Uprisings in the Middle East Could Be Bad News for Al-Qaeda: Cautious Optimism in Britain

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Muammar Gaddafi blamed a coalition of drugs, alcohol and Osama bin Laden for inciting Libyan youth to reject his dictatorial rule. Somewhat more credible commentators, including my colleague Bobby Ghosh, warn that the collapse of the Yemeni regime could boost the AQ affiliate Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, yet such concerns have done little to dampen relief in Western capitals that the Arab Youth Quake appears motivated not by religious fundamentalism but its opposite, a desire for greater freedoms and a rejection of entrenched privilege. A key question, however, amid signs of rising sectarian tensions, is whether al-Qaeda and its satellites can find a way to infiltrate and subvert democracy movements and recast their narratives in the AQ mold.

It’s a question that preoccupies Baroness Pauline Neville-Jones, Britain’s minister of state responsible for security and counter-terrorism, and one she addressed this morning, fresh off a flight from the Middle East, at a conference held by the London-based defense and security think tank, the Royal United Services Institute.

Her cautiously optimistic speech sidestepped any analysis of the West’s past role in helping some of the regimes to defer the establishment of such governments and institutions, but instead offered a window into the thinking in Britain’s Coalition government that underpins Prime Minister David Cameron’s arguments for establishing a no-fly zone in Libya. “There is clearly a potential interweaving of terrorism and political events,” Neville-Jones said. It’s hard to spot in the inchoate responses of Washington and Europe to recent events any reason for confidence that the West has the unity or clarity to prevent such an interweaving. But Neville-Jones insists there is “a huge opportunity” for the West to assist in creating the kinds of governments and institutions in the Middle East and North Africa that would diminish the appeal of terrorist movements in those countries and interlinked dangers of attacks on Western targets.

That message was balanced by her assessment of the threats to British and Western security. “I’m one of the ladies who has to focus on the downsides,” she said. “Al-Qaeda may be down but it’s not out,” she added, and its affiliates including AQAP and AQIM—Al-Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb—are becoming “increasingly autonomous.” Other downsides included a continuing strong focus by these terror groups on mounting attacks on aviation, and the ingenuity of such groups in finding new targets and weaknesses across all areas of activity. Neville-Jones acknowledged the danger of “doing the terrorists’ job for them,” by deploying disproportionately harsh measures that “ride roughshod over values of freedom and fairness…If we seek to promote these values abroad, we must uphold them at home.”

Coming from a Conservative minister in the Coalition government, this might be construed as criticism of her Labour predecessors, accused by former Guantánamo inmates of turning a blind eye to their rendition and torture, or worse yet, complicity in these violations. The Coalition has sought to draw a line under controversies that damaged Britain’s reputation on multiple levels and also created strains between U.K. intelligence agencies and their counterparts in the U.S. and other countries, potentially imperiling the intelligence-sharing essential to effective counter-terrorism. But the House of Commons announcement in January by another lady who has to focus on the downsides, Neville-Jones’s boss Home Secretary Theresa May, that unpopular “control orders,”  a form of restrictive supervision of terror suspects introduced by Labour, would be replaced by a supposedly more humane regime called Terrorism Prevention and Investigation Measures drew hoots of laughter when May revealed that under TPIMs “curfews” would be replaced by “overnight residence requirements.” This month, Neville-Jones admitted that even that change, which sounded at best semantic, would be delayed until more spies could be recruited to take on the extra surveillance work that greater liberty for suspects required.

In tandem with the recent capture in Libya of a unit reported to include British special forces and spies, it’s a reminder, as if such were needed, that fast-changing political landscapes present as least as many challenges for counter-terrorism as they do to terrorists and that the response, or absence of response, by the international community to unfolding events in the Middle East and North Africa will be of critical importance not only for those regions but the wider world.

See video of Bobby Ghosh on Yemen and al-Qaeda.