NEWS that an Irishman has been kidnapped by Islamic militants in Algeria brings home just how much Ireland and its citizens are actually exposed to the ongoing 'war on terror', especially now that it has taken on a new and very European dimension with this week's French military intervention in the African country of Mali. The aim is to prevent that country's takeover by Islamic radicals.
The robust intervention, backed by a UN resolution, involves air strikes and ground troops and has been fully supported by our EU partners, Belgium, Britain, Denmark and Germany. As for the EU itself, its foreign-policy head Catherine Ashton has offered full EU 'military' assistance.
The kidnapping of the 36-year-old Irishman, from Northern Ireland, is unfortunately a direct consequence of the French – and European – action in Mali. Algeria is a neighbour of Mali and has allowed the French to use its territory for its operation. Hence, Islamic militants there have taken revenge. Although relatively peaceful now, Algeria, once ravaged by civil war, is still plagued by Islamic militants, including kidnappers, and the Irishman is one of a number of 'new' Westerners taken hostage.
This is the nub of the matter. The whole of south Saharan Africa, from Mali in the west to Somalia in the east, is now plagued by Islamic militants and the patience of the French and Europeans – and the legitimate African governments whom they have been trying to support – has run out.
As the French defence minister put it: "A situation has been created which threatens not just France but Europe."
The militants in Mali, who are now in control of half the country – a territory bigger than Afghanistan – are not just an ordinary Islamic group like Hamas or Hezbollah. They are a version of al-Qa'ida. Their objective is to take over a country and then export terror – in this case to Europe.
The French want to prevent Mali becoming an African version of Afghanistan, destabilising the entire region and sending terror to Europe. It is surely better that it is the French who are taking this stand – and by extension, the EU – than the Americans who have been far too provocative about their 'war on terror' and are a damaged brand. France refused to support the US invasion of Iraq, so the French are no military hot-heads.
Indeed, socialist prime minister Francois Hollande had promised that he would put a stop to French military interventions overseas. France has a relatively benign relationship with its former African colonies and such operations, temporary and small-scale, are not unusual to help democratic African governments under attack.
However, even Mr Hollande could not stand by and watch Islamic militants over-run a helpless African country and spread chaos to the whole region.
Either way, the French action, which is growing in size, is a new and very different 'European' development in the global 'war on terror', with implications for us too, given that the French are close to us and have been threatened with revenge attacks by al-Qa'ida.
The hope is that the operation will ultimately result in more stability in the region, not less, and make it safer for European, and Irish, citizens.