FEW reading the piecemeal accounts of events at the Algerian gas facility at In Amenas could not but be appalled at the savagery of the hijackers and the merciless cruelty inflicted on helpless staff trapped many miles from any hope of quick rescue.
Immediate concern has rightly focused on the plight of the families who have lost loved ones in this chilling assault. Four days on from the start of this clearly premeditated attack in which some 700 were taken hostage, little precise detail is known about the sequence of attack, the security protocols at the site or the origin and organisation of the Islamist insurgents who executed this savagery.
Indeed, it may be many months before we have a full picture of this tragic event and longer still before we have a detailed security assessment of the ongoing risks in this difficult and challenging region.
What we do know is not reassuring. It confirms the worst suspicions that Islamic extremism is by no means confined to Iraq, Iran, Libya and Afghanistan but has spread across northern Africa – to Mali, Algeria and almost certainly beyond. This requires of Western countries a rethink of their intelligence and security deployment against an enemy that has no regard for civilian life and which has served notice that any “foreign” installation is suitable for attack.
Who funds and arms these al-Qaeda splinter groups; their lines of communication and supply; the support given by local tribal elements and above all who comprises the headquarters command and provides the intelligence will now become pressing questions. It may be thought such groups cannot pose a significant threat if they are confined to the uninhabited wastes of the North African desert. But their ability to mount devastating attacks from there, to function as an outlaw state, and to be effective master of key communications routes render them a present and direct threat across an entire region.
Dealing with this threat will require intelligence, close co-operation, fast communication and above all, great care. America has neither the military nor intelligence capacity to be a key resource in this area – indeed, many argue that it now lacks the will. This throws former powers in the region such as France and the UK into the forefront. This need not mean a direct military presence in the region. But it certainly calls for a sustained, co- ordinated and incisive intelligence effort – an activity where Britain has historically shown considerable aptitude and skill. But to be effective it also requires a well-considered political and diplomatic approach.
In the meantime, a stepping-up of security surrounding Western oil and gas installations in the near and Middle East should now be a priority. Much of the responsibility of necessity falls on the companies involved. But as energy development and supply is of strategic, geopolitical importance, governments must be involved.
‘Blue Monday’ opens way to better days
CHEER up, there’s something special to celebrate. Today is Blue Monday – the third Monday in January deemed to be the most miserable day of the year. It certainly ticks all the black boxes. The weather is vile, the days dark and dreary, the economic news dire, Christmas is long gone but its bills have come home to roost, and all those self-improvement resolutions lie abandoned. Little wonder getting out of bed on Misery Monday is such an effort.
But there is this consolation: once endured, we can draw comfort that this darkest of days is behind us. The days are getting longer and lighter – heck, it’s the countdown to the clocks changing; tiny buds can be seen in the roadside bushes, we have not – or not yet – had to endure the catastrophic weather conditions of two years ago. And even on the economic front there is a glimmer of hope. The latest Bank of Scotland report on jobs out today shows a marked rise in staff placements during December. Its Labour Market Barometer rose last month to its highest reading since May 2011. The measure, says the bank, is consistent with a strong improvement in Scotland’s job market as we entered 2013.
Meanwhile, Celtic Connections is helping to lift the gloom and getting feet tapping in Glasgow. Across the country we are preparing for hearty celebrations of Robert Burns. And next week another annual winter festival unfolds with the start of rugby’s Six Nations Championship. What an uplifting event to banish the winter darkness – England v Scotland for the Calcutta Cup at Twickenham. Could there be better reason for leaping out of bed – or crawling back under the duvet 80 minutes later?