U.S. Marines are in the process of training an elite force of troops in Niger, according to Sept. 23 media reports. The Nigerien force, part of the military's Trans-Sahara Counter Terrorist Initiative, includes 150 soldiers, parachute commandos and reconnaissance snipers who will be expected to use U.S. intelligence to vanquish al Qaeda-linked militants if they attempt to operate in Niger's vast uninhabited regions. At this point, the Niger operation appears to be purely preventive — but is not the only one of its kind. Washington's strategic interest in Africa has expanded since the war on terrorism began, which has led to an effort to prevent militants from using African nations as recruiting centers, training grounds, safe havens, planning areas — and, especially, export centers. The U.S. efforts aim to ensure that African countries are able to fight their own battles against militants — or at least inform the United States of new problems — and to ask for help when needed to ensure militants do not become a larger problem than they already have proven to be in some regions of the continent.
Although the world is concentrating on jihadist insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan, militant activity exists — and may be spreading — throughout Africa. Many high-profile al Qaeda militants come from African countries and have returned to Africa, as the continent offers militants many attractive features: porous borders, instable and corrupt governments, large unpopulated areas, and Islamic populations. In addition, advances in technology, such as satellite phones and GPS devices, allow militants to operate effectively from outlying areas while staying under the radar of local law enforcement who have not been equipped to deal with the threat. Though somewhat under the radar, militant activity in the North African region has been proven. Bombings in Casablanca in May 2003 were attributed to al Qaeda-linked militants, and a Tunisian and several Moroccans were arrested in the Morocco-planned Madrid railway bombing. In addition, after South Africa was identified as a militant transit point, serious concerns were raised about the potential for militants to travel undetected from the north, or from around the world. American officials have expressed the concern that nations such as France, Spain and Afghanistan that crack down on militants force them to return to remote bases in Africa. The United States began carrying out operations against militants in Africa before the Sept. 11 attacks, due to the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania, and Nairobi, Kenya. But Washington had not made an overt effort to train local squads to aid in this effort. Following the lead of the French government, which provides counterterrorism training in many African francophone countries, and of NATO", the United States launched two initiatives aimed at ensuring militants do not gain a foothold — or more of a foothold — in Africa: the State Department-funded Pan Sahel Initiative, focusing on Northern Africa, and the Defense Department's Combined Joint Task Force Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA). The Pan Sahel Initiative began in 2003 to help create a counterterrorism infrastructure in Chad, Niger, Mali and Mauritania, all nations with predominantly Muslim populations. The State Department Office of Counterterrorism oversees the $125 million initiative, which has grown to include Senegal and may be further expanded to include Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia, and possibly Libya in the future. Under this initiative, about 350 soldiers compose the European Command's Terrorism Mobile Training Team, which is supported by several ground and airborne special-forces units, contingency response groups and airlift squadrons who are rotated into the regions when needed. The plan is to help these countries improve border and coastal security, create aviation security programs, learn to counter extremist influences, curb militant fund-raising and money-laundering operations, and track the movement of people through the largely ungoverned areas. In addition, the United States provides the funding for these countries to buy such terrorism-fighting luxuries as pickup trucks, two-way radios and global positioning devices. The Defense Department created the CJTF-HOA in October 2002 to detect, disrupt and defeat transnational terrorism and enhance long-term stability in the region. The force, headquartered in the small nation of Djibouti in the northeastern Africa, carries out its mission in Djibouti, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Sudan, Kenya, Somalia and Yemen, as well as in the coastal waters of the Red Sea, Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean. The task force includes more than 1,200 Marines and special operations soldiers, and 200 to 400 other American military and civilian personnel at Camp Lemonier in Djibouti and other outposts in the region. U.S. Central Command officers confirm that this force has participated in operations sanctioned by host governments that have successfully rooted out militants. So far, host governments have welcomed the operations, and the counterterrorism-training objectives have been met. Military commanders point to Kenya, Yemen, Djibouti and Ethiopia, where successful raids have disrupted potential attacks. Though scheduling is in the works for more countries to receive this type of aid, nations not in the programs, such as Nigeria and Sudan, will need to be carefully monitored to ensure they do not turn into dream locations for militants.