The term the Pentagon reserves for the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership is “bilateral operations.” Compared to the Pan Sahel Initiative, the price tag is considerably larger (from $6.5 million to $500 million), the participating country list larger and the number of African troops trained now number in the tens of thousands. Most importantly, the footprint has grown, as the Washington Post reported, the Pentagon is assigning more military officers to U.S. embassies around West Africa strengthening U.S. intelligence gathering.
But will the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership be any different? The Pentagon argues that the new Partnership is keeping in track with the times. Terrorism and the risk triggered by terror groups are increasing throughout the world – especially in the ungoverned swathes of West Africa.
An auspicious beginning
Terrorism is not new to West Africa. Limited terror campaigns have taken place in Nigeria (especially between Christians and Muslims), Senegal with the Cassamance fight for independence, the Taureg insurgency in Mali and Niger and the Polasario secessionist struggle in Western Sahara. The unifying similarity these groups share is a tie to a single country.
As Peter Chalk points out, the most prolific terrorist group in West Africa is the Algeria-born Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, known in French as the Groupe Salafiste pour la Prédication et le Combat, or GSPC. It’s one of the few groups in West Africa to have ties outside the continent and the ability to move across borders, especially in the stateless region of the Sahara between Algeria, Mali, Niger and Mauritania.
The GSPC organized sometime around 1996-1998 as an offshoot of the GIA, a terrorist organization that declared war on the government of Algeria after it voided the 1991 election victory of the Islamic Salvation Front, the country’s largest opposition party. Throughout much of the 1990s, the GIA’s bloody war targeted civilians, secular schools, journalists, government agents and the military, killing (some claim) as many as 150,000 people.
The fighting reached its peak in 1996 and a schism in the GIA appeared from opposition towards the targeting of civilians. Hassan Hattab left to form the GSPC. (Not that the GSPC maintains especially friendly relations with the general public: They have been known to shake down people at their informal roadblocks and storm into towns, robbing and stealing money and equipment for their use.)
What put the GSPC on the map was the kidnapping of 32 European tourists between February 22 and March 23, 2003 in the southern part of the Algerian Sahara. A majority of the tourists were German, and the German government attempted to negotiate with the group to secure their release. However, the Algerian government forbade any negotiations with terrorist organizations, so the GSPC simply moved their prisoners across the border into Mali. With the help of an intermediary, the German government reportedly paid the group an estimated €5 million for the release of the hostages, who were eventually freed in Gao, Mali in May and August 2003. (One German women died in the desert.)
Side note: One reason Mali was d’accord with the negotiations and the eventual transfer of money, a U.S. regional “political” officer told me, was the Malians wanted a cut of the take, say 5 or 10 percent. He also went on to complain that Germany’s decision to pay the GSPC left everyone in the region in a bad position, not only because they gave a terrorist organization such a large sum of money, but the victims were traveling in the desert without a local guide, which is generally a euphemism for “artifact stealers.” (No local guide would allow tourists to take any artifacts out from the desert.) Mali’s cut of the ransom couldn’t be verified, but the looting is backed up by a report from the International Crisis Group.
Another note: According to a story in Le Monde Diplomatique, the GSPC has actually been infiltrated by Algerian security forces, faking the kidnapping to fabricate an al-Qaeda presence in the country to push it closer to the U.S. government so it can buy weapons and other resources to fight terror.
With the money, which the German government never confirmed nor denied paying, the GSPC reportedly bought weapons, ammunition and other equipment. For the U.S., the timing was impeccable. At the same time the Pentagon was boasting a new front to the war on terror, the kidnappings and ransom squelched any skepticism.
With U.S. help, the GSPC was pursued across the desert, forced out of Mali and caught by Algerian forces. Another group turned up in Chad, where Chadian and Nigerien forces attacked and defeated them, killing upwards of 40 terrorists.
In a little time, the new Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership overshadowed the work of the Special Forces in Djibouti.
Today’s terror threat
Fast forward three years and terrorist activity remains a threat:
- The scope of the GSPC extends into Europe and declares France its prime European target;
- The GSPC facilitates the movement of Algerians to join the insurgency in Iraq;
- June 2005: 150 GSPC members raided a Mauritanian military base in Lemgheitty, burning military vehicles and killing 15 soldiers;
- July 2005: The group shot down an Algerian military helicopter on reconnaissance over Mali;
- September 2005: the group ambushed a police patrol, killing eight people;
- December 2006: GSPC attacked employees of Brown Root & Condor, a joint venture of KRB, a Halliburton subsidiary, and Algeria’s Condor Energy, killing one Algerian and injuring several Americans;
- April 2007: GSPC changes its name to “The Organization of Al Qaeda in the Land of the Islamic Maghreb,” going by the acronym AQIM;
- April 2007: Two car bombs go off in Algiers, killing 23 people; AQIM claims responsibility;
- Oil from the Gulf of Guinea and other West African states now makes up 15 percent of the U.S. oil supply, an amount which could grow to 25 percent in the next decade.
The GSPC’s alliance with Al Qaeda was seen by some observers as proof of its weakness, not of its strength. “Forced to retreat from urban areas, having lost support from the Algerian people and struggling to fill its ranks with new recruits, the GSPC faced an uncertain future, and so the group took a series of steps to align its activities with Al Qaeda’s framework for a global jihad,” writes Lianne Kennedy Boudali.
In the short term, AQIM may gain new financial support and have an easier time recruiting. However: “AQIM is not a serious strategic threat to U.S. interests in North Africa, noris it on the brink of creating a new African safe-haven for Osama bin Laden. AQIM does not currently pose a threat to the survival of the Algerian government, or to any of its neighbors.”
On the ground
In a September 2007 report in Vanity Fair, a writer and photographer were embedded with U.S. Special Forces near Timbuktu, Mali. It provided them with the perfect chance to witness the $500 million, five-year Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership on the ground.
In the eyes of the U.S. military, the reason for the training and coordination is clear:
"In Africa—in Mali, in this case—the biggest thing is to prepare them to battle their terrorist elements on their own so that we don't have to worry about sending in American troops," a captain tells writer Austin Merrill.
Ditto for the Malian army: “The threat of these terrorists is very real," a Malian commander says. "They've taken refuge in our country and have the necessary means to wage war. Every time we try to confront them, they disappear and resurface elsewhere—in Mauritania, Algeria, Niger, Chad. Then when we come back home to our base, they return to northern Mali. We absolutely have to work together on this. One single country can do nothing alone. We are soldiers of this land. We know how to fight. This is my Sahara. But to get the enemy I need more money."
But the International Crisis Group isn’t so certain about the risk of terrorism in the region: “[T]he Sahel is not a hotbed of terrorist activity,” a report from 2005 states.
But that does not mean the group isn't worried about Islamist activity in the region. Muslim populations here, and elsewhere around the world, express opposition to U.S. policy in the mid-east. Also, the extreme poverty in the region (Mali and Niger are the two poorest countries in the world) coupled with the constant risk of food insecurity and weak governments with not may bring about the right conditions for terrorists to develop local support systems and recruit new members.
It leads one academic to tell IRIN: "[T]he biggest danger in this region is not Al Qaeda. It is famine."
The Vanity Fair story provides a perfect example of the intersection of U.S. policy, poverty and radical Islam:
One night in January 2006, two four-wheel-drive Toyotas arrived at Alwoidu's mosque carrying seven men, most of them in their 40s. Two were Palestinians, two were Algerians, and three were Pakistanis. They'd begun their drive in Morocco, headed south along the Atlantic coast to Mauritania, and then turned east into the thick of the Sahara.
"They were recruiters, and came looking for people to integrate into their radical way," says Baba Darfa, a member of the Wahhabi mosque. "When they arrived, they gathered us together and told us that their mission was to fight against the enemies of Islam—the Americans and the British. They told us, 'Your brothers are dying in Iraq. Americans are killing them because they are Muslim.'"
The men spent 11 days in Timbuktu, moving from mosque to mosque, spreading their message. They gave Darfa more than $3,000 to change at a local bank, an amount equal to more than six years of income for the average Malian citizen. "And that was only to get around town and buy food," Darfa says. "They were very rich—they handed money out to people after prayers. They were careful not to use the words 'al-Qaeda,' but they encouraged everyone to join the jihad against the United States."
Then one morning they were gone. "They disappeared in the middle of the night," says Darfa. "It wasn't until three days later that we realized they had taken two boys with them. They were the kids who had run errands for them the whole time they were here."
The boys were 11 and 14 years old, students in the Koranic school at the Wahhabi mosque. Their parents said nothing to authorities for fear of being labeled as extremists themselves, but one of the fathers believes the boys were sent to Pakistan under fake passports arranged by the recruiters, Darfa says.
One of the U.S. military’s objectives is to instill more government control throughout the Sahara region, not just protecting people from terrorists but also to corral the ubiquitous smuggling networks that could help to fund terrorists. Separating these groups from their ill-gotten gains is a wise tactical choice, but still risky business in because the lack of border posts between these countries means that any commercial activities – from bringing diesel fuel from Mauritania to transporting cigarettes from Burkina Faso – is technically smuggling.
However, it’s how the local population – especially the nomadic Tauregs who lost much of their cattle in the droughts of the 1970s and 1980s – now are forced to make a living. Tighten up the borders, and the U.S. military may make enemies out of the Tauregs, who already feel ostracized by the region’s governments.
For the military, this is where the development arm of the Trans-Sahel Partnership comes in handy. In fact, in the Vanity Fair story, reporter Merrill spent half his time watching the U.S. military train Malian soldiers and the second half following the U.S. military performing health care in a village south of Timbuktu. Their few hours of work is not going to add much capacity to the Malian health care system, but the soldiers feel it creates much needed goodwill between them and the local population.
Not everyone is so sanguine. In the Vanity Fair story:
"Getting it wrong is much more dangerous than doing nothing," says Mike McGovern, an anthropologist at Yale who has traveled extensively in the Sahara region to study the threat of terrorism there. "Trying to do something good is not even close to being good enough. This is not about anyone's intentions. It has to do with strategic political action, symbolism, and perception. This is where the very best intentions can be totally misconstrued, and the end product can be just as bad as if the beginning intentions were nefarious."
Camp Monroe, Liberia?
However, it’s something the U.S. military will be doing more in the future. In the early part of this year, the Pentagon announced the creation of AFRICOM, a command center solely responsible for military activities on the continent. Previously, Africa had been shared by three different commands – Europe, the Pacific and the Middle East. "Rather than three different commanders who have Africa as a third or fourth priority, there will be one commander that has it as a top priority," US Principal Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Ryan Henry told Agence France Press.
What the military would like to do is eventually build a second base – like Camp Lemonier in Djibouti. All they need to do is find a lucky suitor.