THE siege in Algeria is a prime minister’s worst nightmare, the immediate fear being that the kidnappers will demand concessions from him as the price for sparing British lives.
And if David Cameron looked tired as he gave an account of the attack in the House of Commons yesterday, it was because this brutal dilemma will be uppermost in his mind.
Publicly, the Prime Minister will not want to negotiate with terrorists, fearing that to do so will encourage more kidnappings of more Britons. But to say “no”, publicly, to terrorist demands, and see British hostages executed, is the kind of decision that can crush a politician.
Behind the immediate fear, Mr Cameron will worry that Islamists will be emboldened by this audacious attack into making more strikes against North Africa’s oil installations.
British companies and British engineers are spread out across both Algeria and neighbouring Libya, in dozens of lonely installations. Securing them all, against the kind of mass attack seen at In Amenas, may be a practical impossibility.
One crumb of comfort for him is that for all their fire and fury, extremists have yet to gain popular traction in the region.
The 2011 Arab Spring revolutions in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia ushered in democracy, not radical Islamism. The Islamists who won elections in Cairo and Tunis are worlds away from the militants in the southern deserts, and the parliaments they preside over, for all their noise and chaos, are a sign at least of populations grappling with democratic politics.
In Libya’s Benghazi last September, the popular response to the attack by a militant group that killed the US ambassador were the storming by unarmed protestors of militant bases.
Libya’s new government is now grappling with those militants, warning this week that it is considering a curfew in Benghazi to halt the almost daily killings and bombings after the weekend attack on the Italian consul.
Yet Mr Cameron’s biggest problem is that the West is divided over how to handle this insurgency, over the unresolved question of whether to meet it with hard or soft power.
Ten years of hard power in Afghanistan, with rising casualties and controversial drone strikes, has failed to crimp the power of the Taleban.
But soft power, the encouragement of democratic processes to take the steam out of militancy, has fared little better. The United States saw a program to train army officers in Mali backfire spectacularly last year when those same officers staged a coup to overthrow what was one of Africa’s model democracies. That coup emboldened the Islamist insurgents in the north, worsening the current crisis.