U.S. Training in Africa Aims to Deter Extremists
By ERIC SCHMITT,The New York Times, December 13, 2008
KATI, Mali — Thousands of miles from the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan, another side of America’s fight against terrorism is unfolding in this remote corner of West Africa. American Green Berets are training African armies to guard their borders and patrol vast desolate expanses against infiltration by Al Qaeda’s militants, so the United States does not have to.
A recent exercise by the United States military here was part of a wide-ranging plan, developed after the Sept. 11 attacks, to take counterterrorism training and assistance to places outside the Middle East, like the Philippines and Indonesia. In Africa, a five-year, $500 million partnership between the State and Defense Departments includes Algeria, Chad, Mauritania, Mali, Morocco, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal and Tunisia, and Libya is on the verge of joining.
American efforts to fight terrorism in the region also include nonmilitary programs, like instruction for teachers and job training for young Muslim men who could be singled out by militants’ recruiting campaigns.
One goal of the program is to act quickly in these countries before terrorism becomes as entrenched as it is in Somalia, an East African nation where there is a heightened militant threat. And unlike Somalia, Mali is willing and able to have dozens of American and European military trainers conduct exercises here, and its leaders are plainly worried about militants who have taken refuge in its vast Saharan north.
“Mali does not have the means to control its borders without the cooperation of the United States,” Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, a former prime minister, said in an interview.
Mali, a landlocked former French colony that is nearly twice the size of Texas with roughly half the population, has a relatively stable, though still fragile, democracy. But it borders Algeria, whose well-equipped military has chased Qaeda militants into northern Mali, where they have adopted a nomadic lifestyle, making them even more difficult to track.
With only 10,000 people in its military and other security forces, and just two working helicopters and a few airplanes, Mali acknowledges how daunting a task it is to try to drive out the militants.
The biggest potential threat comes from as many as 200 fighters from an offshoot of Al Qaeda called Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, which uses the northern Malian desert as a staging area and support base, American and Malian officials say.
About three months ago, the Qaeda affiliate threatened to attack American forces that operated north of Timbuktu (or Tombouctou) in Mali’s desert, three Defense Department officials said. One military official said the threat contributed to a decision to shift part of the recent training exercise out of that area.
The government of neighboring Mauritania said 12 of its soldiers were killed in an attack there by militants in September. By some accounts, the soldiers were beheaded and their bodies were booby-trapped with explosives.
Two Defense Department officials expressed fear that a main leader of the Qaeda affiliate in Mali, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, was under growing pressure to carry out a large-scale attack, possibly in Algeria or Mauritania, to establish his leadership credentials within the organization.
Members of the Qaeda affiliate have not attacked Malian forces, and American and Malian officials privately acknowledge that military officials here have adopted a live-and-let-live approach to the Qaeda threat, focusing instead on rebellious Tuareg tribesmen, who also live in the sparsely populated north.
To finance their operations, the militants exact tolls from smugglers whose routes traverse the Qaeda sanctuary, and collect ransoms in kidnappings. In late October, two Austrians were released after a ransom of more than $2 million was reportedly paid. They had been held in northern Mali after being seized in southern Tunisia in February.
Because of the militants’ activities, American officials eye the largely ungoverned spaces of Mali’s northern desert with concern.
This year, the United States Agency for International Development is spending about $9 million on counterterrorism measures here. Some of the money will expand an existing job training program for women to provide young Malian men in the north with the basic skills to set up businesses like tiny flour mills or cattle enterprises. Some aid will train teachers in Muslim parochial schools in an effort to prevent them from becoming incubators of anti-American vitriol.
The agency is also building 12 FM radio stations in the north to link far-flung villages to an early-warning network that sends bulletins on bandits and other threats. Financing from the Pentagon will produce, in four national languages, radio soap operas promoting peace and tolerance.
“Young men in the north are looking for jobs or something to do with their lives,” said Alexander D. Newton, the director of A.I.D.’s mission in Mali. “These are the same people who could be susceptible to other messages of economic security.”
Concern about Mali’s vulnerability also brought a dozen Army Green Berets from the 10th Special Forces Group in Germany, as well as several Dutch and German military instructors, to Mali for the two-week training exercise that ended last month.
Just before noon on a recent sunny, breezy day, Malian troops swept onto a training range here on the savannah north of Bamako, the capital, aboard two CV-22 Ospreys, rotor-blade transport aircraft flown by Air Force Special Operations crews from Hurlburt Field, Fla.
As the dull-gray aircraft landed in a swirling cloud of dust, rotors whomp-whomping, the Malians disembarked single file from the rear ramp in dark-green camouflage uniforms and helmets, M-4 assault rifles at the ready. (The Malians normally use AK-47s, but used American-issue M-4’s for this exercise.)
After a mile-long march through savannah grass, the troops walked down a hill into a small valley. Their target — the mock hide-out of the insurgents — was in sight. But what the Malians did not know was that their American instructors were lying in wait, and suddenly attacked the troops with a sharp staccato of small-arms fire (plastic paint bullets), with red flares soaring high overhead.
The make-believe skirmish lasted just a few minutes. The Malians, shouting to one another and firing at their attackers, retreated from the ambush rather than try to fight through it.
“We’re still learning,” said Capt. Yossouf Traore, a 28-year-old commander, speaking in English that he learned in Texas and at Fort Benning, Ga., as a visiting officer. “We’re getting a lot of experience in leadership skills and making decisions on the spot.”
Even more significant, Captain Traore said, was that the exercise gave his troops an unusual opportunity to train with soldiers from neighboring Senegal. Soon after the Ospreys returned to whisk the Malian soldiers from the training range, two planeloads of Senegalese troops arrived to carry out the same maneuvers.
Still, worrisome indicators are giving some Malian government and religious leaders, as well as American officials, pause about the country’s ability to deal with security risks.
Mali is the world’s fifth-poorest country and, according to some statistics from the United Nations and the State Department, is getting poorer. One in five Malian children dies before age 5. The average Malian does not live to celebrate a 50th birthday. The country’s population, now at 12 million, is doubling nearly every 20 years. Literacy rates hover around 30 percent and are much lower in rural areas.
There are also small signs that radical clerics are beginning to make inroads into the tolerant form of Islam practiced here for centuries by Sunni Muslims. The number of Malian women wearing all-enveloping burqas is still small, but the increase in the past few years is noticeable, religious leaders say.
New mosques are springing up, financed by conservative religious organizations in Saudi Arabia, Libya and Iran, and scholarships offered to young Malian men to study in those countries are on the rise, Malian officials say.
In Imam Mahamadou Diallo’s neighborhood in Bamako, a congested, fume-choked city on the Niger River, a simmering debate is under way. Imam Diallo, 48, said that two new mosques had been built in his area with financing from Wahhabi extremist groups in Saudi Arabia, and that they were drawing away some members of his mosque.
“Many people here are poor and don’t have work,” Imam Diallo said through an interpreter in Bambara, one of the local languages. “They’re potentially vulnerable to these Wahhabi people coming in with money.”
Just down a bumpy, reddish dirt road, however, the leader of one of these newer mosques, Al Nour, quarreled with Imam Diallo’s characterization. Ali Abdourohmome Cisse, the imam since Al Nour opened in 2002, said he did not know who had financed its construction. He added that no one on his staff, including an Egyptian assistant who helps conduct Friday Prayer in Arabic, advocated any form of extremism.
At El Mouhamadiya, an Islamic school in the neighborhood, more than 700 students, ages 4 to 25, take classes including math, physics and Arabic. “But we don’t train them in terrorism,” said Broulaye Sylla, 25, an administrator. “We don’t talk about jihad.”
Mahmoud Dicko, president of the High Council of Islam in Bamako, acknowledged over soft drinks in his second-story office that the influence of conservative Sunni and even Shiite groups had become more visible, but he said they did not pose a serious threat to Malian society.
“Their influence has limits because of the importance of cultural ties here in Mali,” he said. “We have a tolerant Islam here, a pacifist Islam.”
American and African diplomats here said Mali was one of the few countries in the region that had good relations with most neighbors, making it a likely catalyst for the broader regional security cooperation the United States is trying to foster. American commanders expressed confidence that by training together, the African forces might work together against transnational threats like Al Qaeda. While Mali has no effective helicopter fleet, for instance, it could team up its soldiers with better-equipped neighboring armies, like Algeria’s, to combat a common threat.
“If we don’t help these countries work together, it becomes a much more difficult problem,” said Lt. Col. Jay Connors, the senior American Special Forces officer on the ground here during the exercise.
American and Malian officials acknowledged that there were other hurdles to overcome. The Pentagon needs to better explain the role of its new Africa Command, created in October to oversee military activities on the continent, and to dispel fears that the United States is militarizing its foreign policy, Malian officials said.
American officials say their strategy is to contain the Qaeda threat and train the African armies, a process that will take years. The nonmilitary counterterrorism programs are just starting, and it is too early to gauge results.
“This is a long-term effort,” said Colonel Connors, 45, an Africa specialist from Burlington, Vt., who speaks French and Portuguese. “This is crawl, walk, run, and right now, we’re still in the crawl phase.”
Eric Schmitt reported from Mali in November, and did additional reporting from Washington.