Ag Metkyâ€™s mission is a tiny part of what the Americans call the Trans-Sahara Counter-Terrorism Partnership. Under this initiative small teams of American special forces train the local soldiers of Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger, and work with the armies of Algeria, Morocco, Nigeria, Senegal and Tunisia, to control what they call the â€œundergovernedâ€ spaces of the Sahara: vast swathes of desert where people have been in various states of rebellion for years and which more recently have been visited by radical Islamist clerics and new terrorist groups.
The Americans particularly fear that if terrorists manage to consolidate bases in the Sahel, the southern fringe of the Sahara desert that extends from Mauritania in the west to Sudan in the east, they may be able to penetrate into the soft underbelly of Europe via Morocco and Algeria. That was the route taken in 2004 by the perpetrators of the train-bombings in Madrid, most of them Moroccan, when nearly 200 people were killed.
The Horn is getting sharper
In East Africa, the United States is already intimately involved in a full-blown offensive against al-Qaeda in Somalia. America helped Ethiopia invade Somalia at the end of last year to topple the terroristsâ€™ supposed protectors, the Union of Islamic Courts. The Americans have been battling al-Qaeda in the region ever since it blew up the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, killing at least 225 people. Now their armed forces are becoming a lot more involved in the rest of Africa. A new American command for Africa, known as AFRICOM, will for the first time co-ordinate on the continent unified command.
This, says General William Ward, one of the men in charge of setting up the new command, is â€œa recognition of the increasing and growing importance of Africaâ€ - mainly due to terrorists and oil. The aim, he says, is to bring stability to the poor, fragile Muslim countries along the Saharan belt that might otherwise collapse and create havens for terrorists of the sort Afghanistan became under the Taliban.
American concern about terrorism in Africa is sharpened by a growing need for African oil. Nigeria is the continentâ€™s biggest exporter of oil to America. The fact that half of its population of about 140m is Muslim worries American counter-terrorist experts. Nigeria already faces an insurgencyâ€”not, so far, connected to Muslim grievancesâ€”in its oil-rich Delta region.
Further south down the Atlantic coast, Angola is another country whose oil has led to a deepening American involvement. The United States recognised Angola only in 1993, after cold-shouldering its Russian-backed government for the previous 20 years during the cold war. Now it is building one of its largest embassies in Africa there and pouring in aid. Angola is already Africaâ€™s second-biggest exporter of oil, and could overtake Nigeria.
American officials insist that AFRICOM will not be all about building bases and airstrips but will co-operate with development agencies, NGOs and diplomats to win African hearts and minds and so deny terrorists havens from which to operate. Rear Admiral William McRaven, head of the special forces now operating in the Sahara, says his men are much more likely to drill boreholes and build houses than to shoot at anyone.
â€œI donâ€™t want a fragile state collapsing any more than Green-peace or USAID does,â€ he says.
Part of the appeal of a preventive institution-building strategy such as this is that it costs far less than having to intervene with military force in places, such as Somalia, where weak states have already failed. Chastened by the difficulties American forces have encountered after their interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia, AFRICOM says it wants to learn from past mistakes and do things better.
It all makes eminent sense. But is the threat of terrorism in Africa big enough to justify the American investment?
One genuine threat is posed by a group now calling itself al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghrebâ€”AQIM in American military shorthand. It was formed last year after Algeriaâ€™s Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, better known by its French initials GSPC, joined up with local units of al-Qaeda.
The GSPC itself emerged out of Algeriaâ€™s civil war in the 1990s, in which some 200,000 died. Its most recent attack, a car bombing in Algiers in April, killed at least 30 people.
The CIA thinks that AQIM may have about 100-150 operatives, who could be â€œforce multipliersâ€, meaning that they could train many more jihadists in the mobile training camps the Americans claim to have identified in northern Maliâ€™s deserts near the Algerian border.
The Americans worry that AQIM may link up with murkier groups, such as the Black Taliban of northern Nigeria. The group was blamed for an attack in April in the city of Kano. This killed scores of people. But the Black Talibanâ€™s guilt has been hard to confirm. It is equally hard to confirm claims that, on top of the Algerian and Moroccan groups, there exists a growing terrorist network elsewhere in the Sahel, and perhaps even a line of communication and supply reaching right across to Somalia and even on to Iraq.
In general, West Africa has practised a tolerant and peaceful Islam. But Muslim fundamentalists under the banner of Salafism are certainly becoming more active in the region. One Islamist movement that may be gaining ground is Tablighi Jamaat. Though it does not overtly call for involvement in politics, its creed, spread mainly by Pakistanis, has inspired a number of terrorists, including Richard Reid, the British convert who tried to blow up an American aircraft in 2001 with an explosive-packed shoe, and John Walker Lindh, the â€œAmerican Talibanâ€ caught by American forces in Afghanistan in 2001 and sentenced to 20 years for terrorism a year later.
In Africa, the superpowerâ€™s struggle for hearts and minds maybe easier than in the Middle East. Africans still think of America as a foe of colonialism. A growing number, especially in English-speaking countries, share the evangelical Protestantism that is popular in America. And in African eyes the American dream has lately been given a new fillip by the presidential candidacy of Barack Obama, the American son of a Muslim from Kenya.
On top of this, Africans know that the superpowerâ€™s military investment wil bring money and jobs. The budget of Trans-Sahara Counter-Terrorism Paitnership for 2007 is about $115m, while non-military assistance increased by about 60% last year as well. Unimaginable in many parts of the world, there is keen competition among African countries to host AFRICOMâ€™s new headquarters.
The Economist, June 16, 2007
US military penetrates Africaâ€™s heartland