by Ahmed Mohamed / Associated Press –
NOUAKCHOTT, Mauritania (January 12, 2004) — The United States is expanding anti-terror efforts to the remote reaches of West Africa’s Sahara borders, dispatching US troops and contractors to help seal the predominantly Islamic region to al-Qaida and its allies.
American officials gave The Associated Press details of the anti-terror program, and Mauritania officials confirmed to AP a massive explosives theft that illustrates why the West is concerned about the region.
A US anti-terror team arrived Saturday in the arid, Arab-dominated Islamic republic of Mauritania, US Deputy Undersecretary of State Pamela Bridgewater told reporters late Sunday during a visit here.
The small team will be followed in coming months by US 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 US 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 US European Command in Stuttgart, Germany.
The initiative also will provide Toyota Land Cruisers, radios, and uniforms for the border efforts in the largely poor countries, a West Africa-based US diplomatic official involved in the program said on condition of anonymity.
US 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 coast lines, alleged al-Qaida 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.
The program marks the low-profile spread of US security efforts away from US bases and NATO deployments at east Africa’s Horn of Africa.
“There is a military principle that a quiet front needs to be watched and dealt with just as seriously as an active front,” the US diplomatic official said. “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 Centre for African Policy and Peace Studies.
In 1999, US officials briefly closed the US Embassy in Senegal, citing intelligence that extremists were scoping out security at embassies in Senegal and other West African nations for a possible attack.
Twin car bombings at US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania killed 231 people in 1998 and were blamed on al-Qaida. North Africa also has seen lethal terror attacks; West Africa, to date, has not.
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.
US congressional researchers and international think-tanks say the nation has al-Qaida cells, and at least one of bin Laden’s top leaders came from Mauritania.
In a coup-prone country, jitters over security threats are such that Mauritanian officials and others were concerned last month when hundreds of boxes of explosives, detonators, fuses and ammonium nitrate, a fertilizer ingredient that can be used for making bombs, disappeared from the state mining company.
Mauritania officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, told The Associated Press this weekend that at least half the explosives had been recovered. Officials insist the materiel had been stolen for routine construction work, rather than terror.
Bridgewater, during her visit, praised anti-terror efforts. Asked if she had heard of any threats against American interests in Senegal or Mauritania, Bridgewater said, “Yes, we have heard. But this question is very sensitive, and I don’t want to respond to this question.”
US officials refused to discuss embassy security levels, and there have been no publicly posted US security warnings here.
With Mali and Niger, Mauritania makes up a triangle of countries whose border with Algeria is seen as a range land for bandit groups mixed with Islamic extremists. In 2003, extremists in Algeria kidnapped dozens of European tourists, one of whom died of heat stroke before survivors were released in Mali. Algeria blamed the Salafist Group to Call and Combat, which the West has linked to al-Qaida.
Some play down the terror threat – – saying the Sahara bands are more bandits than terrorists, and that West African governments may exaggerate their anti-terror efforts at times to secure US support.
The US efforts, in particular the Pan-Sahel Initiative, are meant to help seal the borders against smugglers and arms-traffickers, as well as close the frontiers to terrorists.
But the Sahara is big — and the program too small, critics say. “It’s not nearly adequate. It needs to be stepped up considerably because those frontiers are so open,” said Princeton N. Lyman, senior fellow for the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. “They’re vast territories.”
Associated Press reporters Nafi Diouf, Edward Harris and Ellen Knickmeyer in Dakar, Senegal, and Susan Linnee in Nairobi, Kenya contributed to this report.