“I would just say that the responsibility for these deaths lies squarely with the terrorists who launched a vicious and cowardly attack.”
That was the sentence of PM David Cameron, When news broke late last week that three British nationals were among dozens of hostages killed in a disastrous fire fight between Algerian soldiers and Islamist terrorists, David Cameron was unequivocal.
But within days reports surfaced that the fighters had arrived fresh from the Libyan border, with uniforms, bombs, rockets and guns all bought from the former stockpiles of the deposed Gaddafi regime.
US secretary of state Hillary Clinton confirmed the reports last week Wednesday, telling Congress there was “no doubt that the Algerian terrorists had weapons from Libya.”
And if that wasn’t enough, the plot’s mastermind Mokhtar Belmokhtar said as much himself in an interview with the Mauritanian news agency ANI in 2011.
“We have been one of the main beneficiaries of the revolutions in the Arab world,” he said, referring to the loose regional alliance Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb.
“As for our benefitting from the weapons, this is a natural thing in these kinds of circumstances.”
So while Belmokhtar’s men pulled the triggers, the guns they wielded against Paul Morgan, Kenneth Whiteside, Garry Barlow and dozens of other people were a consequence of Britain’s own foreign policy – its complicity not only in the “liberation” of those weapons in 2011’s civil war, but the sale of them to Moammar Gaddafi’s regime to begin with.
When Gaddafi met his end in October 2011- dragged from a sewer pipe and tortured to death by a rebel militia – Cameron urged the world to “remember the many, many Libyans who died at the hands of this brutal dictator and his regime.”
Cameron was not referring solely to the war itself – human rights watchdogs have recorded any number of human rights abuses under Gaddafi, from the sea patrol’s policy of live fire on illegal immigrants to the murder of more than a thousand prisoners in the 1996 Abu Salim massacre.
Yet just seven months prior to Cameron’s condemnation, his Department for Trade and Investment still considered Gaddafi’s military and state security forces a “priority market” for arms sales.
In fact as the war began – sparked by the regime’s violent repression of peaceful “Arab Spring” protests – the department had to hastily revoke “a number of extant licenses for riot-control equipment, ammunition and tear gas” according to the department’s own annual report.
The records for 2010 were even more damning – between October and December alone officials approved shipments of £610,216 worth of military hardware and £945,760 of “dual-use” goods, including assault rifles, machine guns, semi-automatics, sniper rifles, night sights, gun mountings, flashbang and smoke grenades, combat vehicles and combat aircraft parts among others. All of which would eventually be used in the war, and later flogged to anonymous buyers by whichever quartermasters happened to be holding them when the regime collapsed.
Shipments were even bigger in the previous quarter, totalling £4.6m worth of licences for military hardware alone – small arms training equipment and ammunition, armoured four-wheel drives, military utility vehicles and “ammunition for wall and door breaching projectile launchers” – ideal for, say, seizing control of an Algerian gas field.
This is not to say that Britain’s weapons industry is the sole supplier of death and destruction to the world (it’s merely the sixth biggest). The European Union as a whole has been happy to cash Gaddafi’s cheques. Take France, for instance, purveyor of licences for some £1.9m in ammunition and fuses alone to Gaddafi’s armies between 2005 and 2009. Two years later its air force was bombarding the same howitzers France had loaded – and now, two years after that, its jets are streaking off after Islamic fundamentalists and Tuareg separatists across the region wielding weapons from those same stockpiles.
The point is that while the grief and terror of In Amenas’ survivors is raw, the lesson remains clear – a second-hand gun in the Sahara is just as untraceable, uncontrollable and utterly deadly as the sands themselves.
No matter what our leaders say, the lives endangered and lost to the siege were not unforeseen consequences.
These weapons shipments were signed off by successive British governments in the knowledge that the owners would just as likely wield them against innocent people as an invading army. And that’s exactly what happened in Algeria this week – the only difference is that this time around, the blood on their hands is British too.