Pentagon “Pan-Sahel Initiative”

The Pentagon is rapidly expanding its little-noted “anti-terrorist” training program in the nations of Africa’s Sahel. From page 11 of the New York Times, June 10:

As Africans Join Iraqi Insurgency, U.S. Counters With Military Training in Their Lands
A growing number of Islamic militants from northern and sub-Saharan Africa are fighting American and Iraqi forces in Iraq, fueling the insurgency with foot soldiers and some financing, American military officials say.

About 25 percent of the nearly 400 foreign fighters captured in Iraq come from Africa, according to the military’s European Command, which oversees military operations in most of the African continent.

Some recruits have joined the network of the militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, which has carried out many of the sophisticated attacks and suicide car-bombings that have killed hundreds of Iraqis in the past several weeks, the officials said.

A small vanguard of veterans are also returning home to countries like Morocco and Algeria, poised to use skills they learned on the battlefield in Iraq, from bomb making to battle planning, against their native governments, the officials said.

To combat the immediate threat and to prevent terrorists from gaining new safe havens in the region, the Bush administration is expanding a small military training program that has operated on a shoestring the past two years into a more ambitious program spending $100 million annually to provide airport security, money-handling controls, school construction and other assistance to nine African nations.

As part of this broader strategy, the United States on Monday [June 6] began training exercises in Mali, Chad, Mauritania, Niger and Algeria. Four other countries, Senegal, Nigeria, Tunisia and Morocco, will also participate by the time the exercises finish in two weeks. About 1,000 American troops, including 700 Special Operations forces, will train 3,000 African soldiers in marksmanship, border patrol and airborne operations.

“For a change, we’re trying to get ahead of the power curve in a region that we believe is susceptible to use by terrorists,” Theresa M. Whelan, the Pentagon’s top Africa policy official, said. “It’s a deterrent.”

United States military and intelligence officials say vast swaths of the Sahara, from Mauritania in the west to Sudan in the east, which have been smuggling routes for centuries, are becoming areas of choice for terrorist groups, including Al Qaeda, which has quietly stepped up its recruiting efforts in the region.

The countries there are some of the poorest in the world and have scant resources to monitor their borders or patrol the large remote areas of their interiors, where drug smugglers, weapons traffickers and terrorists had established land routes after routes in the Mediterranean began to be patrolled more intensively.

“Al Qaeda is assessing local groups for franchising opportunities,” said Maj. Gen. Richard P. Zahner, chief intelligence officer for the European Command, who assumes that post for the military headquarters in Iraq this summer. “I’m quite concerned about that.”

Among the local terrorist groups is the Salafist Group in Algeria, which abducted 32 European tourists in early 2003.

On Tuesday, the Algerian group claimed responsibility for a surprise attack last Saturday against an isolated Mauritanian Army outpost that left 15 Mauritanians and 9 insurgents dead. The group said in a message posted on a Web site in Arabic that the assault was a direct response to the training exercises that were “put in place by the enemy of God, America, and its agents in the region,” The Associated Press reported.

American military officers and defense officials, who spoke in authorized interviews but on the condition of anonymity, citing security considerations when they travel overseas, said the number of African militants and the funds they have provided for the fighting in Iraq – perhaps several hundred thousand dollars – are not large compared with support from countries like Syria or Saudi Arabia. “But it allows those elements to get in and be players,” one officer said.

Not all northern African militants turning up in Iraq belong to a group like Salafist or the Moroccan Islamist Combatant Group. But the skills they learn and the connections they make with other insurgents there is making Iraq a training ground and networking hub for terrorists, these officials say.

“They’re getting to use those training skills, hone them and eventually go somewhere else and use them,” one defense official said. “The bottom line is you’ve developed a new extremist. It doesn’t paint a pretty picture down the road.”

The Pentagon is also paying more attention to other parts of Africa. About 1,300 American troops are based at a former French Foreign Legion compound in Djibouti to conduct counterterrorism operations in the Horn of Africa. Maj. Gen. Samuel T. Helland, the American commander, said his forces were using civil-affairs projects, not combat missions, “to isolate the terrorist from his support, which is the population.”

American forces two years ago began training and equipping six light infantry companies of roughly 150 soldiers each from Mali, Mauritania, Chad and Niger in a program called the Pan Sahel Initiative. The Sahel straddles the southern edge of the Sahara. “It was barely a drop in the bucket given the nature of the problem we were dealing with,” Ms. Whelan said.

The European Command lobbied hard to expand the $6 million program, and in March the administration approved the new effort, the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Initiative, with plans to finance it with $100 million a year for five years, beginning in 2007, Ms. Whelan said.

Under the plan, the military will train battalions of 500 soldiers from the nine countries, and provide Toyota Land Cruisers, radios, uniforms, global-positioning devices and fuel trailers. American instructors would also teach the African militaries how to coordinate planning and operations with each other.

“They need the ability to support military teams, hundreds of miles away, with communications and logistics,” said Rear Adm. Hamlin B. Tallent, the European Command operations director. “If they want to do maneuver operations, this is clearly a capability that doesn’t exist now.”

In addition, Ms. Whelan said, the initiative calls for the Justice Department to help train the local police; for the Treasury Department to assist on developing financial controls; for Customs to help with border security, and for the Agency for International Development to finance school construction.

“This assistance will provide countries in northern Africa with an enhanced ability to interdict transnational terrorists and other criminal elements,” said Representative Ed Royce, a California Republican who heads the House International Relations terrorism subcommitttee.

Meanwhile, this disturbing news from the UN news agency IRIN June 3 on the ecological backdrop to unrest in the Sahel is warranting even less coverage:

U.N.: No response to Niger drought appeal

The United Nations says an emergency appeal for $16 million to help 3.6 million people in drought-stricken, land-locked Niger has gone unanswered.

The world organization’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said Thursday, Not a single dollar has been pledged to the Flash Appeal.

Among priorities identified under the agency’s plan for the arid West African country were treating 800,000 malnourished children under the age of 5 years and pregnant women, increasing food availability, supporting existing health services, ensuring livestock survival, increasing seed availability and reducing migration flows.

The Consolidated Appeals Process launched two weeks ago sought just over $8 million from member nations for the agricultural sector, $6.75 million for the food sector, $1.35 million for the health sector, and just $50,000 for coordination and support services, United Nations said.

The food crisis was compounded by the worst locust invasion in 15 years, which wiped out a portion of the harvest last year.

See our last post on the Sahel terror war front.