NOUAKCHOTT, Mauritania (AP) — The United States is expanding anti-terror efforts to the remote reaches of West Africa’s Sahara borders, dispatching U.S. troops and contractors to help seal the predominantly Islamic region from al Qaeda and its allies.
A U.S. anti-terror team arrived Saturday in the arid, Arab-dominated Islamic republic of Mauritania, U.S. Deputy Undersecretary of State Pamela Bridgewater told reporters late Sunday during a visit here.
The small team will be followed in coming months by U.S. Army experts and defense contractors, under a $100 million Bush administration anti-terror initiative for the Saharan nations of Mauritania, Mali, Chad and Niger.
The U.S. Pan Sahel Initiative will provide 60 days of training to military units within the four nations, coaching them in everything from desert navigation to small-unit infantry tactical skills, said Lt. Col. M.J. Jadick, spokeswoman for the U.S. European Command in Stuttgart, Germany.
U.S. troops are to do the work in Mauritania and Mali, contractors of Los Angeles-based Pacific Architects & Engineers in Chad and Niger.
The West long has seen plenty to worry about in the western Sahara: little-patrolled desert crossings and coastlines, suspected al Qaeda cells, centuries-old trade and cultural links to the Middle East and large sectors of Muslim populations sympathetic to Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein.
“We’ve seen how the terrorists operate — instead of going for the obvious countries, they go for soft spots. And the spots are usually the countries that have low levels of security,” said analyst Dapo Oyewole, London-based executive director of the Center for African Policy and Peace Studies.
In West Africa, the isolated nation of Mauritania has been of particular concern. Dominated by the 30 percent of its population that is Arab, the country had long-standing ties to Saddam.
But Mauritania’s government turned sharply against Saddam and allied itself with the United States in the mid-1990s, and has arrested dozens of what it says are Islamic extremists during the Iraq war and occupation.