"With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to update the House on the despicable terrorist attack in Algeria and the tragic events of the past few days. It is with great sadness that I have to confirm that we now know that 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 of those who have lost loved ones.
First, let me update the House on developments over the weekend and the steps that we have taken to get survivors home. Then let me 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 their 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 around the precise facts but we believe that, in total, some 800 employees were working at the In Amenas site at the time of the attack, about 135 of whom were foreign nationals. More than 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 that 37 foreign hostages were killed. The number of terrorists was more than 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 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, to be 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 government, and beyond, have been working around the clock to support British citizens and their families. 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 more than 30 terrorists bent on killing innocent people in a large and 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 too. 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 this has reduced to less than half. 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 it shaped the decisions that we made. While of course there were difficult decisions to make, we increased our investment in our Special Forces, cybersecurity 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 by wider criminality. To date, the threat it poses has been to those north African states themselves and, of course, to western interests in those states. But as it escalates, it is also 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, this 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 great cost. So we will work closely with the Algerian Government to learn the lessons of this attack, and to deepen our security co-operation. We will contribute British intelligence and counterterrorism 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 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 the failure to address long-standing political grievances, so we need a political approach that addresses these issues. We must support effective and accountable government, we must back people in their search for a job and a voice, and we must 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-are a big part of the solution but all take a long time to put in place. Yet 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, and 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 they use to garner support. We must demonstrate the same resolve and purpose that previous generations have shown when dealing with these issues in this House and in the country. I commend this Statement to the House".
My Lords, that concludes the Statement.
I start by joining the noble Lord and 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 must 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 this, and we endorse the thanks expressed by the Prime Minister to our embassy staff in Algeria. We will also give the Government our support as they consider how best to respond to the growing threat which 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-more decentralised, more fragmented, taking advantage of the ungoverned spaces and security vacuum in parts of north Africa-and at the same time, in its response, for the international community to apply the lessons of the past about the combination of diplomacy, politics and security required to help bring about stability in the region.
First on the attack itself, people will agree with the Prime Minister that the Algerian Government were faced with some extremely difficult judgments about how and when to act. Nevertheless, do the Government believe that there are any lessons to be learnt for Governments handling terrorist incidents on their soil? Secondly, in light of the attack, can the noble Lord the Leader say more about the work that the British Government are doing with British companies operating in the region, and can he tell us whether at this early stage any lessons can be learnt?
Turning to the broader context of what is happening in the region, on Mali we support the actions of the Government to date, and we welcome the confirmation by the Prime Minister that they do not envisage a combat role for British troops. Do the Government agree that the efforts of the French military must be supplemented by the much more rapid deployment of West African forces, and what is the Government's view about whether this can be achieved? After last year's coup, the Government of Mali face both a security and a legitimacy crisis. What further steps can be taken by the international community and Governments to use diplomacy and development to stabilise the situation? In particular, which international body should co-ordinate this 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 this threat will be painstaking-diplomatic and political as much as military; collaborative and multilateral, not unilateral. There is no quick fix.
Do the Government agree that we are talking about a number of distinct regional organisations-some using the banner of al-Qaeda, others not-rather than a single, centrally controlled group? Each of these threats needs to be monitored and countered appropriately. Can the noble Lord the Leader outline what steps might be taken to improve the flow of information and intelligence from the region, and whether it needs to be better shared with key allies? We know that these threats grow where governance is weak, as the noble Lord himself suggested. What longer-term roles do the Government anticipate for the African Union and ECOWAS-the Economic Community of West African States-in securing greater stability in the region, and how can the European Union support this effort? In relation to ready access to arms, can the Leader of the House set out how the international community can better prevent the spread of this weaponry throughout the region, including weapons left over from the Libyan conflict?
Finally, do the Government agree 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 also 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 them. Indeed, I was at a conference in Cairo at the weekend, supporting colleagues from the newly formed Arab Social Democratic Forum, all of whom are committed to meeting the concerns of their citizens and achieving social justice through democratic means and respecting human rights, human dignity and the rule of law.
However, 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 will do everything we can to protect British citizens working and living across the world.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness the Leader of the Opposition for the support she has given to the Government. I agree very much with her comments and the tone with which she concluded her response. I think all sides of the House would want to align themselves with what she said and the Statement my right honourable friend the Prime Minister made. She was also right, at the beginning of her comments, to emphasise the importance of understanding the nature of this new threat. That is something we very much need to do.
On some of her specific points, it is clear that the Algerian Government found themselves having to deal with an extremely difficult and complicated situation many thousands of miles away from the capital in a very remote part of the world. All of us need to recognise the difficulty they confronted. She asked whether there are lessons we can learn from that. I am sure there are-we always need to learn from events and it is vital that the British Government continue to work closely with the Algerian Government.
With regard to the work of the British Government in the region, all major British companies have now been contacted and have put in place improved security procedures and the consular information has been updated.
The noble Baroness rightly said that we have made clear that there is not a combat role for British troops in Mali but I think we should support the French in taking emergency action. We have, as she knows, already leant them two C-17s and are due to discuss our help to them at the National Security Council tomorrow. In terms of progress on the ground and the involvement of other countries in supporting the effort in Mali, there are some African soldiers on the ground. We hope that more will follow soon. This will be co-ordinated by ECOWAS and the United Nations, but she is absolutely right to say that there is no quick fix for any of this. She said rightly that we believe that this is the work of a number of distinct organisations under the al-Qaeda banner. They are distinct but there are connections between them and we will need to deal with them individually but recognise those commonalities.
In terms of improving the flow of intelligence to the area, the noble Baroness will know that recently, before Christmas, the Prime Minister appointed his own envoy to the Sahel. Discussions at the NSC about the Sahel are continuing. We will need to work with our allies, particularly the French, in making sure that we share all the intelligence that we can.
On the role of the African Union and ECOWAS, we certainly need to help build capacity for the future to deal with those issues. We have stepped up our help to Libya to try to remove weapons for the region. The noble Baroness rightly raised the issue of security on the borders. One of the priorities of all our work in Libya is to try to address that important issue, and working with other countries and the Libyans to make the region more secure. I agree entirely with the noble Baroness's concluding remarks on the importance of having a great focus on the region. I agree with her remarks about the Arab spring, and the long-term benefit to which that will give rise. There are obviously difficulties through which we need to work, but we need that focus. It is also worth remembering that, in the past, brutal regimes have not made our world any safer.
I am grateful for the noble Baroness's remarks. We will continue to work on this.
My Lords, we support the Prime Minister in the calm and measured response that the Government have given to this crisis. Of course, we join with the Minister, the Prime Minister and the whole House in expressing our sympathy for all those affected, particularly our British families who have lost, or who are still awaiting news of, their loved ones.
We face a serious situation developing in Algeria and throughout the Sahel. The emergence of Islamist groups such as AQIM has been long foreseen. The advent of the Arab spring has unfortunately created an environment, through porous borders and the like, in which extremism can now more readily flourish across the region. What specific measures are the Government taking to ensure that the African nations engaged through the AU, ECOWAS and the UN have full access to effective EU training and support for counterterrorism actions? What measures are the Government taking to develop an international security protocol to protect the personnel and the assets of the companies working in difficult conditions in these remote regions?
Finally, what specific initiatives, and with whom, are the Government taking in the Sahel to enable the underlying economic exclusion-unemployment and poverty- fuelling the unrest to be tackled? I appreciate that at this stage it may be difficult for the Leader to comment in detail, but can he give us some indication of when we might get that sort of specificity?
My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Chidgey for his support. I will need to follow up some of his specific questions over time. Currently, the broad approach is becoming clear: the need to emphasise the importance of the Sahel and for us to up our efforts in working with a range of interested parties, whether through the EU or with other individual states; to address both the security issue but also the kind of economic issue to which my noble friend refers; and recognising that political and military solutions need to go hand in hand. We must address some of the underlying issues to do with poverty, which act as fuel for people who recruit and feed on those grievances.
Does the Minister accept the endorsement of what the Prime Minister said: it really is shameful that, at a moment like this, after these horrific events, so many attempts are made to look for people who are responsible other than the terrorists themselves? The events that took place were not provoked by the invasion of Mali. They were not provoked by any behaviour that could possibly be regarded as justifying it; it is right to say that.
Will the Minister also address the need to mount a really successful international operation to restore the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Mali and, hopefully, a properly functioning governance system there? This will not be easy or short. Is any thought being given to a recommendation made by two UN panels that, where the UN asks a sub-regional organisation, such as ECOWAS, to undertake a very tough business like this and where keeping the regional powers in the fore must surely be the right thing to do, the costs should be met under the UN assessed contributions and not simply through having to rely on carrying a hat around, invariably, to the European Union? Why should countries such as Japan, Russia or China not contribute?
That proposal has been made on a number of occasions. I do not think that it has ever yet born fruit. Surely, an operation such as this demonstrates the need to provide ECOWAS, which no any financial resources of its own, with a proper underpinning for the task we are asking it to undertake.
My Lords, first, I very much associate myself with the first comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, about who was responsible for this attack and with his point about those attempting to say that it is the sensible and appropriate action being taken as regards Mali that has driven this. He is clearly right that there is not that linkage. As far as we can tell, the attack, which was extremely well planned, must have been some time in the making. The idea that it was triggered by recent events in Mali does not seem to make sense.
On his broader point about Mali and how we can take it forward, I listened with great care to what he said. I know that discussions are going on at the UN on precisely those issues. I will follow those points up subsequently.
Does my noble friend accept that the emphasis in the Statement on the resolve of the Algerian authorities and Algerian forces in dealing with this horrific situation is extremely welcome? Is he aware of a point that was not made in the Statement but perhaps should have been; namely, that in recent years and months, Algeria has been seeking to move much more closely to the United Kingdom through trade links, business links, links in relation to prison reform and human rights, and through a whole range of other areas, as well as an interest in associating itself in some way with the Commonwealth? In short, Algeria regards Britain as a strong and growing friend. Therefore, it is fully entitled to expect from us not criticism but support and encouragement in dealing with this very difficult situation.
I am grateful for the comments made by my noble friend, to whom I always listen with a great deal of care. His views on these matters are highly respected in this House. It is obviously the case that Algeria over a long time has been dealing with these terrible issues, going back over many years. It is a sovereign country. We should respect the difficult decisions that it had to take. It is also the case that in addressing this horrible situation, Algerians lost their lives and Algeria's armed forces risked their lives to help free nationals from around the globe. I agree with my noble friend about the importance of us making sure that our relations with Algeria build on the improvements made and become closer, and that people do not rush to condemn it.
My Lords, I am sure we all agree with the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, that the responsibility for this hideous incident lies entirely with the terrorists concerned. I hope that the Leader of the House also agrees that there is a real problem about regional security in that part of north Africa. I want particularly to raise with him the unresolved issue over the western Sahara. In recent years, Morocco has told us over and over again that because of the disputed territory there, the western Sahara is peculiarly vulnerable to al-Qaeda activity, to training camps for terrorists and to other activity of a really appalling nature. Are the United Kingdom Government now prepared to raise this issue again forcefully in the United Nations in order to try to get some proper security into the western Sahara so that that territory cannot be used as a launching pad for this sort of activity in the region in future?
My Lords, I should perhaps declare an interest as a former non-executive director of BP. I would also like to echo the condolences that have been expressed to the families of all the victims. Does the noble Lord accept that one essential element in confronting Islamic extremism, not only in north Africa but elsewhere, is the unresolved problem of the Middle East peace process? I suggest that we and our partners should make a positive and active attempt to revive the moribund peace process and to work towards-at last-a just and permanent peace settlement for the Palestinians.
My Lords, on the noble Lord's condolences and the role of BP, it has clearly been a very distressing time for BP and all its employees. I think that all noble Lords will endorse the points that were made. On his broader point, yes, that whole issue is one that the Government are very aware of and continue to pursue to try to resolve at every possible opportunity.
The speed with which the Prime Minister moved in calling COBRA meetings and the Government as a whole moved in bringing back our colleagues who survived is greatly to be welcomed. The Prime Minister mentioned in his Statement that priority will now be given to bringing back the remains of those who have died. To that end, I wonder whether it might not be in the interests of all parties if a senior coroner, or a recently retired coroner, was hastily made one of that team to ensure that, if at all possible, this can be done even more quickly than has ever been achieved before.
I am grateful to my noble friend for his comments both about the way in which my right honourable friend the Prime Minister has handled this crisis and also his points about the importance of resolving the problem of repatriating these bodies-which is a deeply distressing thing for all the families concerned-as soon as possible. I know that officials in our embassy and from the police are working closely with the Algerian authorities in the kind of way he describes to resolve it as rapidly as possible.
Perhaps I may ask a couple of related questions about African ownership of the solutions. First, for some years I was the secretary of the All-Party Group on Algeria, after Prime Minister Blair and President Bouteflika were starting a new rapprochement. One of the problems, of course, is that they do not have Westminster-style democracy in Algeria. On the other hand, does the noble Lord the Leader of the House agree that we have to have practical, in-depth parliamentary arrangements with Algeria, as we do with Ethiopia or anywhere else where we may not have perfect arrangements? Secondly, is there not scope for giving more congratulations to the African Union on the string of successes it has had right across the tenth parallel from Somalia through to Chad, South Sudan and right the way across? I base this on a talk that I had in Addis two months ago with the executive director for security of the African Union. I think it is fair to say that they are remarkably able people but very badly resourced. We ought to be a little less schizophrenic about letting the African Union take the lead instead of damning it with faint praise for not being as effective as it should be.
My Lords, is the Minister aware that two of the fatalities were men from Liverpool? Paul Morgan, the head of security, originated from Aigburth, and was killed while trying to repel the attackers. Garry Barlow, from Allerton, reportedly had Semtex strapped to his chest. Their deaths left their loved ones and the local community utterly devastated. Will the Minister ensure that every practical help is given to these and the other grieving families as they try to come to terms with their loss? As this jihadist contagion threatens other countries, especially Nigeria, will he look again at the proscribing of Boko Haram, which has been responsible for hundreds of deaths, and the need to find political and economic solutions to deter the easy recruitment of the disaffected, as well as the wisdom of supporting militias in places such as Syria, which have links with Al-Qaeda, or share jihadist indifference to the slaughter of innocent people?
First, I agree very much with the noble Lord how important it is that these poor families have every support that we can give them. I know that through the police and in other ways through our embassy we have been providing as much of that support as we possibly can.
On his broader point about Nigeria, we strongly condemn the violence that there has been in northern Nigeria. We are working with the Nigerian authorities to try to find lasting solutions to that conflict and, through our High Commission in Abuja, we are supporting counterterrorism work and interfaith projects. In November, the terrorist organisation, Ansaru, was proscribed by Her Majesty's Government, which I hope sent a clear message that we condemn its terrorist activities.
First, I associate these Benches with the sympathy with the relatives of those who have died and who have experienced the nightmare of either knowing that their relatives have died or not knowing what has happened to them. We meet in mourning this afternoon. We also associate ourselves with the thanks to the diplomatic staff, who have done such an excellent job in repatriating those who have died and making sure that the hostages who have been freed have returned home.
I welcome the phrase from the Statement where the Prime Minister speaks of these events as a,
"distortion of the Islamic faith".
Will the Leader of the House express his support for the vast majority of Muslims, in this country and across the world, who express their own bitter opposition to violence? This is sometimes associated, on the part of terrorist organisations, with allegations of western and Christian aggression. Will he also affirm his support for all that interfaith activity in the cause of peace, which is going to be so crucial to the development of a cultural situation across the world where peace is seen as a crucial part of the future of our world?
I am grateful to the right reverend Prelate for the support that he expressed from the Bishops' Benches for the work of our embassy staff and others who have been dealing with this awful situation. I am very happy to associate myself as strongly as I can with both the statements that he made-that these terrorists and extremist Islamist organisations represent a distortion of the faith, and his view that interfaith work has an important part to play in trying to build understanding and putting these aberrations into their proper context.
My Lords, I endorse strongly the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, about the United Nations, but can I also ask the Leader of the House about what role the Government see for the European Union's External Action Service in this important region? In addition, in relation to the drug trade, while the weapons that are being used may well be coming from Libya and elsewhere, it is absolutely clear that at least part of the finance is coming from the drug trade that comes up through Guinea-Bissau and other failed states from South America, through the Sahel and the Mediterranean and into Europe. Can we have an assurance from the Government that they see this wider picture as including dealing with that key element, which is part of the source of the problem?
The noble Lord very accurately reflects the interconnections that exist between criminality, terrorism and all the different factors which come together. As he said, we know how criminal activity is used to fund terrorist activity in a horrible nexus in a number of places. He is right to emphasise that we need to find ways of tackling both strands in the solutions that we develop: both security and military, and political. As far as the EU is concerned, it is one of a number of different bodies with which we need to work to find solutions. The support which it is providing for training in Mali is one example, and there are others too. I agree with the noble Lord that we need to do everything that we can to build on that.
The noble Lord the Leader of the House referred to French intervention in Mali. It is of course accepted that that is not only lawful, but laudable, and historically utterly understandable. Does he agree, however, that in such terrifying circumstances as these, the maximum premium should be placed upon collective responsibility and concerted action? Is he able to say whether the Government of France came to any consideration or discussion on this matter with any country other than Mali, including of course the neighbouring African countries, before sending troops into Mali?
I am afraid that I am not able to add a great amount in response to the noble Lord's question. I know that it is the case, as he has said, that the Malian Government invited the French to undertake that intervention. It was urgent in the circumstances on the ground. If I can find better particulars I will of course pass them on to the noble Lord with great pleasure.