Don't go to war over a band of zealots

Alarming as the hostage crisis in Algeria is, memories of Iraq teach us that this is no reason to make an already volatile area more unstable

So here we are again, being sucked into another war on the same old combination of flimsy intelligence, knee-jerk politics, high-octane rhetoric and virtually no serious parliamentary debate whatsoever. From the people who brought you Iraq and Afghanistan comes a new rollercoaster blockbuster – War Across the Sahara.

There will be those who will feel that the bloodbath in the Algerian desert is justification enough for Britain to be backing the French military intervention in Mali. This is, we have been told, al-Qa'ida Mark III. First was Osama bin Laden's original, then the Mark II version in the Afghan/Pakistan borderlands, and now this one is apparently "the most deadly al-Qa'ida yet". It is the new front line in the war between the West and radical Islam. Didn't the Algerian gas-plant kidnappers announce that their raid was retaliation for the French military adventure in neighbouring Mali?

I take all this with as much salt as a caravan of Tuareg camel-traders carried in ancient days across the desert to the markets of the fabled city of Timbuktu. To say that is not to minimise the terrifying obscurantism of the Muslim extremists who have controlled that forbidden city for the past nine months, imposing a savage interpretation of Sharia law which segregated the sexes and banned music, smoking, drinking and watching sports on TV. They have also destroyed ancient Sufi mausoleums dating back 500 years – a monument not just to dead Muslim saints but evidence that Islam can be a mystical and tolerant faith.

But it is important not to over-project strategic significance into that wild zealotry. Consider the following. Though the terrorists who staged the raid on the Algerian gas plant claimed they were hitting back against French military action in Mali it is almost certain that such a complex hostage-taking operation was planned months ago. The group responsible, though it calls itself al-Qa'ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has, since 2008, been a largely criminal organisation. It has earned millions by kidnapping foreigners for ransom and smuggling Moroccan hashish, cocaine and cigarettes – so much so that its one-eyed leader, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the man the SAS have reportedly been told to hunt down, is locally known as Mr Marlboro. Making money has been far more important to him than purist Islamic ideology. In all those years, last week's attack on the In Amenas gas plant is the very first it has launched on the energy infrastructure on which the government depends for its revenue.

All that suggests something a lot more low grade than an organisation intent on using Mali "as a base to carry out attacks in France and Europe" – a stomach-knotting declaration on a par with Tony Blair's warnings about Iraqi missiles being deployable against British bases in just 45 minutes. President François Hollande's assertion that France would stay in its ex-colony until it is "safe, has legitimate authorities, an electoral process and there are no more terrorists threatening its territory" has, similarly unnerving echoes of the language used by George Bush when he promised to build stable prosperous democracies in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The United States is the dog which has not barked in all this. Were the Islamicists of Mali really an internationally strategic danger, it is reasonable to assume the White House would be straining at the leash to do something. Instead, the American assistant secretary of state, Johnnie Carson, has told Congress that AQIM "has not demonstrated the capability to threaten US interests outside of West or North Africa, and it has not threatened to attack the US homeland". Senior figures in the US administration have serious doubts about the wisdom of the French move.

You can see why. The French intervention in Mali might, indeed, spawn retaliatory action which could exacerbate regional conflict and bring reprisals in Paris – much as Britain's involvement in the invasion of Iraq prompted the revenge bombings of 7/7 in London. Poking the hornet's nest of Islamist militancy will almost certainly sharpen jihadist ire.

President Hollande, who came to office wanting an end to the neo-colonial policy of Françafrique, may have miscalculated in moving so decisively to protect the 110 French businesses and 8,000 French citizens in Mali. Certainly it seems evident that David Cameron – no doubt anxious to soothe French irritation over his posturing over the EU – has been over-eager in providing the French with military transport assistance. His language in the Commons, where he told MPs we "face a large existential threat" from terrorists who "thrive in ungoverned spaces", sounded distinctly overwrought.

France has announced a three-stage strategy in Mali: to stop the rebel advance; to re-take the vast northern region; and to exit leaving behind a stable country. They may manage to do so quickly. British forces were in and out in just five months when Tony Blair sent them to stem a rebel advance on the capital of Sierra Leone in 2000. The French have till the end of March, when the rains will make roads impassable and combat virtually impossible.

Or Mali may become the new Afghanistan, with French troops bogged down in a quagmire in which the rebels melt into the difficult local terrain, hide among the local population, and foray out to make guerrilla strikes. That was the trap into which the jihadists announced, five months ago, they intended to draw the military interventionists they set out to provoke. They may even manage to mount the odd attack on the streets of Paris.

If that happens the French, and perhaps their allies, may wish they had done a bit more by way of intelligence, subterfuge and diplomacy before putting boots on the ground in a far-off desert land.