Editorial: David Cameron's mixed signals on terrorism

The official view is that the UK does not negotiate or pay ransom to kidnappers

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It must be granted that the situation in and around the huge In Amenas gas plant in southern Algeria was confused, and remained so last night even as we went to press. As David Cameron spelt out in his Commons statement today, the complex is far out in the desert, 18 hours by road from Algiers, and it had been overrun in what appears to have been a large-scale and carefully planned operation by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, an Algerian who may have ties to al-Qa'ida. Communications appear, at best, to have been intermittent.

Even allowing for all this, however, and for the difficulty that the leader of any country faces when there are fears for the safety of its nationals abroad, it is not only from Algeria that the signals have been less than distinct in recent days. Those emitted from London, at least in so far as they have reached the public domain, have not been exactly crystal-clear either.

True, Mr Cameron sought to quell some of the more fevered speculation when he stressed today that the blame for what had happened rested firmly with the terrorists and no one else. That sounded like an attempt to dispel the impression that the UK Government held the Algerian authorities responsible for any hostage deaths, amid a chorus of British headlines condemning a "botched" operation. The Prime Minister was patently unhappy that Algeria had not informed him before its forces embarked on their assault, but understood that this was neither the time nor the place to pin blame.

Elsewhere, however, his statement left some disturbing questions about the Government's precise attitude to terrorism and hostage-taking. The official view, shared by successive governments, has long been that the UK does not negotiate and does not give in to terrorists. Nor does it pay ransoms, on the grounds that this only encourages further kidnapping.

Yet this message of no compromise was not the one that seemed to hover around the UK position as articulated by Mr Cameron. Instead, he cited a British offer of technical and intelligence support, including hostage negotiation and rescue teams, which – he said with transparent regret – had been declined. Sensible restraint in response to a hostage crisis is one thing, but what role might British negotiators have played? Is there one rule in principle for how Britain behaves on its own territory, or when the hostages can be counted on the fingers of one hand, and another in practice when there may be dozens of British nationals in danger and there are doubts about the ability of a sovereign foreign government to rescue them? There was a hint of arrogance in Mr Cameron's offer that could well have smacked, to those on the receiving end, of colonial-style condescension.

And forgivable though it might be for a prime minister to give the impression to his domestic audience that he has the power to do something and has everything under control, it is not only Britons who were caught up in the drama in the desert. The captives also included Americans, Japanese and Belgians. Did all of their governments offer help, and what might have resulted if any or all had moved to intervene unilaterally?

There may be some very preliminary lessons here. One is that UK governments still have to learn to be less insular and must appreciate the effect of their words on others. Another is that ministers must guard against saying one thing and doing another in responding to terrorism. And lastly, given that the spread of multinationals makes it likely that the citizens of several countries will be caught up in similar incidents in future, some standard mechanism is needed to ensure that their governments do not act precipitately and at cross purposes.

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