The American campaign against terrorism is opening a new front in a region that military officials fear could become the next base for Al Qaeda Ã¢€” the largely ungoverned swath of territory stretching from the Horn of Africa to the Western Sahara’s Atlantic coast.
Generals here at the United States European Command, which oversees the area, say the vast, arid region is a new Afghanistan, with well-financed bands of Islamic militants recruiting, training and arming themselves. Terrorist attacks like the one on March 11 in Madrid that killed 191 people seem to have a North African link, investigators say, and may presage others in Europe.
Having learned from missteps in Afghanistan and Iraq, the American officers are pursuing this battle with a new approach. Instead of planning on a heavy American military presence, they are dispatching Special Operations forces to countries like Mali and Mauritania in West Africa to train soldiers and outfit them with pickup trucks, radios and global-positioning equipment.
“We want to be preventative, so that we don’t have to put boots on the ground here in North Africa as we did in Afghanistan,” said the European Command’s chief of counter-terrorism, Lt. Col. Powl Smith, adding that by assisting local governments to do the fighting themselves, “we don’t become a lightning rod for popular anger that radicals can capitalize on.”
American military officials say that Qaeda-linked militants, pushed out of Afghanistan and blocked by increased surveillance of traditional points of entry along the Mediterranean coast, are turning to overland travel in order to make contact with North African Islamic terror groups.
The program, called the Pan-Sahel Initiative, was begun with $7 million and focused on Mali, Mauritania, Niger and Chad. It is being expanded to include Senegal and possibly other countries. The European Command has asked for $125 million for the region over five years.
This sounds like an excellent move. It’s very inexpensive, unobtrusive, and has the additional advantage of creating a working relationship with the militaries of the region.