A meeting of the UK National Security Council will order a shift in resources and energy in its counter-terrorist strategy away from a sole focus on Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Middle East towards what David Cameron described as a "generational struggle" against al-Qaida-inspired militants in north Africa.
Speaking to parliament in the aftermath of the jihadist seizure of an Algerian gas field, which left 38 hostages dead, including six Britons and a Colombian-born British resident, the prime minister pledged to make international co-operation to fight terrorism a priority of his chairmanship of the G8 leading economies this year.
He suggested the national security strategy would continue to tilt towards investing in special forces, cyber-security, drones and intelligence capability, rather than conventional forces. He said the international community's response must be "tough, intelligent and patient", involving political efforts to tackle instability and resolve grievances in the region.
Four of the British victims have been named: a former member of the British speed skiing team, Carson Bilsland, 46, an oil worker originally from near Blairgowrie, Perthshire; Paul Morgan, 46, a security expert; Garry Barlow, 49, a systems supervisor from Liverpool; and planning manager Kenneth Whiteside, 59, from Glenrothes, Fife. Carlos Estrada, a Colombian BP executive who lived in London, is also believed to be among the dead.
Raising the changing nature of the terrorist threat, Cameron told MPs: "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."
He said al-Qaida franchises had grown in Yemen, Somalia and parts of north Africa. These states were now no longer threatened by terrorists, he argued, but in danger of becoming "a magnet for jihadists from other countries who share this poisonous ideology".
The Algerian government said 37 foreign hostages and one Algerian worker had been killed in the jihadist attack on the In Amenas gas complex on the eastern border with Libya and during the subsequent four-day siege by the country's special forces. It claimed the raid had been co-ordinated by a Canadian-Algerian jihadist and relied on extensive inside knowledge of the facility.
In the short term, Britain is only going to send a handful of people to the EU military training mission in Algeria's neighbour, Mali, but Cameron wants to see a new intensity of international co-operation to prevent states such as Mali descending into the chaos of Somalia.
The prime minister's aides denied that Cameron was experiencing some kind of epiphany that Tony Blair experienced in the wake of the 9/11 attacks in New York, but said he did see a growing long-term threat to western security
Cameron did not repeat any criticisms of the Algerian response to the crisis, saying it was best to "understand the challenges that Algeria faced in dealing with over 30 terrorists bent on killing innocent people in a large and extremely remote and dangerous industrial complex".
He said: "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."
Cameron told MPs that forensic experts from the UK, US and Norway were working with the Algerian authorities to formally identify a number of bodies found at the site, thought to include three further Britons, but he warned that the process may take some time.
The Algerian prime minister, Abdelmalek Sellal, said on Monday that the final decision by the country's special forces to storm the site on Saturday was triggered by an intercepted order to execute the remaining seven hostages and by the jihadists' plans to blow up the desert gas pumping plant which, Sellal said, could have spread debris across a 5km radius.
Sellal said 29 jihadists from the al-Qaida splinter group Signers in Blood had been killed and three had been captured alive.
He said the attack was orchestrated by a Canadian national known only as Chedad, who he said was now in Mauritania. Surviving hostages also talked of a militant at the scene with a north American accent calling on foreign contractors to come out of hiding.
John Baird, the Canadian foreign minister, said: "We can't confirm the accuracy of these reports. But our embassy in Algiers and our team in Ottawa are working to try to verify this information."
Sellal said the militant cell included men from Egypt, Mali, Niger, Mauritania and Tunisia, as well as three Algerians, and he claimed the plot had been hatched at least two months previously.
The attackers had driven hundreds of miles from Mali arriving across the Libyan border.
The jihadist operation "knew the facility's layout by heart" from a former driver from the plant from Niger, Sellal said.
Sellal said the Signers in Blood group – followers of a veteran Algerian jihadist called Mokhtar Belmokhtar – had planned to blow up the In Amenas gas field and take hostages back to Mali to use as bargaining chips.
"Their goal was to kidnap foreigners," he said. "They wanted to flee to Mali with the foreigners but, once they were surrounded, they started killing the first hostages."
He said a guard at the gate of the complex who was wounded in the initial attack had set off an alarm that stopped the flow of gas and warned workers of an imminent attack. "It was thanks to him that the factory was protected," Sellal said.
He said Algerian special forces had no choice but to intervene because the jihadists were going to flee the country with their captives and because they planned to kill the hostages and blow up the installation.
He said talks with the militant group had been "a real labyrinth" in which the hostage-takers made "unreasonable" demands. There was no choice for Algerian forces but to attack, he said.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010
image: © Trodel
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