The West, Africa’s Islamist terrorists and the question of intervention

Ross Gillam

Mali’s military have not been able contain, let alone diminish the Islamist threat in the north of the country

Mali’s military have not been able contain, let alone diminish the Islamist threat in the north of the country. Getty images,

We hear often enough about how globalisation is making the world increasingly interconnected, but for some, the rationale behind David Cameron’s commitment to send 330 British military personnel to Mali to support France’s military campaign might not have been abundantly clear on the surface. However, as British and many other international workers at the Algerian In Amenas energy plant recently found out in a horribly brutal manner, left unchecked, Islamist terrorists can have a far reaching impact on the UK’s interests abroad and domestically.

The Malian case has been brewing since Islamists started occupying towns and swathes of north Mali after the government, in the south of the country, collapsed in March last year. Given this, it could be argued that the latest reaction by France and the UK has actually been long overdue. Nonetheless, the military campaign against the militant Islamists led by France has been the right response, as despite the relatively unknown nature of Mali to most people, if allowed to develop into a safe-haven for Islamist terrorists, then British and French domestic security would be under threat. The recent Algerian hostage crisis was a partial response to the French Malian intervention, but France and the UK should remain steadfast in their commitment to remove Mali’s Islamists as failure to intervene could generate even greater risks than what unfolded at the In Amenas energy plant.

David Cameron is the first British Prime Minister to visit Algeria post-independence, thus illustrating the importance of North Africa to the UK’ strategic interests.

It is important to point out that the deployment of UK military personnel to support France in their military campaign against Islamists in northern Mali, is not and should not be based on neo-conservatism and the assertive promotion of democracy. Instead, this is about bringing stability to Mali to the extent that they can freely decide and shape their own future, without the fear and rigidity of Islamists hell-bent on implementing Sharia law. Whilst I believe democracy provides the best political model for fostering freedom and fairness in a given nation state, it has to be constructed from within rather than imposed upon by an external nation. David Cameron’s decision that the UK should intervene in Libya, in so far as getting in and getting out, thereby leaving Libyans to then construct their own future, seems to be a blue print for his policy in the instance of Mali, albeit it leaving the French to lead the actual military battle. This method certainly has weaknesses which are open to criticism – mainly that the removal of people or groups in a position of power can create a dangerous power vacuum. However, I agree with this method as the future of a given nation must be shaped by its own citizens and not dictated to by an external actor.

French President, Francois Hollande, and his troops are welcomed to Mali to tackle the Islamist threat

As well as the self-interest argument which explains why France’s and the UK’s actions have been right for strategic reasons, there is a moral case to made too. Obviously, it is difficult and unrealistic for morality to be the guiding principle of foreign policy, particularly because if it were then the UK would be intervening in far more countries than it currently does – think of Bahrain, China, Zimbabwe, North Korea and so on. But the UK should not be afraid of making the case for morality where the downside is not that great and where intervention is realistic; Syria is a good example of this, as the UK Government has failed to explain why it has not intervened. The reason is that supporting the toppling of Bashar Al-Assad through UK intervention could lead to huge blow-back from Syria’s allies, including Iran and Russia which could cause even greater regional instability. Unfortunately, in the Syrian case, morality has been trumped by the prospect of unpalatable reprisals and wider regional upheaval; however the balance may eventually turn as atrocities accumulate.

Given this, the UK should not be ashamed of making the moral case where the consequences, or lack of, permit. If the UK can help, it should help, as long as it is realistic. In the case of Mali where innocent civilians have had to suffer at the hands of oppressive Islamist groups, this calculation works, whilst in others it does not.

French war planes: The French and British deserve credit for taking the difficult decisions on Mali

French war planes: The French and British deserve credit for taking the difficult decisions on Mali. EPA,

France and the UK, particularly the former, deserve much credit for their decision to intervene in the case of Mali. It would have been much easier to of turned a blind eye and to have not taken the difficult decisions required to make intervention possible. Instead, French and British decision makers have put themselves forward and taken on a great responsibility.

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