Melanie Phillips

Al-Qa’eda has relocated to Africa

The case of Umar Abdulmutallab shows us that Islamism is now a global phenomenon, says Melanie Phillips. But we must keep fighting it on every front

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There has been general shock at the attempted downing of Northwest Airlines flight 253 over Detroit. It isn’t just that yet another aeroplane terrorist atrocity was averted only by luck and courage after US and British intelligence were caught with their pants down once again. Nor is it just the lax airport security.

No, the real amazement has been that the perpetrator, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, is a Nigerian who apparently got his orders from al-Qa’eda in Yemen; that the genesis of the pants bomber’s radical journey lies not in Iraq or Afghanistan, nor in Israel/Palestine, but in Africa.

It was while at school in Toga that Abdulmutallab reportedly adopted the most belligerent version of Islam. As a fully fledged Islamic extremist, he was naturally received with open arms in Londonistan, where he was further radicalised to terrorism before being kitted out in Yemen with the latest accessories of mass murder.

He is first and foremost a religious fanatic — and the crucial context for his extremism is Africa. Radical Islamists in countries such as Abdulmutallab’s Nigeria, Somalia or the Sudan have been steadily butchering, ethnically cleansing or brutally converting Christians and other ‘infidels’, imposing sharia law at gunpoint and radicalising the continent to the cause of Islamic holy war.

British intelligence has already warned that British Muslims are being recruited into terror in Somalia. Now we learn of a steady stream of Britons being trained in terrorist camps in Yemen. A group called ‘Al-Qa’eda in the Arabian Peninsula’ has vowed ‘all out war on the crusaders’ and the ‘enemies of God’.

African countries such as Yemen have long had troubling jihadi connections. What has changed recently is that al-Qa’eda has transferred its centre of gravity there, along with Somalia and the Maghreb.

Al-Qa’eda is resilient and adaptable. It settled in Afghanistan because, having driven the Soviet Union from its borders, euphoric Islamic radicals then organised similarly to defeat America and the West. For a while, the war in Iraq drew al-Qa’eda there to fight America; it was driven out eventually when local people themselves turned against it.

Now Pakistan, having spent years turning a blind eye to al-Qa’eda’s activities on its border, has become sufficiently alarmed to inflict serious damage upon it through air strikes. So al-Qa’eda has now relocated from Afghanistan to Africa.

This is likely to supply a new line to the ‘we’re fighting the wrong war’ chorus by the appeasement crowd. During the war in Iraq, the refrain was this was the ‘wrong’ war, while the ‘right’ war was neglected in Afghanistan.

Now that the West is locked into a desperate war in Afghanistan, the Detroit plane bomb gives rise to a fresh canard: Africa shows that Islamic terrorism merely relocates, so every such war is the wrong war because we can’t fight this everywhere.

Al-Qa’eda says the Detroit plane bomb was retaliation for the recent US-backed air strikes against it in Yemen. So all we’re doing by going after al-Qa’eda is recruiting still more to the jihad. Right? Wrong. Abdulmutallab bought his plane ticket to kingdom come before the US-backed strikes. What people still don’t get is that Islamic terrorism is not a response to one political grievance or another. This is a civilisational war on many different fronts, and the consequences of abandoning any of them would be lethal.

So says Col Richard Kemp, former commander of British forces in Afghanistan, and former head of international terrorism for the Cabinet Office emergencies committee COBRA, and the Joint Intelligence Committee. If we lose in Afghanistan, he tells me, the danger of al-Qa’eda returning there in force, heightening the risk that it will conquer nuclear-armed Pakistan, is acute because the Taleban are its natural Islamist soulmates.

Even more devastatingly, a defeat there for the West would have a galvanic effect on the global jihad similar to the perception in the 1990s that the Islamists had defeated the Soviet empire.

As for Iraq, says Kemp, although the war there turned it for a while into a hub of al-Qa’eda, the alternative would have been far worse. ‘I am in no doubt,’ he says, ‘that if we had ignored Iraq it would now be an important centre for al-Qa’eda which Saddam would have been using against us.’

So it’s not a case of ‘either or’. We’re in a global war on many fronts, of which Africa is but the latest to achieve prominence. And in every case, we’re between a rock and a hard place.

Yes, the war in Afghanistan is awful — but the alternative is worse. Yes, military attempts to defend the free world may stoke up further hysteria among fanatics — but the alternative is to surrender to the violence they instigate. Yes, fighting them in Africa will further strain already stretched resources — but if we don’t, Africa will turn into a sub-Saharan Afghanistan. As Kemp says: ‘We have a choice. Either we accept that these people will continually be attacking us; or we put most of our energy and resources into fighting them.’

But the frightening fact is that Britain and the US are not unequivocally committing energy and resources to this war. On the contrary — despite the projected ‘surge’ in Afghanistan, Britain and the US have signalled they are getting out regardless of whether victory has been achieved.

In doing so, they are responding to public opinion which seems not to understand why we are in Afghanistan — nor indeed about the wider defence against the global jihad. But that’s because politicians on both sides of the Atlantic have never told the public the truth. They refuse to say that this is a global religious war waged by militant Islam, because they are terrified of enraging Muslims at home and abroad.

This gross failure of leadership has helped create the current mood of defeatism that threatens to bring about the eclipse of the West. Now Africa will doubtless become yet another front in this war for us to ignore, while being used to undermine still further the defence being undertaken on the others.

And that’s before we even think about Iran. Which we certainly will do our damnedest not to do, except to use it to rubbish the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the non-war in Africa — not forgetting the non-existent domestic terrorist threat posed by the fictional jihadis of the non-existent global religious war against the free world who are merely reacting to our aggression against them.

To identify our greatest enemy of all, therefore, we should not look to Afghanistan, Iran or Africa: we should look in a mirror.

Melanie Phillips is a Daily Mail columnist.