Britain will offer to work alongside Algerian forces on counter-terrorism as part of a new joint security partnership announced by David Cameron as he arrived in Algiers, the first British prime minister to visit Algeria since independence.

The prime minister said his aim was to help the country “help itself” amid a growing threat from al-Qaida-linked terrorists in the region.

Cameron is offering a joint security compact including access to UK intelligence in the wake of the attack on an Algerian natural gas plant that left 37 foreigners dead including up to six Britons.

Britain is hoping that the first talks on closer security co-operation will start in the spring with a progress report in the summer to both prime ministers. The British side is to be led by Sir Kim Darroch, the prime minister’s national security adviser. British soldiers would work alongside Algerians on a limited number of operations, but the chief focus would be on shared intelligence, border security and countering extemist propaganda.

The British side did not confirm training of Algerian special forces by British special forces.

Cameron said the attack on the gas plant and the situation in Mali “reminds us of the importance of partnership between Britain and countries in the region”.

“We will be announcing a strengthened security partnership between our countries. I would stress the greatest threat of terrorism in this region is to the countries of this region.

“Of course there are potential threats to the UK but the focus is very much on helping these countries to protect their security and protect British people in this region. It is very much about helping the region to help themselves.”

The compact is also designed to give British advice on how to tackle the cross-border jihadists operating both in Algeria and neighbouring Mali. Cameron is highly exercised that a new terrorist generational struggle may be growing in north Africa liable to match the threat previously focused in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Cameron was also frustrated by the Algerians’ unwillingness to seek western help or advice during the siege of the gas plant, although he acknowledges the Algerian government, given the number and armoury of the jihadists, faced no good option.

In his talks Cameron was expected to raise the mixed communications between the two governments during the hostage crisis, including the fact that Cameron had to ring the Algerian prime minister, Abdelmalek Sellal, to confirm his security forces had launched an assault on the plant.

Sellal resisted foreign help during the hostage crisis partly to demonstrate its independence to its own people, but the attack, the worst in the oil and gas industry’s 150-year history, is prompting the oil industry to review its security and investments.  

The Algerians have been struck by Cameron’s eagerness to travel to the country in the wake of the attack, the first British prime minister to visit the country since independence. Cameron was anyway flying to Liberia this week for an aid confrence, but has shelved a visit to Ghana to see the Algerians.

But Cameron has to calibrate his joint security compact carefully. An insular country, Algeria is likely to be resistant to the idea of drones, European or American, flying over it, and will point to the unhappy experience in Pakistan which has seen US drones inflict multiple civilian deaths.

The oil and gas sectors account for 70% of the national budget, mainly in the southern Algerian desert, and the In Anemas plant accounts for 6-7% of Algeria’s reserves of gas. The energy sector was not targeted during the Algerian civil war which broke out in 1992. But the new terrorist groupings see even the heavily guarded plants as legitimate targets.

The plant was in a militarily secure zone, yet the heavily armed jihadists, as many as 40-strong, reached the plant without detection, and appear to have infiltrated the Algerian workforce, providing expert knowledge of the layout of the sprawling plant.

Overseas energy workers have long needed personal protection in Algeria to avoid opportunistic kidnappings, or to avert the occasional bus bombing, but the scale of this premeditated attack has led to fears for the security of the Algerian energy fields.

It is also likely to lead to a rise in oil workers’ danger money, and even requests from some of the energy firms for a change in the tax regime. Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the leader of the Mali-based Katibat al-Moulathamine (Masked Brigade), renewed threats against Algeria in January 2013, accusing it of allowing the French to use its airspace for military operations in Mali against Islamists there.

In north Africa, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb – originally an Algerian franchise of the global terror organisation – has successfully aligned itself with a local extremist group in Mali named Ansar Dine, or Defenders of the Faith, and together they have in effect taken control of the northern two-thirds of Mali.

Cameron was to make the personal offer to the Algerian prime minister in talks on Wednesday evening at the presidential palace.  The two men have not met before but spoke six times by phone during the attack on the gas plant.

Cameron was angered by the the fierceness of the Algerian government response to the terrorist attack, and the failure to notify him in advance of the security forces’ assault. But he is trying to focus on the future rather than indulge in recriminations. The compact is also designed to give the fiercely independent Algerian government advice on how to track jihadists crossing over the Algerian border with Mali.

Britain to work with Algeria on counter-terrorism, says David Cameron – The Guardian
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