US-trained forces scour Sahara for terror links

US-trained forces scour Sahara for terror links

By John Donnelly, The Boston Globe |  December 12, 2004

NIAMEY, Niger — A company of 150 soldiers from Niger has brought the war on terrorism to a new frontier, carrying out a three-week hunt for armed bandits linked to an Algerian terror group in the inhospitable terrain of the Sahara desert and the Sahel region.

« It was tough, » said Major Moussa Salaou Barmou, whose unit was the first US-trained group to go out on a mission in the arid region. « We managed to get a couple of them, but the rest escaped into Algeria. As soon as we got close, they just moved on — we couldn’t keep pace. »

The tally from the three skirmishes last month around Mount Tamgak, about 600 miles northeast of Niamey, Niger’s capital, was relatively modest: seven bandits killed, two Niger soldiers lightly injured, according to Moussa. But senior US military officials say the message sent by the mission is critical in West Africa. For the first time, the armed forces of four nations — Niger, Mali, Chad, and Mauritania — will patrol what had been a 3,000-mile wide no-man’s land as vast as the continental United States.

For Air Force General Charles F. Wald, deputy commander of the US military’s European Command, which oversees much of Africa, this initiative is one of the most important in the counterterrorism fight, despite a relatively small US investment of $7.75 million. So far, teams of Special Forces have trained 750 West African soldiers.

Wald sees the area as one of the last remaining lawless places in the world for terrorists to hide.

« That region is very big, with lots of open territory that is sometimes uncontrolled by any government, and has a history of instability, » Wald said in a telephone interview from Stuttgart, Germany. « We’re trying to get it under control before it becomes too bad. That’s one of the lessons we learned in Afghanistan, I think, that we can’t allow environments like that to exist anymore. »

He said the Sahel and Sahara regions have become a « little bit of a haven and transfer point for terrorists to develop operations, do some recruiting, smuggling, or just survive between operations. »

The most prominent terror group in the region is the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, known by its French acronym of GSPC. The radical Islamists kidnapped 32 European tourists in the Sahara last year and negotiated at least a $6 million ransom. Last year, the group declared its allegiance to Al Qaeda and its leader, Osama bin Laden.

Wald said that the group used the ransom money, which he noted was equal to a quarter of Niger’s $24 million defense budget, to buy new arms and equipment.

Earlier this year, troops from Chad and Mali, with the aid of US intelligence and a Navy P-3 Orion reconnaissance aircraft, killed an estimated 43 GSPC members near the Algeria-Mali border. After that mission, US special forces began training soldiers in the four Sahel countries — Niger, Mali, Chad, and Mauritania. The two months of training was basic: logistics, communications, and shooting practice. The US troops also gave the soldiers equipment suited for the hot climate, including uniforms, boots, hats, canteens, ammunition belts, and four-wheel drive vehicles.

« We’re talking about patrolling, teaching them to do ambushes, raids, reconnaissance, » said one US military official involved in the program who spoke on the condition of anonymity. « Some of these people can’t read, so you can’t stick a map in front of an operations officer and expect them to know how to proceed. You have to teach them basics. »

Not all outside observers support the military program. Festus Boahen Aboagye, a former Ghanaian army colonel and military adviser at the Organization of African Unity and later the African Union, said the best way to defeat terrorism was to more aggressively encourage democracy and support the economies of the nations involved.

« I believe you should address some of the fundamental reasons of why these countries are attractive to terrorists, like the issue of poverty, like the issue of good governance, » said Aboagye, now an analyst at the Institute for Security Studies, a think tank in Pretoria. « In Mali, for instance, many farmers produce cotton, but they are now failing because of the world price for cotton. These farmers are susceptible to anyone coming with promises, including those along religious lines. »

He also cast doubt on whether the US military would sustain the program and offer what African militaries need most: money for salaries, fuel, and basic operations.

Wald said the United States must be involved for years. He hopes the West African program, which has recently been renamed to Trans-Sahara Counter-Terrorism Initiative, will soon expand to four more countries — Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, and Senegal. The United States plans to spend « hundreds of millions of dollars » in the coming years in the eight countries, said one US military official.

The US general said he has heard the skeptics who say that African militaries are not up to the task of tracking terrorists.

« Some people believe that nothing could be done in Africa, that you could never turn things around, » he said. « We disagree. For one thing, we have a little bit different approach. We’re not doing something just bilaterally. We’re transparent and open. »

Still, another US military official said many problems remain. One is getting countries to share intelligence.

« These four countries are not jelling and working together like we would want them to. They are most interested in their interiors, then solving their neighbors’ problem, » said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Moussa, the major from Niger, knows this firsthand. During his recent mission, which ended last month, his men fought three times with bandits in the mountains east of the northern Niger town of Iferouanec. The bandits mostly used AK-47 rifles, though they had one small machine gun and one rocket launcher. They expertly navigated the mountainous terrain, Moussa said, as his men struggled to keep up in the unfamiliar area.

They chased about a dozen bandits to the border with Algeria, where they eventually reached the frontier Algerian town of Djanet.

« We had picked up intelligence that the bandits had logistics support from the GSPC from that town, » Moussa said.

But after they gave the information to Algerian officials nothing happened, he said, and the bandits escaped.

« We learned a lot from the Americans, » said Moussa, who spent 1995 at a US officers’ training course in Fort Benning, Ga. « My soldiers were really motivated for this mission. I think, though, it’s going to take us two to three years to solve this problem. »

Moussa expects the number of terrorists passing through the region to grow in the coming months and years. « The pressure on them is too great in the Middle East, he said, referring to the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the crackdowns on militant Islamists in the region. « Chad, Mali, Niger, Mauritania — we’re all Muslim people. They know they will be tolerated here. We just need to stop the problem before it overtakes us. »

John Donnelly can be reached at donnelly@globe.com.

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