With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to update the House on the despicable terrorist attack in Algeria and the tragic events of the last few days. It is with great sadness that I have to confirm that we now know three British nationals have been killed, and that a further three are believed to be dead, as is a Colombian national who was resident in Britain. I am sure the whole House will join me in sending our deepest condolences to the families and friends of all those who have lost loved ones.
First, let me update the House on developments over the weekend and the steps we have taken to get survivors home, and then I will begin to set out how I believe we will work with our allies to overcome the terrorist scourge in this region. The Algerian Prime Minister told me on Saturday afternoon that the Algerian military had completed its offensive and that the terrorist incident was over. Since then, Algerian forces have undertaken a further operation to clear the site of potential explosives and booby traps. This is still being completed, and it will allow our embassy-led team to access the site.
It is important to put on record the scale of what happened. There is still some uncertainty about the precise facts, but we believe that, in total, there were some 800 employees working at the In Amenas site at the time of the attack, about 135 of whom were foreign nationals. Over 40 were taken hostage, and at least 12 were killed, with at least a further 20 unaccounted for and feared dead. The Algerian Prime Minister has said today that he believes 37 foreign hostages were killed. The number of terrorists was over 30. Most were killed during the incident but a small number are in Algerian custody.
Our immediate priorities have been the safety of the British nationals involved, the evacuation of the wounded and freed hostages, and the repatriation of those who have tragically been killed. Working closely with BP, and side by side with our US, Japanese and Norwegian partners, a swift international evacuation effort has been completed. The last British flights out on Saturday night brought not only the remaining freed Britons, but also Germans, Americans, New Zealanders, Croats, Romanians and Portuguese.
As of yesterday, all 22 British nationals caught up in the attack, who either escaped or were freed, had been safely returned to Britain, to be debriefed by the police and of course reunited with their families. Now, our most vital work is bringing home those who died. An international team of British, American and Norwegian experts is in close co-operation with the Algerian Ministry of Justice undertaking the task of formally identifying their bodies. We want this process to happen as swiftly as possible, but it will involve some intensive forensic and policing work, and so may take some time.
Throughout the last five days, the British ambassador to Algeria and staff from across the Government and beyond have been working around the clock to support British citizens and their families, and I am sure the House would like to join me in thanking them for their efforts.
We should also recognise all that the Algerians have done to confront this dreadful attack. I am sure the House will understand the challenges that Algeria faced in dealing with over 30 terrorists bent on killing innocent people in a large, extremely remote and dangerous industrial complex. This would have been a most demanding task for security forces anywhere in the world, and we should acknowledge the resolve shown by the Algerians in undertaking it. Above all, the responsibility for these deaths lies squarely with the terrorists.
Many questions remain about this whole incident, but one thing is clear: this attack underlines the threat that terrorist groups pose to the countries and peoples of that region, and to our citizens, our companies and our interests. Four years ago, the principal threat from Islamist extremism came from the Afghanistan and Pakistan region. A huge amount has been done to address and reduce the scale of that threat. Whereas at one point three quarters of the most serious terrorist plots against the UK had links to that region, today that has reduced to less than half, but at the same time al-Qaeda franchises have grown in Yemen, Somalia and parts of north Africa.
The changing nature of the threat we face was highlighted in our national security strategy in 2010 and shaped the decisions we made. Although there were difficult decisions to make, we increased our investment in our special forces, cyber-security and key intelligence capabilities, while also increasing our investment in fragile and broken states.
In north Africa—as in Somalia—terrorist activity has been fuelled by hostage ransoms and wider criminality. To date, the threat it poses has been to these north African states themselves and, of course, as I have said, to western interests in those states, but as it escalates, it is becoming a magnet for jihadists from other countries who share this poisonous ideology. Indeed, there are already reports of non-Algerian nationals involved in this attack.
More than ever, the evolving threat demands an international response. It must be one that is tough, intelligent, patient and based on strong international partnerships. First, we should be clear that this murderous violence requires a strong security response. We must be realistic and hard-headed about the threats we face. Our role is to support the Governments of the region in their resolve to combat this menace, as many are doing at a high cost. We will therefore work closely with the Algerian Government to learn the lessons of this attack, and to deepen our security co-operation, and we will contribute British intelligence and counter-terrorism assets to an international effort to find and dismantle the network that planned and ordered the brutal assault at In Amenas.
We must work right across the region. In Nigeria, we will continue our close security partnership with the Government there as they confront Islamist-inspired terrorism. In Libya, we will continue to support the new Government on the urgent priority of building new and effective security forces. In Mali, we will work with the Malians themselves, with their neighbours and with our international allies, to prevent a new terrorist haven developing on Europe’s doorstep.
We support the French intervention that took place at the request of the Malian Government, and we are working to ensure that an African-led military force
can—with the appropriate training and support—help to ensure Mali’s long-term stability. That support will include the EU training mission that was agreed by EU Foreign Ministers in Brussels last week.
Secondly, our tough security response must be matched by an intelligent political response. Al-Qaeda franchises thrive where there are weak political institutions, political instability and a failure to address long-standing political grievances, so we need a political approach that addresses these issues. We must support effective and accountable government, back people in their search for a job and a voice, and work with the UN and our international partners to solve long-standing political conflicts and grievances.
Thirdly, we must be patient and resolute. 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. We must tackle this poisonous thinking at home and abroad, and resist the ideologues’ attempt to divide the world into a clash of civilisations.
The underlying conflicts and grievances that are exploited by terrorists are in many cases long standing and deep, and, of course, the building blocks of democracy—the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary, the rights of minorities, free media and association, and a proper place in society for the army—which are a big part of the solution, all take a long time to put in place. But this patient, intelligent but tough approach is the best way to defeat terrorism and to ensure our own security. We must pursue it with an iron resolve.
I will use our chairmanship of the G8 this year to make sure this issue of terrorism, and how we respond to it, is right at the top of the agenda, where it belongs. In sum, we must frustrate the terrorists with our security, we must beat them militarily, we must address the poisonous narrative they feed on, we must close down the ungoverned space in which they thrive, and we must deal with the grievances that they use to garner support. This is the work that our generation faces, and we must demonstrate the same resolve and sense of purpose as previous generations did with the challenges that they faced in this House and in this country. I commend this statement to the House.
I join the Prime Minister in expressing my deepest sympathy and condolences to the families who lost loved ones in last week’s terrorist attack. For them, and for all those involved, the past six days have been an unimaginable nightmare. The whole country has been shocked as the horrific details of this unprovoked and violent act of terror have emerged. This was pre-meditated, cold-blooded murder of the most brutal kind, and behind each lost life is a family of loved ones who are in our thoughts today.
I echo the Prime Minister’s unequivocal condemnation of those involved in planning and carrying out this attack. It is they who bear full responsibility for the dreadful loss of life, and every effort must now be made to bring them to justice. We on this side of the House will give the Government our full support as they seek
to achieve that. We will also give them our support as they consider how best to respond to the growing threat that al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and other violent extremist groups pose.
In particular, the task is to understand the nature of the new threat, which is more decentralised and fragmented and takes advantage of the ungoverned spaces and security vacuum in parts of north Africa. At the same time, in its response the international community needs to apply the lessons of the past about the combination of diplomacy, politics and security required to help to bring about stability in the region.
On the attack itself, people will agree with the Prime Minister that the Algerian Government was faced with some extremely difficult judgements about how and when to act. I join him in paying tribute to all our embassy staff for the work that they did. In the light of the attack, can the Prime Minister say more about the work that the British Government are doing with British companies operating in the region? Can he tell us whether, at this early stage, any lessons can be learned about the security of those installations?
Turning to the broader context of what is happening in the region, on Mali we support the Government’s actions to date. Can the Prime Minister confirm that he does not envisage a combat role for British troops? We agree that the efforts of the French military must be supplemented by the much more rapid deployment of west African forces, as the Prime Minister said in his statement. Can he tell us by what means, and in what time scale, he expects that to be achieved?
After last year’s coup, the Mali Government face a security and legitimacy crisis. Can the Prime Minister tell us what further steps can be taken by the international community and Governments to use diplomacy and development to stabilise the situation in Mali and, in particular, which international body will co-ordinate that urgent work?
More broadly across the region, countering the emerging threat of terrorism begins with understanding it and talking about it in the right way. The work to deal with that threat will be painstaking: diplomatic and political as much as military; and collaborative and multilateral, not unilateral. Does the Prime Minister agree that we are talking about a number of distinct regional organisations, some using the banner of al-Qaeda and others not, rather than a single, centrally co-ordinated or controlled group? Each of these threats needs to be monitored and countered appropriately. Will he outline what further steps might be taken—he talked about some in his statement—to improve the flow of information and intelligence from the region, and whether it needs to be better shared with key allies?
As the Prime Minister said, we know that these threats grow where governance is weak. What longer term roles does he anticipate for the African Union and the Economic Community of West African States in securing greater stability in the region, and how does he believe that the EU will support that effort? On the question of ready access to arms, can the Prime Minister set out how the international community can better prevent the spread of weaponry throughout the region, including weapons left over from the Libyan conflict?
Finally, does he agree with me that if we are to meet the challenges we face, we need a much greater focus of our diplomatic development and political resources on
this region? We should remember the events of the Arab spring, which demonstrated the desire of people across north Africa to improve their lives through peaceful means, not through violence and terror. We should support their cause.
Today, above all, we mourn the victims of this terrorist attack. We grieve with the families of those who died. We stand united in seeking to bring the perpetrators to justice, and to doing everything we can to protect British citizens working and living around the world.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his response. I think there is genuine cross-party agreement, not just on our response to this dreadful event but about the thinking that needs to be done on how to tackle these problems in the future, and I welcome what he has said. He is right to say this was premeditated murder, and he is right to say we need to understand the nature of the threat and learn the lessons of the past.
Turning to his individual questions, on the British Government’s work with the companies involved, all the major companies have been contacted across the region. All of them have put in place procedures for heightened security. Crucially, we have asked all of them to update their consular information. When these events happen, one of the first things that needs to be done is to try and be absolutely clear about who is employed, who is contracted, and who is in the country and who is not.
I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that we are not seeking a combat role in Mali. We believe that we should be supporting the French, who have taken emergency action to stop Mali being overtaken by what is effectively an al-Qaeda-backed group of rebels. Our help for the French will be discussed again at the National Security Council tomorrow. We have lent them two C-17s. We propose to continue with that, and will be looking at other transport and surveillance assets that we can let the French use to help them in what they are doing.
The right hon. Gentleman is right to say that the answer on the security front is to train up African soldiers, and that they should play the lead role. Some African soldiers are already in Mali from west African states, and others will be arriving soon. On who should have the co-ordinating role, ECOWAS has been encouraged to take the lead, and there is also the backing of a UN resolution that was secured before Christmas.
The right hon. Gentleman is also correct to say that what we are dealing with are distinct organisations in different countries, some of them more connected to al-Qaeda than others. I think that we need to make sure that we deal with each one individually, while recognising that there are some commonalities. We are trying to break up these problems and deal with them individually, rather than pose one global response to the challenge. As I tried to say in my statement, we need to show patience and intelligence as well as toughness and resolution.
In terms of what the Government need to do to step up our contacts with the region, the point was well made. We have had National Security Council discussions on the Sahel and I have appointed my hon. Friend Mr O'Brien as my envoy to the region. There is obviously a huge amount of French influence on the region and we have been less well
represented. I do not want us to try to track or double up with other allies on this, but we should be working together, and that is what we are focused on.
In terms of the African Union and ECOWAS, we should be helping to build their capacity for the future. The right hon. Gentleman was also right to raise the point about Libyan weapons. The British Government have stepped up our engagement with Libya at all levels to help with the challenge of security and removing so many weapons from their society. In terms of what he said about stepping up our development, diplomatic and other resources in the region, that is very much something we need to consider.
Finally, I think that the right hon. Gentleman’s point about the Arab spring being a long-term benefit for the region, despite the difficulties that the move to democracy can sometimes engender, is correct. I think it is wrong to believe that vicious, dictatorial regimes such as Gaddafi’s somehow made our world safer; they did not. That is not just in terms of people living in Lockerbie, because we still have the problems of Gaddafi-supplied Semtex in Northern Ireland and all the terrorism that was engendered by his regime.
May I pay tribute to the Prime Minister for the sober and realistic way in which he has treated this crisis and for his strategy for the future? I suggest that the strategy needs two essential ingredients. First, we must work with the natural leaders of north Africa and west Africa. Nigeria, which he mentioned, and Algeria not only will be decisive in this crisis, but share a common interest in defeating international terrorism. Secondly, does he agree that we need to work to isolate the jihadi terrorists from the other insurgents in Mali and other countries who have local grievances? That suggests the need for a political strategy, not merely a military one.
My right hon. and learned Friend sets out extremely well the twin aims of working with African leaders and isolating the terrorists. If we look at the case of Somalia, which is a badly broken and fractured state that is trying to recover from years of civil war, terrorism and other abuses, we will see that the international community is demonstrating working with African leaders and trying to disengage terrorists from other organisations. That is the way forward to try patiently to rebuild those countries.
Two dedicated Liverpool men, Paul Morgan and Garry Barlow, have now died at the hands of terrorists in Algeria. I would like to thank the Foreign Office for the work it has done to assist the families. What immediate steps can the Prime Minister take to try to deal with this horrendous situation and to try to reduce the apprehension felt by so many families, in Liverpool and across the country, who have loved ones working away in vulnerable areas?
The hon. Lady speaks for everyone in raising the case of those two men from Liverpool who lost their lives. They were working abroad, trying to earn a good living for themselves and their families. There are many British people who do that in difficult
and dangerous parts of the world, and I believe that it is part of the British Government’s job to work with foreign Governments to make sure that we defend the interests of people such as those she mentions. That is why we are getting in contact with the large businesses and thickening our contacts with all those Governments. I think that it is vital that we do everything we can with those Governments, who have to have the primary responsibility, to keep our people safe.
My right hon. Friend’s agenda lacks nothing in ambition, but ambition needs to be supported by adequate resources. Can we be satisfied, in this period of financial austerity, that the intelligence services and the armed services will have adequate financial resources to meet the substantial elements that he has wished upon them?
My right hon. and learned Friend makes a very good point. Of course, there are always challenges over the level of resources, even in times when money is plentiful—and it is not plentiful today. I would say, though, that our defence budget, for instance, is stable in cash terms at £33 billion. We have tried as a Government—perhaps we need to look again and go even further—to focus on those threats to our security that we face today: an investment in key intelligence capabilities and greater investment in special forces, cyber-security and the things that will have the maximum impact in keeping our people safe. We therefore have to make changes in other parts of our armed services to make possible this vital investment for the future.
I welcome the priority the Prime Minister has given this matter and the tone of his statement, especially his focus on the political and not simply the security. To add to the question that has just been put to him, the truth is that our diplomatic capacity in that region has been cut, not simply under his Government but, sadly, under our Government too. Will he look at that capacity? It is not simply about our diplomatic capabilities, but about our related ones. Unless we focus resources on the areas where the threats are—and that means the Foreign Office’s budget not being continuously chopped, as it has been in recent years—we will not be able to deliver.
I will look very closely—it is absolutely right to look closely—at what diplomatic resources we have in that part of the world. I would simply make two points. One is that the Foreign Office actually got a reasonably generous settlement in terms of public spending and has been opening embassies in parts of the world where there are really important economic priorities for Britain, particularly in south-east Asia. The second point is that when we look at west Africa, we should be very much thinking about how we will work with our partners—I have already had this conversation with President Hollande and President Obama. We have particularly strong ties with countries such as Nigeria; France has particularly strong ties with countries such as Mali. It does not make sense for us all to double up in the same places but, working together, we need to ensure that our coverage is very good.
Al-Qaeda represents both a mindset and a physical capability. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, as well as an uncompromising security response, there is a particular responsibility on the leaders in the Islamic world, both religious and political, to make it very clear that the sort of barbaric acts we saw in Algeria are incompatible with Islam, and that that message needs to be made crystal clear abroad and in the United Kingdom?
My right hon. Friend makes a very important point. Just as we have to isolate and defeat this sort of terrorism in a security and military sense, we need to isolate and defeat the poisonous ideology on which it feeds; and that requires, as he says, Muslim leaders and faith leaders—and, indeed, leaders of Muslim-majority countries—to condemn it in very strong terms. I have been very struck over the last year that the Prime Minister of Malaysia and the President of Indonesia, along with a number of countries, have made the strongest possible statements about how Islam is completely incompatible with this sort of taking of life, and we need to hear that a lot more in the future.
The Prime Minister is right to use this tragedy to make people aware of the growing threat from the region. He is also right to say that the best response is a regional-led response, but do we have the capacity to have a proper input across the range in this area? The Foreign Office’s headline cuts were a lot bigger once the responsibilities for the BBC had been transferred. We need a diplomatic, political, security and developmental response to this kind of situation if the threat is to be removed, which can only happen over time.
The right hon. Gentleman asks a central question. I would say yes, there is the capacity, for two good reasons. First, I believe we are more effectively co-ordinating what we have. The National Security Council means that we have the Development Secretary, the Home Secretary, the Foreign Secretary and the Defence Secretary, with their budgets, sitting round the table, which makes it more possible to use that money—including through the conflict pool—to come to terms with the challenges we face. Secondly, we have taken some difficult decisions on defence, but as a result we have reduced the amount of unfunded commitments and our budget is now, as it were, in balance for the future. We can afford the very important capabilities that include heavy lift—vital for the sorts of things we are doing with the French—air-to-air refuelling and those sorts of capacities, which will be so important for the future.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the terrible events in Algeria underline the critical importance for the international community of tackling the root causes of poverty, instability and conflict in west Africa? Britain has been doing that in east Africa, not least in Somalia, where some progress seems at last to have been made.
My right hon. Friend is entirely right to say that the work we do to address those root causes will be vital not only for those countries but for our long-term security. One of the excellent things that
he did as Secretary of State for International Development was to focus more of our money on conflict and on broken states, because it is there that the investment can make the biggest difference. No one would argue that Somalia was somehow a model case, but it seems that the work we are doing with international partners, using our aid budget and working with the new Somali Government, is helping patiently to mend that country in a way that does not involve military intervention by us.
Stabilisation and security in the region are set to be supported by a European Union training mission, although that will not be in place in Mali until mid-February. There are plans for 250 trainers and 200 close protection personnel, but it is already being suggested that those numbers are insufficient. Does the Prime Minister believe them to be sufficient? What contribution will the UK be making to the training mission?
The point about an EU training mission is that it would be part of the process of training up the west African troops who want to play a part in stabilising and securing Mali. The total size of the mission would perhaps be around 500 personnel, and if there were a British contribution to it, it would be in the tens, not in the hundreds. It is a training mission, not a combat mission. The lead on this will clearly be taken by the French, who have the greatest interest in rapidly training up west African forces to replace the French forces that are currently in action in Mali.
Given that the instability in north Africa is going to last for a very long time, does my right hon. Friend agree that the commitments required from this country, our European partners and others will be very considerable indeed? Given Britain’s fine record on the training of defence forces, does he also agree that our Army will have a major role to play in training African troops, and that we will be able to be of real help to them?
My right hon. Friend makes an important point. If we look at the capabilities that we have that will make the biggest difference in that area, we see that training is clearly one of them, alongside counter-terrorism, ISTAR—intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance—and other assets that we have. We also have training assets in this country. We should be using our training academies not only to train our own military but as a way of building relationships with other militaries around the world, as that would help us in circumstances such as those that we face today.
Western powers cannot stand aside, particularly when our own nationals are so tragically involved, but does the Prime Minister accept that the defeat of these terrorist and murder gangs in north Africa and elsewhere will largely depend on the attitude of the people involved, and certainly not on military action from outside? We must bear in mind that the Taliban will still be around in Afghanistan after 11 years of western military action there.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the key will be the peoples of those countries rejecting Islamic extremism and violence and opting instead for having a job and a voice in a secure country. He is right about that, but, as we were discussing earlier, one of the roles that we can play is in recognising that we have to try to split the terrorist groups from the other groups with which they can become affiliated. In the case of Mali, for example, there is a combination of terrorist groups and Tuareg tribes. We should be trying to split up those alliances, rather than reinforcing them through our actions. I do not accept that the right thing to do is in any way to turn our back on the world. Britain is an open, engaged country and our interests are threatened in those countries. The idea that if we did less or did nothing we would somehow be safer is wrong.
In the last decade, the population of Mali has grown by 60%, and it is forecast to grow by 400% by the year 2050. That leaves millions of young men and women without any reasonable expectation of employment—a sure prescription for social violence, fuelling instability in the region. Does the Prime Minister agree that if there were ever a role for DFID funding, it would be to address the economic wasteland that is the Sahel?
My hon. Friend makes a very important point. Our aid is at work in Mali. UK aid is currently helping 200,000 people in Mali through the provision of food, emergency health and medicine, and we are always one of the first to step forward and help, and this is an example of that. I know our aid budget is controversial, but if we are to put together these broken and fragile states, I would say yes, there is a role for security; yes, there is a role for diplomacy and politics; but there is also a role for aid and economic assistance.
May I join the Prime Minister in expressing my condolences to the families who lost loved ones in Algeria, and may I also express a little relief that my own constituent who was caught up in those events managed to get home safely? I commend the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, Alistair Burt for the personal efforts he made to keep informed those MPs whose constituents were caught up in this situation.
On the question of our own intelligence and security agencies, does the Prime Minister agree that whatever changes we make to our own priorities, it is important to do more of what we are good at rather than trying to do too much in operations in which we would probably not be as effective?
First, I join the right hon. Gentleman in thanking my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary, who has been working extremely hard, almost around the clock, trying to keep people in touch, whether it be the Scottish Government, MPs, or the police liaison teams that liaised with the families through what has been an incredibly difficult—impossibly difficult—period for them. I pay tribute to those teams that do such an important job. I think the right hon. Gentleman is right in his general point that we should do more of what we are good at. All budgets are limited, and although £33 billion
is a large defence budget, it has its limits, so we should focus on areas where we can, with our partners, make the greatest difference.
It is excellent that my right hon. Friend chairs our new National Security Council, but as it is a committee, may I ask if an official close to the National Security Council could operate with your authority and your confidence right across the gamut of government to ensure that we have a co-ordinated approach to dealing with international terrorism? Could that official report to you through the committee?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We do not want a National Security Council to be a sort of talking shop. It has behind it the whole of the national security apparatus of Whitehall, now all based in the Cabinet Office and very ably headed by my national security adviser, Sir Kim Darroch. He is able to drive the will of the committee and the decisions it takes right across Whitehall. That is the point of it. We are still learning how best to operate the system, but I think it has been a good innovation.
The Prime Minister is right to focus on north Africa, but he will know that al-Qaeda has been operating in countries such as the Yemen for years. As a result, Yemen has been destabilised, and the Prime Minister knows that because he has put a lot of face time into helping the Government of Yemen. As he chairs the G8, will he consider inviting the leaders of those countries that are affected by al-Qaeda to attend the summit, as they did in Georgia in 2004, so that we can have a co-ordinated approach that involves them as well?
The right hon. Gentleman makes an interesting suggestion. I will take it away and think about it. He is absolutely right to say that Yemen has been one of the countries most troubled by terrorism. If we look at the scale of the threat to the UK directly, we find that what has been happening in Yemen and al-Qaeda in the Arabian peninsula have posed a great threat to the UK—greater than from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. We should continue our focus on Yemen, which very much fits what I have said. We help Yemen militarily with counter-terrorism advice and support, we have an aid programme and a big diplomatic programme in Yemen, and we act with other allies to assist Yemen in its fight with the terrorists. I think that the Yemeni authorities have been making good progress on that front.
I strongly welcome the Prime Minister’s statement, I am particularly pleased that he drew attention to the planned European Union military training mission in Mali, which will build on the successful EU model in Somalia. Does he think that he will have an opportunity to emphasise the value of European security and defence policy at any other time soon?
I cannot imagine what the hon. Gentleman is thinking of, but he may not be disappointed.
For the last two decades, the southern countries in the European Union have been arguing that the whole EU needs to take security issues in the Maghreb far more seriously. Do not the events of the past week—as well as the arrival of many mercenaries from Libya, the arrival of narco-traffickers in the region, and the killing of 1,000 people by Boko Haram—show that we need a united and sustained EU approach to security to prevent us from facing the same problems again?
I agree that it is very important for the European Union to have a sensible programme of engagement with north African countries, which it has through its partnership. My criticisms of it in the past have been that it has not been exacting enough of those north African countries, and that there has been much aid without sensible strings and political development attached. I think that there is now a more realistic view in the European Union about the sort of progress, democracy and security response that we require throughout north Africa.
Let me echo what my right hon. Friend said about the very effective work with constituency Members done during the crisis by the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend Alistair Burt. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that this appalling attack had clearly been planned a long time before the French took action in Mali, or before we supported it; that Mali was no more than a hastily fabricated excuse; and that it would therefore be entirely wrong for us to step down from the region, as the terrorists clearly want us to?
I think that my right hon. Friend is right on both counts. It is clear from the scale of the attack, and the number of terrorists involved, that it was some time in the planning. However, I would advance the wider argument that my right hon. Friend has advanced. Do we really believe that we—British people, British companies and British interests—would somehow be safer if we, and others, stood back from Mali and allowed it to become a country effectively governed by an al-Qaeda franchise? Of course we would not be safer. The whole premise behind such thinking is wrong. Britain is a country that is engaged in the world and open to the world, and we have people living all over the world. We are safer if we act with others to deal with problems as they occur, rather than turning our back on the world and pretending that it is possible to take that approach.
Does the Prime Minister agree that eliminating a religious and political ideology is not an easy thing to do, as is evidenced by both Iraq and Afghanistan? Can he guarantee that, if it is not possible to get many west African troops, his crusading zeal will not lead him to the use of British troops in the future?
I do not believe that the only answer, or the right answer on its own, is security and military action. As I said, and as I think the Leader of the Opposition said, we need to use all the elements at our disposal: a political response, a development response, and working with partners. However, that does not mean that a tough security approach is not part of what is required.
No one can have forgotten that on
Let me say first that my hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise the issue of extremists from other parts of the world who are based in the United Kingdom and who threaten our security. The Government are doing everything that they can to ensure that we are secure from those people. We also need to address the issue of being able effectively to deport people when they threaten our country.
On the specific question my hon. Friend asks about the threat to the UK of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the principal threat it poses is, as I said, to those countries in the region and to the people of those countries in that region, and to our interests and our people in that region. But there has been a history with the al-Qaeda franchises whereby they become magnets for terrorists from elsewhere, and pretty soon we find that their ambitions and the risks that they pose go wider.
I will certainly take the hon. Gentleman’s advice, and he makes a good point. The reason for specifically mentioning the G8 is that in that slightly smaller forum it is possible to have an in-depth conversation with American, French, Italian, Canadian and other partners about what more we can do to thicken our various defence, security, political and diplomatic relations with countries in, for instance, north Africa, making sure that we do not all fall over each other in trying to do the same thing in the same country. We should be recognising that in some cases there are very strong British relationships that we should build on, but in others the relationships may be French, Italian or American.
May I commend to the Prime Minister the concept of containment when he is considering these long-term problems? It served us well both for 70 years in the cold war and for 38 years in relation to Northern Ireland, and it would help to avoid an oscillation of policy from over-involvement on the ground, at one extreme, to too little involvement and an over-emphasis on withdrawal, at the other.
My hon. Friend makes an extremely intelligent point, and I will think about it carefully. Part of my response would be to say that in a country such as Somalia our aim should not be to contain the problems of terrorism in Somalia; it should be to work with the Somali Government to build up Somali security forces and to work with the Somalis to have a better political solution to political problems in that country, so that, over time, politically, militarily and diplomatically, through aid and everything else, we squeeze the terrorists out of the space. That is not containing; it is trying, over time, to overcome them completely. That is the ambition we should have, but it does not mean, to answer Mr Skinner, that we have to have some sort of “crusading zeal”; it means that we have to have real resolve, but bring an intelligent mix of answers to these very deep problems.
Sadly, the last few days have shown us that we must engage more with ordinary people in north African countries. Does the Prime Minister agree that we must do all we can to increase resources for projects such as the Arab Partnership, which brings together an understanding between the United Kingdom and the Arab people?
The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point; that partnership does have some £110 million in it, it has been an important initiative and we should continue to work on it.
Given our experience in Afghanistan, where, as intelligence services confirm, we achieved our original mission of defeating al-Qaeda, or of driving it out of the country, very early on but then got drawn into an expensive nation-building exercise, does the Prime Minister agree that if we are to defeat international terrorism, we need a more nuanced, flexible policy on terrorism, which takes into account local dynamics, including closer liaison with those Governments threatened on the ground?
I do not disagree with the way in which my hon. Friend has put his question. It was absolutely right to go into Afghanistan to get rid of a Government who were a host to al-Qaeda, but then of course—this is what we are doing right now in Afghanistan—we do need to have a strong political track to get a political settlement that can enable that country not only to have its own security forces, but to have stability in its political system. That is the sort of thinking we need to bring to all these problems in the future.
The hon. Lady makes an important point. Many organisations in the Syrian opposition want what most people in this House would want, which is for the Syrian people to be free of the brutal dictatorship and from the murder and mayhem they face—60,000 are dead so far. Of course, elements of the
Syrian opposition have extremist views and extremist ways and we must be extremely concerned about that. To characterise all or a majority of the Syrian opposition in that way would not be right.
May I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend for not only how he has dealt with the immediate situation but for how, since the beginning of this Government, he has tried to deal with the underlying causes of terrorism abroad through the proper focus of international development? One way that Britain can protect her interests abroad by identifying threat is through a good strong network of defence attachés across our embassies. In the past decade, that network has weakened slightly. Will my right hon. Friend reconsider it and see what he can do?
I am very happy to reconsider that issue. I have been struck on my travels by the fact that the relationship between the defence attaché and foreign Governments is often one of the strongest we have. We will publish a paper about our defence engagement strategy shortly and it will carefully consider that issue.
Even while contemplating this frightening future of perpetual war, will the Prime Minister contrast the successful results of our involvement in Kosovo and Sierra Leone with the results in Iraq and Afghanistan, where 620 British soldiers have died? Is not the prime lesson of Iraq and Afghanistan that we cannot win over hearts and minds with drones and bullets?
I think the hon. Gentleman draws a slightly unfair comparison about some of the engagements that, after all, a Labour Government got us into. In Kosovo and Sierra Leone, we were not dealing with the massive ideological problem of a twisted Islamic ideology that sees the murder of innocent people as not just possible but necessary. That, I think, is one of the differences with what we have been dealing with in Afghanistan and that point bears making.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s comprehensive approach through the National Security Council to this threat and its potential domestic extension. Does he agree that that further underlines the importance of ensuring that we can deport those people who are a threat to our country, or imprison them if they cannot be deported, and that our intelligence services can fight court cases without giving away vital intelligence? That is why we need the Justice and Security Bill.
My hon. Friend makes some very important points. There is no doubt that we have had a problem in recent years with some foreign nationals in this country who have extremist views and extremist aims. It has been very difficult to deport them, even when we have taken huge steps to get safeguards and assurances from the countries to which they will be sent—this applies to the previous Government, too. I am personally convinced that we must crack the problem and need to consider all possible avenues to do that. My
hon. Friend is right, too, about the Justice and Security Bill, as we owe that to our security services. The Bill does not apply to criminal trials; it is for use when our security services are, in effect, being sued through the civil courts. It will allow more cases to come to court, rather than fewer.
The hon. Gentleman makes an extremely good point. One of the problems in north Africa is that the al-Qaeda franchises have been fed by money from hostage-taking and sometimes very large ransom payments have been made. One thing we will consider at the G8 is whether we can do more to cut off that sort of finance. That is vital in Somalia and in north Africa, too.
Given that Algeria, like many countries in Africa, has many neighbours—six, in this case—and long and difficult to defend borders, which mean that people, not just from Africa, can cross without being spotted or detected, would not one option be not to offer troops on the ground but to build up our capacity to offer technical and surveillance support so that we can monitor the activities of those who do and wish nobody any good?
My right hon. Friend makes an important point. Clearly, border security is extremely difficult in these countries, but there is more that we can do to help them with technical abilities and also with training. That is particularly the case with the Libyans.
In the light of recent events in north Africa, does the Prime Minister think the strategic defence and security review remains relevant? If not, what is the mechanism whereby he plans to re-assess the Government’s current policy?
We plan for strategic defence and security reviews every five years, so this is a rolling programme where we permanently look at whether, given the threats that we face around the world, we have the right defence and security assets to deal with them. The decisions that we took in the last SDSR—in which we were bringing the defence budget back into balance, reducing the number of main battle tanks and looking at smaller, more flexible armed forces, but were putting money into ISTAR, drones and surveillance, into special forces and into cyber-security, making sure that we protected the key intelligence and security functions—were the right decisions. If anything, if we had the review over again, we would go more in that direction. All the evidence shows that these are the emerging problems that we are going to be dealing with more in the future.
May I commend the Prime Minister on his leadership during this crisis and on keeping the House updated? My right hon. Friend mentioned an intelligent mix of assets. I wonder
whether the 12,000 Algerians in the United Kingdom and 4,000 Mali nationals might be part of that intelligent approach, by deploying them in a positive way back to their own country in a developmental role and in a role that shows leadership within their country.
My hon. Friend makes an important point, which is that in drawing up our national security strategy, we should be listening to the settled communities here in the UK that have a huge amount of knowledge and expertise about the countries that may be causing us concern. That is very much the case with the Somali community, and I am sure the points that he makes about the Algerian community are right, too.
The hon. Lady makes an extremely important point. We do a lot of thinking and a lot of work to try to get this impossibly difficult decision right. That is what the police liaison teams do, and the Government should always be asking, “Can this be handled even more sensitively in the future?”
I was reassured by my right hon. Friend in his answers to the former Secretary of State, Mr Ainsworth, about our diplomatic and military resources, but will my right hon. Friend draw any lessons from the request by the French to borrow two transport aircraft? They are the third biggest military force in Europe. Does that mean that they just do not have the aeroplanes, or does it mean that their aeroplanes were doing something else and they needed to borrow some from us?
My hon. and learned Friend makes an important point. My understanding is that the French do not have C-17s. They have a different laydown of forces. I would argue that one of the things that we did in the SDSR, which the previous Government were working on too, was making sure that we had good mobility and strategic lift for our armed forces. They are vital. The C-17s are based in my constituency, at RAF Brize Norton, so perhaps I am biased, but as far as I can see they are workhorses. They are vitally important. We have eight of them, and lending two to the French for this vital task is right. In future, we have the A400M coming in and that is a highly capable plane that will help with the transport and heavy-lift capabilities as well.
Yes. The hon. Lady makes an important point. As I tried to say in my statement, there are many long-standing, deep, difficult political conflicts that have to be resolved. Although there is never an excuse
for the sort of terrorism that we saw over the weekend, terrorist groups and others exploit these grievances. An intelligent approach to trying to combat al-Qaeda right across the piece is to break up the different parts of this insurgency and deal with the individual problems, as well as undertaking the tough security response that I spoke about.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that we should use the extensive contact that we have had with the Algerians as a result of the tragedy to encourage them to use their considerable resources to combat the jihadists, whoever they are, in north and west Africa?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. I have spoken to the Algerian Prime Minister six times, I think, in the last three days, and the Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire, has had a number of conversations, as has the Foreign Secretary.
The Algerians have huge, long experience of fighting against extremist Islamism and their country had a very painful and difficult civil war. It is a country where we will want to thicken and deepen our diplomatic, political and even military and counter-terrorism contacts.
Many of those so tragically caught up in the terrorist attacks in Algeria are engineers, who, as I know from my own engineering career, are often called on to work abroad without appropriate security information, particularly if they work for smaller companies or are contractors. The Prime Minister said that he would be in contact with larger oil companies. May I urge him and the Foreign Secretary to work with the professional bodies concerned, such as my own body, the Institution of Engineering and Technology, to ensure that individuals as well as companies can make informed choices for themselves?
The hon. Lady makes an extremely good point, and Foreign Office Ministers were listening carefully. Some 250 to 300 British nationals are working in oil and gas installations in Algeria. I encourage the companies and, in the case of subcontractors, perhaps the individuals as well, to make sure that they contact the consular authorities, so that we know who is in the country and what their roles are. It would help enormously if they did.
Defence planning has tended to focus on building the most flexible capabilities to respond to future threats. I welcome the shift under this Government, who are also investing in preventing those threats from occurring in the first place. Will the Prime Minister show the same leadership as he did on Libya in getting other countries in Europe and further afield to follow suit?
I am grateful for what my hon. Friend says. Right across Europe, countries are having strategic defence reviews or their equivalents, and we should encourage them to do that. An enormous amount of resource is locked up in European defence budgets that is, frankly, wasted on a lot of capabilities that are not so necessary. While it is always difficult to change
the lay-down of forces and to scrap old equipment and old ways of doing things, if we want to face the threats of the future, it is essential that all countries do this.
I am afraid that it is very difficult to do that. I do not have the final numbers on the number of hostage takers who were captured by the Algerian authorities; obviously, that will be a responsibility for them. I also think that figures and facts will emerge about the different make-up of the hostage takers, who included a number of foreign nationals. We do not yet have information that any are British nationals, but I expect that figures will be released at some stage showing that a number of nationals from other countries were involved in the atrocity.
I join others in congratulating the Prime Minister on the level-headed way in which he has handled this. Algeria is a proud country that wants to strengthen its relations with the United Kingdom. Can the Prime Minister assure me that everything will be done to strengthen and deepen that relationship at a time when Algeria needs us most?
I can certainly give my hon. Friend that assurance. Relations are good—they were already good—but this tragedy does give us the opportunity to look again at what more we can do in co-operation with the Algerians.
The Prime Minister rightly said that terrorism will be at the top of the agenda at the G8. Given that we are dealing with al-Qaeda affiliates, or franchises, as he puts it, will he give us more detail on the type of co-ordinated action on which he hopes to get agreement at the G8? Will he also say a word or two about his assessment of the security situation in Nigeria? Can he reassure us that increased and understandable emphasis on west Africa will not mean less emphasis on Somalia?
There were a lot of questions there. The first thing that the G8 can do is make sure that we share a common analysis of the problem. I believe that we do and that this mixture of tough but intelligent response is what is required. There are some specific things we can start to discuss about how countries in the G8—France, Italy, Canada, America, the British—can start thinking about how we partner up more with countries, but make sure that we do not fall over each other in doing so.
What the hon. Gentleman says about Somalia is key. Last year’s London conference was successful in helping to bring about the political transition that was necessary in Somalia; it also helped in getting the United Nations resolution that was needed and in the building up of Somali security forces. I am committed to making sure
that we continue that patient, painstaking work, which is helping that country to put itself back together again. I am determined that we should not slip back.
Order. I did indeed listen intently to the three questions from Jonathan Ashworth, but if we are to get to the end in reasonable time, it would be helpful if Members now confine themselves to one question each.
It must be right that, in addition to the appropriate security response, there should be a refocusing of international development assistance on failed or failing states in north Africa. There are a lot of very rich Islamic nations in the world. Might we see rather more money coming from them to provide that international development assistance, rather than its coming only from the west?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. We do have one of the largest budgets in the world and I think we use it well, but we are focusing much more on conflict and broken states; a lot more of the money is going in that direction. The G8 traditionally discusses development assistance, but the G20 is starting to do that as well, and of course the G20 includes some of the most populous and richest Islamic states on Earth. We should certainly encourage their work.
The Prime Minister referred to the role that could be played by the ECOWAS states—indeed, some are already taking action—but he will know that ECOWAS was not originally set up as a military or political alignment, that its resources are limited, and that some of its members are stretched elsewhere in terms of military activity. Is there a danger in expecting too much from ECOWAS, at least in the short term? What role can be played by other international bodies such as the African Union and, indeed, the United Nations, which has not been mentioned today?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. The key thing is that it is much better if the military and security forces are provided by local states, rather than by others. The French intervened because it was an emergency, but their aim, as I understand it, is to make sure that we train up and encourage west African states to put their military into Mali as a way of providing security. It is in our interest to build the capacity of these countries and, frankly, it is in their interest to make sure that that capacity is there, because if we do not sort out problems such as Mali, the knock-on effect on other west African states will be felt very rapidly. However, the hon. Gentleman is right that we should not overestimate what is available.
Obviously BP has a huge responsibility because many of these people are their employees, and I know that it takes that very seriously. On the Government side, the main point of access is the police liaison teams, who do a fantastic job in very difficult circumstances. As others have said, one of the key concerns and considerations is how to keep them up to date with the news as it is coming in while not getting ahead of what they are being told. That is never easy to get right, and I will make sure that we always try to learn the lessons if we have not done so.
I am afraid that there is not new money available to the MOD. However, the decision we made in the strategic defence and security review was for hundreds of millions of pounds to be spent on cyber-security, and that was new money—investment that was not taking place previously. Also, the priority given to things such as special forces and some key intelligence assets was, in effect, new investment to make sure that our forces and our national security are correctly aligned with the threats that we face.
All these decisions are difficult, but the key for the future is not necessarily to look at the overall number of regular soldiers, sailors or airmen we have, but to look at the capabilities we have. We should reflect on the decisions taken in the SDSR that made sure that our forces are mobile, properly equipped and accompanied by all the assets they need. If, for example, we decided to maintain the number of soldiers but not to invest in C-17 aircraft, we would not be able to move those soldiers around the world. If we invested simply in the number of soldiers but did not have drones and other intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance—ISTAR—equipment, we would not be able to fight modern warfare. Yes, those are difficult decisions, but I have to say that I find it frustrating when people just want to keep what we have and then add to it. To govern is to make difficult choices about priorities, but I am convinced that we made the right choices in the SDSR.
People in Scotland have been horrified at the loss of life over the weekend and at the growing threat we face from terrorist groups operating across national boundaries in north Africa. Does the Prime Minister agree with the plan of the US and French Governments: that Algeria should secure its borders with Mali to staunch the flow of terrorist groups and the proceeds from drug trafficking, which underpins much of their activity?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman that there is obviously huge concern in Scotland. Over the centuries, Scots have been fantastic at working and earning money overseas and travelling the world, and we need to make sure that we protect their interests. Of course I want to see Algeria work to defend its borders, but, to be frank, if we do not deal with crises such as that in Mali and the existence of ungoverned space in other neighbouring countries, it is very difficult for any country, no matter how good its border and security forces, to maintain secure borders.
Given that a number of the countries in north and west Africa are French speaking, is it not fortuitous that the Foreign Secretary took the decision last year to reopen our embassy in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire? Not only was Abidjan known as the Paris of Africa, a number of other Francophone countries look toward Abidjan for guidance?
My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary is endlessly far-sighted, because not only did he reopen that embassy, but he reopened the language school for the Foreign Office. He is always telling me that a key part of this Government’s story about fighting and succeeding in the global race is the fact that we are investing in our diplomatic network and our network of embassies around the world. Of course, as I said, we will also have to look carefully at the lay-down in west Africa.
I join the Prime Minister in thanking the Foreign Office and the police for their heroic and exemplary efforts to support British hostages and their families. Will my right hon. Friend tell the House what steps are being taken, militarily and from a security perspective, to encourage greater co-operation between west African and north African states in the fight against terrorists?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. What we should be doing is working out with each of the countries the best and most appropriate partnership. In the case of Nigeria, as I have said many times, we have a very strong relationship and are very involved in helping on counter-terrorism and policing. With the French and others, we should be looking at all of these countries, whether it is Niger, Mali or Algeria, and working out what we can best do to help.
Beyond Algeria, my right hon. Friend will know that more than 4,000 BP workers and their families live in the south Caucasus and, in particular, Azerbaijan. Although Azerbaijan is a stable and secular state, will my right hon. Friend work with the Government in Baku to assess the risk faced by Britons there and the facilities in which they work, to ensure that they are protected to the utmost?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right: the Government should do that—but of course it is the primary responsibility of companies such as BP, which have huge resources and, indeed, almost their own diplomatic networks, to make sure that their people are safe, to work with the Governments of the countries in which they operate and to look at their security based
on the present level of threat. I commend BP for the work that it does on that, but it needs to redouble all its efforts.
I welcome the Prime Minister’s statement. He will know that Saudi Arabia has set up a world-renowned deradicalisation centre, which was visited by the previous Prime Minister and is recognised by the United Nations. What steps are being taken to get countries such as Saudi Arabia to share their good practice with other countries on how they can tackle radicalisation and extremism?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. I think that Saudi Arabia realised what a problem it had with Islamic extremism. It is now a leader in deradicalisation programmes, and I strongly encourage it to share its thinking and approach with other countries. We need to build an alliance of Islamic countries to make sure that we all back deradicalisation and condemn utterly the perverse interpretation of Islam that says that somehow it is right to carry out terrorist attacks and murder innocent people.
A few years ago, it could have been me waiting for news from Algeria, as my husband used to work in the oil industry out there and in many other African countries. Following many conversations that we have had over the weekend, will the Prime Minister assure me that he and his colleagues will talk to major oil companies to ensure that they tighten up their security procedures?
I can certainly give my hon. Friend that assurance. I have had several conversations with Bob Dudley, the head of BP, in recent days and, as I just said, it is very important that companies recognise their responsibilities, look at all the modern levels of threat and work out what they need to do for themselves and with the countries in which they are located.
My hon. Friend raises a very important point. Frankly, Libya had a problem with excessive levels of firearms in civilian possession long before the fall of Gaddafi, and the problem has worsened in recent times. That is why we are working closely with the Libyan Government to help them to build security forces that can bring greater security to that country. I do not accept the view of those who say that we would somehow be better off if authoritarian dictators such as Gaddafi were still in power, not only because of what I said about his personal encouragement of terrorism around the world, but because I think that such regimes encouraged many young people to take up the path of
jihadism, extremism and violence, perhaps not in Libya but in other parts of the world. We are still dealing with that today.
I welcome the Prime Minister’s statement and his emphasis on the need for Britain to remain fully involved internationally. In an earlier answer, he noted the importance of strategic defence reviews and the need to encourage member states of the European Union to undertake them. Can he see a way of encouraging member states to reflect in those reviews their obvious and clear national interest in having political security and stability in north and west Africa?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. We ourselves need to look at what we can do to enhance our security, and we need to look at all the issues that have been raised this afternoon, but the principal response will need to be from the north and west African countries that are on the front line of fighting al-Qaeda franchises.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that these events show that it was right for the strategic defence review to focus defence spending on the capabilities needed to counter such new threats, including extra funding for special forces? Is he as surprised and disappointed as I am that the BBC has consistently described the perpetrators of these heinous crimes as militants, rather than as the terrorists they are?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. They are terrorists and they should be described as such. This was a terrorist attack to take hostages and kill innocent people, and it should be condemned utterly.
The Prime Minister will be aware of research showing a worrying level of Islamophobia in this country. With that in mind, as an MP representing a constituency with a significant Muslim community, may I warmly welcome his clear statement that the generational conflict in which we are engaged is not between the west and Islam, but between people of all faiths who want to live in peace and those who would resort to terror?
What my hon. Friend says is absolutely right and should form part of every speech and statement made about this issue. This is not a clash of civilisations; it is all people against a very small minority who are poisoned by that ideology. It is worth making the point that the biggest number of victims of al-Qaeda violence are Muslim men and women. That remains the case, and we cannot make that point too often.
I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend’s refocusing of attention on the causes of instability in that troubled region; some are recent, but some are of much longer standing. Will he do all that he can to resolve the plight of thousands of Sahrawi refugees who continue to languish in the camps of Tindouf in Algeria, which may be a source of instability in the region?
My hon. Friend makes an important point that echoes one made by an Opposition Member. A number of long-standing political conflicts, grievances and other issues in the region have to be addressed. They are never an excuse for terrorism, but they can provide some of the backdrop. The way I would put it is that we have to drain the swamp of all those issues at the same time as confronting, in a very tough manner, the terrorism and the terrorists that we face.