LONDON (Reuters) - Britain’s top soldier warned on Wednesday that pro-democracy uprisings in the Middle East could spawn militant Islamist activity in Britain, but said the greatest threat was economic.
In his end-of-year analysis of the dangers facing Britain, the chief of the defense staff, General David Richards, said the Arab Spring could stir unrest in Britain’s immigrant communities.
“(There is) the risk that the Arab awakening leads to fissures and internal conflict that could be exported, including militant Islamism,” Richards told a defense thinktank, the Royal United Services Institute, in London.
“They have diasporas reaching back to this country, as does Pakistan and other states struggling with instability.”
A year after protests that led to the Arab Spring began, moderate Islamist parties have taken control in Tunisia and Morocco and look set to follow suit in Egypt, though militant Islamists have so far failed to take advantage of the chaos.
However, Richards had no doubt where the chief threat lay.
“I am clear that the single biggest strategic risk facing the UK today is economic rather than military ... This is why the euro zone crisis is of such huge importance,” Richards said.
“No country can defend itself if bankrupt.”
A smaller defense budget as a consequence of that economic pain meant Britain needed to forge closer military ties, particularly with Gulf and African states, he said.
“Already, our collaboration with countries in the Gulf and Africa has delivered results in the region for surprisingly little cost. Perhaps we should be focusing our defense relationships on these regions rather than competing for influence with many others, for example China or India.”
Richards also said that NATO’s mission in Afghanistan, where Britain has around 9,500 troops, was on track despite Taliban resilience.
“Perception is lagging reality by some 18 months. While we are, like a chess player, planning three or four moves ahead, we cannot signal our plans openly,” Richards said.
“That leaves the media frequently, and understandably, to ... frequently draw the wrong conclusion.”
Reporting by Mohammed Abbas; Editing by Ben Harding