Military officials say close to a quarter of foreign fighters captured in Iraq come from northern Africa, validating fears that ungoverned swaths of the continent are serving as both a pipeline and safe haven for Islamist radicals.
According to a June 17 statement from a U.S. military official, a significant number of the Iraqi recruits are said to have joined Abu Musab Zarqawi’s al Qaeda in Iraq network. Zarqawi is the Jordanian militant believed responsible for many attacks that have left hundreds of Iraqis dead in past months.
“The potential does exist for [African] individuals or groups to go to Iraq and either conduct operations or receive some of the training,” said Maj. Gen. Thomas Csrnko, head of U.S. special operations command in Europe (EUCOM), whose security oversight includes North and West Africa.
While a stream of African jihadists continue to provide manpower and financial support, Gen. Csrnko said many veterans could return to northern Africa to use insurgent tactics developed in Iraq, from bomb-making to strategic planning, against their governments.
Gen. Csrnko cited potential for insurgent camps much like those run by al Qaeda in Afghanistan, across the Sahel region, which spans the fringe of the Sahara desert from the west African coast to Sudan.
The disclosure of an Iraq-Africa connection coincided with Operation Flintlock, the first phase of the U.S. military’s expanded Trans-Saharan Counter-Terrorism Initiative (TSCTI), headed by EUCOM.
U.S. Special Forces are engaged in a two-week military exercise, which ends tomorrow, to train 3,000 African troops from nine countries: Algeria, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Niger, Senegal, Nigeria and Tunisia.
The goal is to help ill-equipped forces better coordinate strategies to safeguard borders against militant groups that are on the offensive in the region. According to Gen. Csrnko, enemy No. 1 is the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, listed on the State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations.
The Algeria-based group, estimated to have around 300 fighters and affiliated with Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda network, has been accused of multiple kidnappings of European tourists and has claimed responsibility for recent attacks around the Sahara desert.
Thirteen Algerian soldiers were killed and six were wounded when a bomb exploded under a truck convoy June 8, the deadliest incident since 12 soldiers died May 15 in an ambush 300 miles east of Algiers.
Additionally, 15 Mauritanian soldiers were killed and 17 wounded during a June 4 raid on a remote military outpost in which some victims reportedly had their throats slit. The group said the offensive was a “message which implies that our activity is not restricted to fighting the internal enemy, but enemies of the religion wherever they are.”
Al Qaeda in Iraq issued a statement on its Web site congratulating the mujahedeen “who are fighting the converters in Mauritania.”
The increasing regularity and style of attacks suggests the terrorists may be expanding lessons learned in Iraq to a new front, forcing Washington to make preventative action in the region a priority.
Operation Flintlock is the first phase of many training and border-patrol exercises, with increased funding earmarked for other humanitarian and economic development projects.
The U.S. military and the State Department will reportedly seek to spend $30 million to $60 million this year on TSCTI, and $100 million more each year until 2011.
The half-a-billion-dollar budget represents a massive upgrade from the Pan-Sahel Initiative, the $6.25-million forerunner of the TSCTI launched in 2004.
Theresa Whelan, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for African affairs, called the previous plan “just a drop in the bucket” compared to the region’s needs.
She said poverty, lack of education and civil freedoms, and corruption in faltering states create an atmosphere of hopelessness that make citizens more vulnerable to radicals seeking a foothold.
She stressed the TSCTI is a comprehensive approach that will succeed through prevention, not response.
“This is an excellent example of getting ahead of the power curve and not being behind it and having to try to catch up,” she said.