Not too long ago, Phil argued that “Attention must be paid” to events unfolding in Northern Africa regarding terrorist risk:
Those on the US East and Gulf Coasts have learned to pay attention to weather patterns over the Sahara to provide early warning of hurricanes heading our way. Given what else is happening across West Africa — from Nigeria to Mali to Algeria to Libya and more — low pressure pulses are not the only threats to which we might usefully attend.
While I do not disagree with his entire argument, I would just like to suggest that attention is not sufficient. Instead, context is required to increase the chances of avoiding potentially negative policy choices.
In that regard, I would suggest reading Fareed Zakaria’s most recent Time magazine article. He frames the relevant questions:
There’s little doubt that the Algerian terrorists are brutal, nasty people, but many questions about them remain. Are they a branch of al-Qaeda? Do they have global jihadist aims? Do they seek to destroy our way of life? It’s vitally important that we understand these groups so that our response to them is tailored to the facts.
These groups are largely composed of local thugs with long-standing grievances that often have little to do with global jihad. Also, terrorism is good business for them. Their causes have lost support at home, so they have latched on to the al-Qaeda brand in the hope of enhancing their appeal–and, perhaps crucially, gaining greater global attention. (Keep in mind Osama bin Laden’s words in 2004: “All that we have to do is to send two mujahedin to the furthest point east to raise a piece of cloth on which is written al-qaeda in order to make the generals race there to cause America to suffer human, economic and political losses.”) To elevate these thugs and smugglers to grand ideological foes is to play into their hands.
His entire (short) piece is worth a read for some background on this issue. He may be entirely wrong in his analysis, but the risk of getting into another ill-advised foreign intervention is high enough to consider his arguments.