June 14, 2011 | World Defense Review

Milestone in Partnership to Counter Terrorism in the Sahel

By Dr. J. Peter Pham

Last Saturday, military personnel from the Unites States and thirteen African and European countries wrapped up a joint military exercise in the Malian capital of Bamako. Coming just weeks before the stand-up of the new Africa Command (AFRICOM) as a subordinate command of the European Command (EUCOM), Flintlock 2007 represents a significant milestone in America's strategic engagement with Africa in general and its counterterrorism efforts on the continent in particular.

After ignoring the Sahel for all too long – including during the 1990s when Islamist extremists waged a deadly campaign against the Algerian nation which claimed up to 200,000 lives – the United States was forced in the wake of 9/11 to acknowledge, as the 2002 National Security Strategy of the United States of America did, that region's “weak states … can pose a great danger to our national interests as strong states. Poverty does not make poor people into terrorists and murderers. Yet poverty, weak institutions, and corruption can make weak states vulnerable to terrorist networks and drug cartels within their borders.”

While, as I noted in this space earlier this year, “to date radical Islamism has not attracted widespread support” in Trans-Saharan belt, extreme poverty and simmering ethnic tensions “render the terrain especially fertile for extremist penetration [as] groups that have … purely local grievances [may] … in their desperation … take help from anywhere they can receive it and these groups have received input from outside groups that do not necessarily share their immediate concerns but have an interest in creating havoc and chaos in whatever region.”

As I subsequently reported, the most significant challenge is currently the hard core of the Algerian Islamist terrorist organization Salafist Group for Call and Combat (usually known by its French acronym GSPC) which last year “rebranded” itself as al-Qaeda's local franchise by pledging its allegiance to Osama bin Laden and becoming “Al-Qaeda Organization in the Islamic Maghreb” (AQIM). Since then, AQIM appears to have been reinvigorated, stepping up its attacks, and, most recently, killing fifteen people and injuring more than seventy others last week in a suicide bombing aimed at assassinating Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika while he visited the eastern town of Batna. The terrorist group followed that attack up with a car bomb attack Saturday on barracks in the coastal town of Dellys which killed at least seventeen people and wounded thirty others. As I have argued:

We need to increase technical assistance to help allied governments in the Sahel and Maghreb increase their ability to police their own territory and enhance their collaboration with each other in tracking and blocking terrorist activity that is no respecter of borders. This type of partnership also serves a longer-term objective which African nations have made their own: the increasing integration of countries within subregions and across the continent as a whole. Since al-Qaeda's new African affiliate is a local, regional, and intercontinental franchise operation, it will only be beaten by a competitive effort that has similarly integrated and forward-looking strategic perspective.

Progress has been slow, but steady. In late 2002, the Pan-Sahel Initiative (PSI), a modest effort to provide border security and other counterterrorism assistance to Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger using personnel from U.S. Army Special Forces attached to the Special Operations Command Europe (SOCEUR), was launched. Funding for PSI was modest, amounting to under $7 million in fiscal year 2004 – not even pocket change in Washington, but nonetheless a veritable fortune in the Sahel – most of which was spent on training military units from the four partner countries. U.S. Marines were also involved with certain aspects of the training and Air Force personnel provided support, including medical and dental care for members of local units as well as neighboring residents. The program's modest funding was stretched to provide non-lethal equipment including Toyota Land Cruisers, uniforms, and global positioning system (GPS) devices for participating military forces. Some of the logistical work was contracted out to a military services company, Pacific Architects and Engineers (PAE), which has also supported international peacekeeping operations in Liberia and Sierra Leone.

To overcome what Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for African Affairs Theresa Whelan told the American Forces Press Service was a “Band-Aid approach,” PSI transitioned into the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Initiative (TSCTI). Inaugurated in 2005 with support from the Department of Defense's Operation Enduring Freedom-Trans Sahara (OEF-TS), TSCTI added Algeria, Nigeria, Morocco, Senegal, and Tunisia to the original four PSI countries. Unlike other, earlier Africa-focused programs like the Global Peace Operations Initiative (GPOI) and the African Contingency Operations Training and Assistance Program (ACOTA), which generally privileged non-lethal peacekeeping capacities, the new program aimed to provide training – including everything from marksmanship skills and first aid techniques to operational planning and communications – for a rapid reaction unit for each partner country. Personnel from all four branches of the U.S. Armed Forces have been involved in training their counterparts, including Army Special Forces, Air Force commandos, Navy intelligence, and Marines units. In addition to the Department of Defense, the new initiative also integrated contributions from the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).

TSCTI sponsored a June 2005 exercise dubbed Flintlock '05, whose goal was to help participating nations to plan and execute command, control and communications systems in support of future combined humanitarian, peacekeeping and disaster relief operations. According to the then-deputy commander of SOCEUR, the training was “to ensure all nations continue developing their partnerships,” while further enhancing “their capabilities to halt the flow of illicit weapons, goods and human trafficking in the region; and prevent terrorists from establishing sanctuary in remote areas.” Funding for TSCTI has increased steadily from $16 million in 2005 to $30 million in 2006, with ambitions for up to $100 million a year until 2011. Last year's Quadrennial Defense Review Report already noted the early successes of the program's efforts to use military and civilian engagements to help “regional states develop the internal security forces and procedures necessary for policing their national territories,” citing the example how the small team of combat aviation advisors that helped Niger's Air Force hone its skills to prevent the under-developed eastern part of the country from becoming a terrorist safe haven.

Flintlock 2007, which began in late August, is a command post exercise (CPX), taking place primarily on computers in a Bamako conference facility. Participating along with U.S. personnel were officers from the TSCTI partner countries – Algeria, Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, and Tunisia – as well as France, Great Britain, and the Netherlands. The primary objective of the simulations run in the CPX was to strengthen the capacity of the participants to plan and execute collaborative command, control, and communications systems in support of potential future humanitarian relief, peacekeeping, as well as counterterrorism operations. Given the arbitrary nature of borders and the weak organic bases for many African states (see my discussion on these issues earlier this year) – to say nothing of the notoriously unforgiving geophysical and meteorological conditions in the Sahel – these joint operations are absolutely essential.

The strategic effect sought by TSCTI directly addresses what the 2003 National Strategy for Combating Terrorism called the “4D strategy”: defeat terrorist organizations; deny sponsorship, support, and sanctuary to terrorists, diminish the underlying conditions that terrorists seek to exploit; and defend the United States, its citizens, and its interests, not just at home but in all theatres abroad. Thus, in addition to the military-focused efforts, the Sahel countries have also received American assistance through State Department programs – especially the Anti-Terrorism Assistance (ATA) program and the Terrorist Interdiction Program (TIP) – as well as other U.S. government agencies, including USAID and the Department of the Treasury, making the subregion one of the few with a high level of inter-agency functionality.

The participation of France in the just-concluded exercise is also significant given the broad economic, diplomatic, military, and intelligence network that the former colonial power has long maintained in the Sahel. The International Crisis Group reported two years ago that senior French security officials, despite their own close relations in the region, had acknowledged the necessity of the counterterrorism program and that it is “best implemented by the U.S.,” quoting one as saying:

This is a genuine action to fight against terrorism that responds to a need. The threat is consistent. This part of the world is not under surveillance, and the Americans don't have a clear idea of what is going on over there; nor does anyone. This program will help enhance security in the subregion. They can afford to do it whereas we can't. Why not let them do it? We'll cooperate with the U.S. through an exchange of information, and we're glad to do it.

France's public participation in Flintlock 2007 is thus an indication that the Franco-American relationship in the region has developed considerably beyond the stage of information exchanges – as it should given that the Sahel is very much the “soft underbelly” of Europe though which terrorists can penetrate the continent via Morocco and Algeria, as the perpetrators of the 2004 Madrid bombings demonstrated. In fact, in a July 23 communiqué posted on the internet, AQIM would “have many hidden surprises for the enemies of Allah in the countries of the Islamic Maghreb, which will come in an escalating sequence.” The statement warned “all our Muslim brothers” to “stay away from the centers of the infidels and official apostates, as well as security [gatherings] of army and police,” because “the Mujahedin [holy warriors] are determined to target their quarters, centers and barracks with all available means of detonation, bombing and demolition.” Lest this be discounted as braggadocio, just days before the statement's release, an AQIM suicide bomber detonated a refrigerated truck packed with explosives inside a military base in Lakhdaria, southeast of Algiers, killing ten soldiers and wounding two dozen others. The suicide attack, ominously, represented a new tactic in Algeria, having been introduced only in April by the al-Qaeda affiliate. (Coincidentally, the attack came just one day after France's new president, Nicolas Sarkozy paid his first visit to Algeria and Tunisia to discuss improved economic ties as well as possibly increased arms sales.)

Al-Qaeda's franchise operation is evidently aiming both at expanding its operations in the region as well as raising its profile. Against this, as the 2006 National Strategy for Combating Terrorism argued, coalitions will be required:

Indeed, a significant part of this effort includes expanding partnership capacity. We are building the capacity of foreign partners in all areas of counterterrorism activities, including strengthening their ability to conduct law enforcement, intelligence, and military counterterrorism operations. Through the provision of training, equipment, and other assistance, the United States, along with a coalition of willing and able states and organizations, will enhance the ability of partners across the globe to attack and defeat terrorists, deny them funding and freedom of movement, secure their critical infrastructures, and deny terrorists access to WMD and safehavens. Ultimately, it will be essential for our partners to come together to facilitate appropriate international, regional, and local solutions to the challenges of terrorism.

This is why proven full-spectrum counterterrorism efforts like the TSCTI are now even more critical and why milestones like Flintlock 2007 should be applauded.

J. Peter Pham is Director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs and a Research Fellow of the Institute for Infrastructure and Information Assurance at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. He is also an adjunct fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington, D.C.

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