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Is U.S. hyping the terror threat in Africa?

Reuters | November 16, 2006
Mark Trevelyan

The question made the Malian army officer laugh out loud.

After four years of counter-terrorism training from the U.S. military to tackle what Washington sees as a militant Islamist threat, did this West African nation feel part of the global war on terror?

"No, not at all," came back the reply.

So what about the U.S. argument that al Qaeda or its offshoots could find sanctuaries in countries like Mali, just as Osama bin Laden took refuge in Sudan and Afghanistan in the 1990s?

"No, no, I don't believe this, no."

It was a rare departure from the official U.S. line -- loyally supported by other Malian commanders in interviews this week -- that Mali and its neighbors on the fringe of the Sahara desert risk becoming destabilized by militant Islamists.

A senior U.S. military official said Washington is set to channel some $600 million over the next five to seven years into the Trans-Sahara Counter-Terrorism Partnership, a program to boost security ties with nine countries: Mali, Chad, Mauritania, Morocco, Algeria, Niger, Senegal, Nigeria and Tunisia.

"Broad expanses of marginally governed areas can become havens for terrorists and criminals and have become ... attractive to terrorist groups increasingly denied sanctuaries in Afghanistan and the Middle East," Gen. James Jones, head of United States European Command (EUCOM), said earlier this year.

A EUCOM internal paper dated August 30 described the trans-Sahara region as "a fertile recruiting ground susceptible to radical terrorist influence and other destabilizing activity".

Frequently cited evidence for the U.S. case is the activity of Algerian militant faction the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), beginning with its kidnap of 32 European tourists in the Sahara desert in 2003.

It has continued to stage intermittent attacks in Algeria, which seem to have increased in scale and frequency in recent weeks. In the past month, suspected GSPC rebels have carried out a string of attacks, most recently on November 8, when they killed at least seven government soldiers, local press reports say.

At the same time, the group has clashed with nomadic Tuareg fighters in northern Mali, which borders Algeria, losing one senior figure but killing nine Tuaregs in a revenge attack on October 23.


Senior Malian officers are concerned about the situation in the north, where the government reached a peace accord in July with Tuaregs who had staged a revolt for more autonomy.

But whether the problems there are caused by terrorists, smuggler gangs or unresolved political grievances is largely a matter of who you speak to.

Acting regional commander Lieutenant-Colonel Brehima Haidara told Reuters the terrorist danger was real: "The threat is the GSPC, al Qaeda."

But he said there was also a battle between the GSPC and Tuareg elements to control trafficking routes across the Sahara, a lucrative channel for contraband cigarettes, drugs and weapons.

A second Malian officer said it was hard to distinguish between GSPC members and smugglers, and played down the notion that the Algerian militants could gain a lasting foothold in Mali.

"It's true some of these people pass through Mali. But to say they are staying here in Mali safely -- no, that's not the case," he said.

Some Western analysts suspect the U.S. military has deliberately talked up the threat of terrorism in the region.

Using the "T" word was an effective way to win more funds for security initiatives there, even though the region is a "pretty distant second" to east Africa and the Horn of Africa in terms of al Qaeda-linked activity, said Mike McGovern of Yale University, formerly West Africa project director with the International Crisis Group think-tank.

British academic Jeremy Keenan went further, accusing Washington of inventing the threat as a means of "securing Africa" and guaranteeing access to its oil supplies.

The Gulf of Guinea countries in West Africa -- Nigeria, Angola, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea and Sao Tome and Principe -- now account for 16 percent of U.S. energy needs, a share expected to rise to 25 percent by 2015 as Washington reduces reliance on supplies from the volatile Middle East.

"By creating this whole terrorist story, what the Americans have done is create the ideological conditions for the militarization of Africa," Keenan said in a telephone interview.

Unsurprisingly, the U.S. military rejects the charge it has hyped the threat. "We're not overplaying or underplaying what is going on," EUCOM deputy commander General William 'Kip' Ward told Reuters in an interview last month

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