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Last updated: January 21, 2013 8:07 pm
Britain will increase the number of special forces deployed in North Africa as part of its fight against al-Qaeda following the Algeria hostage crisis but defence officials insisted on Monday that any deeper UK involvement would be “light touch”.
David Cameron warned again on Monday of a “generational struggle” against terrorism in the region, likening the threat to British security to that posed by Afghanistan.
But Mr Cameron’s aides were also forced to deny that the prime minister’s stepped-up rhetoric on North Africa since the Algeria attack marked a turn akin to Tony Blair’s change in foreign policy after the 9/11 attacks, after which Britain became heavily involved in wars in the Middle East.
Britain will increase the number of special forces it has in the region, as well as its diplomatic capacity, in a response the prime minister called “tough, intelligent, patient”.
“Together with our partners in the region, we are in the midst of a generational struggle against an ideology which is an extreme distortion of the Islamic faith, and which holds that mass murder and terror are not only acceptable but necessary,” said Mr Cameron.
Cameron filters Blair’s basic arguments through a very Tory temperament
“We must tackle this poisonous thinking at home and abroad and resist the ideologues’ attempt to divide the world into a clash of civilisations.” On Sunday, he predicted on Sunday that this response could involve “years, even decades, rather than months”.
Four years ago the principal threat from Islamic terrorism had come from Afghanistan and Pakistan, said Mr Cameron. While that had since diminished, on a relative basis, there are al-Qaeda “franchises” in Yemen, Somalia and parts of north Africa, which pose new threats to the UK.
His comments led Paul Flynn, the Labour MP who consistently opposed the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to warn of a “frightening future of perpetual war”. Sir Menzies Campbell, the former Liberal Democrat leader, called the prime minister’s vision “very ambitious” but warned the UK might not have the resources to achieve what he set out.
Several Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs questioned whether the UK could afford a big increase in its diplomatic and military presence in north Africa. Peter Hain, the former Labour minister, said: “Unless we focus resources in areas where the threats are ... then we won’t be able to deliver.”
The UK is already supporting the French effort to drive out Islamist rebels from Mali by lending two C17 military transport aeroplanes. Mr Cameron confirmed that “tens” of British troops would also be involved in an EU programme to train Malian forces. further support through transport and surveillance will be considered at a meeting of the National Security Council on Tuesday.
Raffaello Pantucci, a senior fellow at the Royal United Services Institute think tank said: “This is a part of the world that security people had long been worrying about and politicians have been a bit late to it.”
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