- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 16, 2005

ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast — The U.S. government will spend $500 million over five years on an expanded program to secure a vast new front in its global war on terrorism: the Sahara Desert.

Critics say the region is not a terrorist zone as some senior U.S. military officers assert. They add that heavy-handed military and financial support that reinforces authoritarian regimes in North and West Africa could fuel radicalism where it scarcely exists.

The Trans-Saharan Counter-Terrorism Initiative (TSCTI) was begun in June to provide military expertise, equipment and development aid to nine Saharan countries where lawless swaths of desert are considered fertile ground for militant Muslim groups involved in smuggling and combat training.

“It’s the Wild West all over again,” said Maj. Holly Silkman, a public affairs officer at U.S. Special Operations Command Europe, which presides over U.S. security and peacekeeping operations in Europe, former Soviet bloc countries and most of Africa.

Algeria, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Senegal, Morocco, Nigeria and Tunisia take part in the TSCTI.

During the first phase of the program, dubbed Operation Flintlock, U.S. Special Forces led 3,000 ill-equipped Saharan troops in tactical exercises designed to better coordinate security along porous borders and beef up patrols in ungoverned territories.

Maj. Silkman said Africa has become the most important concern of the U.S. European Command (Eucom) because of rampant corruption, drug and human trafficking, poverty and high unemployment, which create a significant “potential for instability,” particularly in the Saharan region, where 50 percent of the population is younger than 15.

The TSCTI is “one of the franchises” to defeat ideological entrepreneurs trying to gain a foothold by reaching out to the “disaffected, disenfranchised, or just misinformed and disillusioned,” she said.

Salafist group cited

The head of Special Operations Command Europe, Maj. Gen. Thomas R. Csrnko, said he was concerned that the terrorist network al Qaeda is assessing African groups for “franchising opportunities,” notably the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (known as GSPC by its initials in French), cited on the U.S. State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations.

The Algeria-based GSPC, estimated to have about 300 fighters and said to be linked to Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda, was accused of kidnapping European tourists in 2003 and has taken responsibility for a spate of attacks in the Sahara this year.

Thirteen Algerian soldiers were killed and six were wounded when a GSPC bomb exploded under a truck convoy on June 8. Twelve troops died May 15 in an ambush 300 miles east of Algiers.

Fifteen Mauritanian soldiers were killed and 17 were wounded in a June 4 raid on a remote military outpost. Some victims reportedly had their throats slit.

The GSPC said the offensive was a “message that implies that our activity is not restricted to fighting the internal enemy, but enemies of the religion wherever they are.”

Iraq training feared

Gen. Csrnko considers the group the No. 1 threat to security in the region, and has cited the potential for terrorist camps in the Sahara comparable to those once run by al Qaeda in Afghanistan.

Eucom officials say there is evidence that 25 percent of suicide bombers in Iraq are Saharan Africans, and suspect that “fighters are being trained in Iraq and then transiting back to Africa with the ability to teach techniques” to recruits there.

The prospect of a transnational terror pipeline connecting Africa and Iraq, or even Europe via a “backdoor” pipeline through the Sahara, must be taken seriously and for the long term, said one top Eucom official.

Terrorist attacks such as the March 11, 2004, Madrid train bombings that killed 191 persons have been linked to North African militants.

The U.S. military and the State Department, which officially leads the program, are counting on an annual budget of at least $100 million for the TSCTI from 2007 until 2011.

This represents a big increase from the Pan-Sahel Initiative, a $7 million forerunner to the TSCTI begun last year in what Theresa Whelan, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for African Affairs, called “just a drop in the bucket” compared with the region’s needs.

U.S. role may misfire

Some observers say terrorism in the Sahara is little more than a mirage and that a higher-profile U.S. involvement could destabilize the region.

“If anything, the [TSCTI] … will generate terrorism, by which I mean resistance to the overall U.S. presence and strategy,” said Jeremy Keenan, a Sahara specialist at the University of East Anglia in the United Kingdom.

A report by the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank, said that although the Sahara is “not a terrorist hotbed,” repressive governments in the region are using the Bush administration’s “war on terror” to tap U.S. largesse and deny civil freedoms.

The report said the regime of Mauritanian President Maaouiya Ould Sid’Ahmed Taya — a U.S. ally in West Africa deposed Aug. 3 in a bloodless coup — used the threat of terrorism to legitimize denial of human rights. The dictator jailed and harassed dozens of opposition politicians under the pretext that they were connected to the GSPC.

This has made the TSCTI unpopular among some Mauritanians, said Princeton Lyman, director of African policy studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

In June, hundreds of Mauritanians filled the streets of Nouakchott, the capital, to protest the start of the TSCTI.

Algeria’s reports doubted

Mr. Keenan said the government of Algeria — saddled with a history of state terrorism and disinformation campaigns — is an even worse offender, misleading Washington about the GSPC threat to acquire modern weapons and shed its pariah status.

He added that U.S. intelligence about the Saharan region is sparse, and that officials and Western reporters have been gullible in their near-wholesale acceptance of dubious Algerian claims about GSPC activities, rendering suspect Washington’s main justification for the TSCTI.

This uncertainty includes the actions and very existence of at-large GSPC second in command, Abderrazek Lamari, alias “El Para,” thought to be the mastermind of the 2003 hostage kidnapping.

Mr. Keenan said contradictory Algerian intelligence reports and eyewitness testimonies suggest collusion between agents of Algeria’s military intelligence services and the GSPC.

The State Department declined to comment on the matter.

Oil may be factor

Aside from the 2003 kidnapping issue, U.S. and Algerian authorities have failed to present “indisputable verification of a single act of alleged terrorism in the Sahara,” Mr. Keenan said.

“Without the GSPC, the U.S. has no legitimacy for its presence in the region,” he added, noting that an escalating American strategic dependency on African oil requires that the United States bolster its presence in the region.

A report by the National Energy Policy Development Group anticipates that by 2015, West Africa will provide a quarter of the oil imported by the United States.

The Bush administration has called African oil a “national strategic interest.” Nigeria is the fifth-largest source of U.S. imported oil; Algeria’s 9 billion barrel reserves have been revised upwards; and Mauritania has begun offshore pumping that could make it Africa’s No. 4 oil supplier by 2007.

Maj. Silkman, however, said cultivating security, not oil resources, is the prime objective of the TSCTI. She said it is vital that other members of the international community get involved — especially France, which has a broad military-diplomatic network in the region.

Maj. Silkman also said that critics have overlooked the developmental “pillar” of TSCTI that makes up nearly half its annual budget, and she stressed that a “holistic” approach that had aid and educational components will succeed in the Sahara by focusing on prevention rather than response.

“Reducing the threat is not as much about taking direct action as it is in eliminating conditions that allow terrorism to flourish,” she said.

As one special operations officer involved in the TSCTI put it: “It’s not as much about killing alligators as it is about draining the swamp.”

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