U.S. army trains Africans to fight desert militants

By Nick Tattersall, Reuters, The Union Tribune (San Diego), 10 June 2005, 10:50 a.m.

DAKAR — One thousand military experts from the United States are training soldiers from nine West African countries as U.S. fears grow that an Algerian militant group allied to al Qaeda is broadening its base in the region.

The exercise, meant to help stem weapons smuggling and stop militants finding havens around the Sahara desert, began this week in Mali, Niger, Chad, Algeria and Mauritania, where an Islamic fundamentalist group killed 15 soldiers last week.

A posting on an Islamist Web site said Algeria's Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) carried out the dawn raid on a remote Mauritanian military post, the first time the GSPC has claimed responsibility for an attack outside its homeland.

The attack near Mauritania's border with Mali and Algeria surprised some U.S. military observers who believed the GSPC had been largely contained and raised fears the group was increasingly ready to strike out into new territory.

’Now they’ve added Mauritania to their list, so this is another notch on the belt. They’re broadening their base… they’ve got more bona fide as a trans-national organisation,’ said a U.S. military official who closely follows the region.

’We’ve stood up and said we’re going to fix the problem and they’ve stood up and said we are the problem. So it's going to be an interesting race to see who comes out on top.’

The U.S. European Command (EUCOM) is running the joint military training, known as Operation Flintlock and planned before the Mauritania attack. It aims to help countries plan and execute their own counter-terrorism strategies as well as peacekeeping, humanitarian and disaster relief operations.

Around 3,000 African soldiers will be schooled in basics such as marksmanship, small-unit tactics and land navigation as well as airborne operations and human rights law.


The Sahara is infamous for banditry but the world's top energy consumer also fears Islamic extremists, civil war, political anarchy and piracy near the Gulf of Guinea, which it hopes will supply a quarter of its oil imports within a decade.

As part of Flintlock, Senegal will host an exercise with soldiers from nine countries, including Nigeria, Morocco and Tunisia, in which they will jointly solve a terrorism scenario.

’In the past the focus has been within their own borders. Now the focus is much more regional,’ EUCOM's Major Holly Silkman said on Friday.

Flintlock aims to build on training by U.S. Marines and Special Forces last year in the deserts of Niger, Chad, Mali and Mauritania, part of a Trans-Sahara Counter Terrorist Initiative (TSCTI) expected to cost the United States $100 million over five years.

Some U.S. officials privately acknowledge the main concern is protecting Nigeria, the continent's biggest oil producer, the region's only OPEC member and the main destination for U.S. investment in sub-Saharan Africa after South Africa.

But critics say Washington's increasingly high-profile involvement in security in West Africa risks fuelling a growing resentment of U.S. foreign policy and radicalising some in a region largely known for moderate forms of Islam.

Think-tank International Crisis Group has cautioned that a military policy which offers no alternative livelihoods to already marginalised nomadic populations in countries around the Sahara risks exacerbating the threat Washington wants to curb.