A decade ago, western leaders' excessive reaction and inflated rhetoric served to amplify rather than diminish the power of Islamist groups. The same danger now overhangs Mali, Algeria and beyond.
A series of events and statements in the early weeks of 2013 suggests that the "war on terror" declared in 2001 is entering a new phase. The escalation of war in northern Mali and the siege of the In Amenas gas facility in Algeria, followed by the sudden advice from several European governments that their citizens in Benghazi should leave immediately, all focus security attention on northern Africa. At the same time, there are signs of an increase in Islamist influence among the opposition forces in Syria's ongoing war, and of an intensified bombing campaign against government and Shi'a sites in Iraq.
All this found little echo in Barack Obama's second inaugural address on 21 January 2013, where the re-elected United States president even declared that “a decade of war is now ending”. The day before, however, Britain's prime minister David Cameron had - in the wake of the Algerian emergency - characterised the region's Islamists as a “large and existential threat” that would require a response “that is about years, even decades, rather than months”. His government's view, Cameron went on, is that "[what] we face is an extremist, Islamist, al-Qaida-linked terrorist group. Just as we had to deal with that in Pakistan and in Afghanistan so the world needs to come together to deal with this threat in north Africa”.
The domestic audience was doubtless foremost in Cameron's mind at a moment when six British citizens had just been killed. His assessment was further influenced by the major French intervention in Mali to halt the Islamist advance there, and supported by Canada and other western countries which share the view that the prospect is of another extended war. The rhetoric is similar to that produced by state leaders a decade ago, though it is worth noting how great the contrast between expectations and outcomes then turned out to be.
George W Bush’s state-of-the-union address on 29 January 2002 portrayed the "war on terror" against al-Qaida and the Taliban as a global crusade against an “axis of evil”. The president's “mission accomplished” speech on 1 May 2003 address from the flight-deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln followed the termination of the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq in just three weeks, and took for granted that the Afghan Taliban had been vaporised. The US was on its way to total victory.
Instead, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan went on for years and took an immense human toll (over 200,000 killed, hundreds of thousands wounded, nearly 8 million refugees), while costing many trillions of dollars. The sheer weight of this legacy, and all the destruction, suffering, injustice and bitterness inflicted and ongoing, make it vital to ask whether a new generation of leaders is right this time in its strategic assessment. Is there, for example, really an "existential" threat to European states from Islamist groups in regions like the Sahel, which must be countered by military force?
A recent column in this series examined the overall status of al-Qaida and concluded that it has metamorphosed into an entity resembling more an idea than a movement (see "Al-Qaida, idea in motion", 4 January 2013). This idea, however, translates on the ground into a sense of common transnational identity and potency in various theatres.
Thus, the idea's affiliates can be found, albeit in a much diminished form, in northwest Pakistan and (more actively) in Yemen. In Somalia, al-Shaabab retains huge influence in the rural south even after its ejection from Mogadishu and other urban centres, and there are stirrings down the “Swahili coast” in Kenya and Tanzania. In southern Russia, the Caucasus Emirate is a persistent irritant to the authorities.
The Islamist element in Syria's civil war is also of great concern to Washington and London (if not to Riyadh and Doha). Indeed, an important development on 11 January 2013 - the rebel takeover of the Assad regime’s air-base at Taftanaz in Syria's north, after ten days of fighting - reflects the determined contribution of Islamist paramilitaries to the opposition struggle (see Babak Dehghanpisheh, “Rebel fighters, mostly Islamists, seize key Syrian air base”, Washington Post, 13 January 2013).
Algeria too has its internal Islamist factions, and their many cross-border connections make parts of the broader region unsafe for western nationals. In Nigeria, the Boko Haram rebellion continues, and Mali is effectively divided as the French attempt to force back paramilitary advances across the north.
In all this, however, a clear distinction must be made between the many individual campaigns and actions and any notion of an existential (or even generation-long) threat to the west. In reality, the main emphasis and motivation of particular groups is rooted in almost every case to the specific circumstances of the country or territory concerned.
Nigeria, where Boko Haram is mainly focused on opposing the Nigerian state, is a case in point. The group received a huge boost in 2009 when its founder, Mohammed Yusuf, was killed in police custody and security forces subsequently killed many hundreds of its supporters. But, different jihadi factions often have diverse emphases that can lead to splits, though sometimes the breakaway group retains an affiliation with the larger. Boko Haram, for example, has lost members to a faction called Ansaru (see Jacob Zen, “Ansaru: A Profile of Nigeria’s Newest Jihadist Movement”, Terrorism Monitor, 11/1, 10 Jan 2013).
Ansaru split from Boko Haram in part because its adherents see themselves as part of a more transnational movement that maintains links with those such as al-Shaabab. But since Ansaru is the weaker component, it is other factors that will decide whether the wider jihadi collective moves in their direction. In brief - and where Pakistan, Iraq, Yemen, and Syria too are concerned - the extent to which the transnational vision is enhanced will depend less on the jihadis' own endeavours than on how the west responds.
This is as true in Mali as anywhere. In the coming weeks, French troops may well dislodge the northern rebels from some of the larger towns, though - unless the French then agree to a drawdown and offer a degree of negotiation - the war will likely morph into a long-lasting guerrilla conflict. If the French remain, the agenda will be set by the core elements of “remote-control” war: armed drones, targeted assassination, special forces, privatised military, and repeated air-strikes.
The risk here is that even with no formal declaration, the way the war in northern Africa is conducted (including the more intensive use of drones, as in Yemen and Somalia) will begin to resemble other spaces of the "war on terror", and encourage the view that the immediate enemy is indeed a pernicious transnational threat that can only be controlled by military force. In adopting this approach, the western forces will be doing exactly what Osama bin Laden's successors want.
The very first column in this series, published shortly after 9/11, suggested that al-Qaida supported the attack partly to set a trap for the United States and incite it into an extreme military reaction (see "Afghanistan: the problem with military action", 28 September 2001). That the lure worked was to be confirmed by the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and the zealous rhetoric of George W Bush’s speeches of 2002-03 that accompanied them.
The world, in short, has been here before - yet a mere decade on, its most powerful leaders have learned so little.