an EU training mission to suppress the “savage threat” posed by the terrorists of Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb.
In truth, multi-tasking is a necessary requirement of any prime minister and Cameron has been forced to manage the confluence of his European speech and the crisis in the Sahel.
Once Cameron was briefed late on Thursday that as many as 30 British hostages might have been killed or captured, he knew the jinxed EU speech had to give way. Yet extensive, embargoed extracts of the speech had already been emailed to journalists travelling to the Netherlands. Downing Street decided the extracts could not be withdrawn. In the internet age, suppression is doomed.
The tantric wait for the full speech will now continue for another month, thwarting No 10’s hopes that the European issue could finally be parked. However, some of Cameron’s sanguine aides believe the intense pre-speech debate has at least fostered a better climate for those, like Cameron, who oppose Britain’s exit.
But with Europe set aside, Cameron was free to focus solely on the other great UK foreign policy challenge; what he described as the existential threat posed by terrorism.
He is no stranger to war or terror and those who work with him in these crises describe him as clear, calm and focused.
He inherited one war in Afghanistan and initiated another in Libya. He has experienced successes in hostage crises – the release of Afghanistan aid worker Helen Johnston – as well as tragedies. In October 2010, Linda Norgrove, a UK aid worker, was killed by a grenade thrown by US special forces trying to rescue her from a Taliban-linked group in Afghanistan. In March last year, British special forces stormed a compound in northern Nigeria leading to the death of Chris McManus and an Italian kidnapped by jihadist group Boko Haram. The foreign secretary, William Hague, was forced to go to Rome to apologise for the failure to warn the Italian government of the planned rescue.
It is these mixed experiences that may have led Cameron to rein in his anger with the Algerians for their failure to consult him before their attack on terrorists at the In Amenas oil terminal. “One can have the ultimate degree of planning,” he told MPs, “and still find that these events end unhappily.”
Moreover, the Algerian crisis is different to his previous hostage episodes, not just due to its scale. It is being held in the full glare of the global media and, as Cameron said in his Commons statement, judgments are nuanced on how much to reveal, given that one audience may the terrorist themselves.
The Algerians, determined not to be seen at the mercy of western governments, have rebuffed Cameron’s offers of intelligence help at least twice and he did not hide his disappointment that he had not been informed before the attack.
But what has been most remarkable is the degree to which these setbacks have not weakened the prime minister’s determination to engage in north Africa. He made a strong case for intervention in the Sahel, reminding MPs he had appointed his own special envoy to the region, Stephen O’Brien, a former international development minister.
Cameron said: “Those who believe that there is a terrorist, extremist al-Qaida problem in parts of north Africa, but that it is a problem for those places and we can somehow back off and ignore it, are profoundly wrong. This is a problem for those places and for us.” He acknowledged that the region was primarily a French sphere of influence but, in the wake of Libya and given Britain’s energy interests, including in Nigeria, he said it was time to “thicken” UK involvement in the area.
“We face a large and existential terrorist threat from a group of extremists based in different parts of the world who want to do the biggest possible amount of damage to our interests and way of life,” he said. “Those extremists thrive when they have ungoverned spaces in which they can exist, build and plan.”
It is just these arguments that led to the allied intervention in Afghanistan.