By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, May 16, 2005 – A new program to begin this summer will galvanize an interagency effort to prevent terrorists from establishing a foothold in Africa.
The Trans Saharan Counterterrorism Initiative will officially kick off in June with Exercise Flintlock 2005, according to Theresa Whelan, deputy assistant secretary of defense for African affairs.
U.S. special operations forces will train their counterparts in seven Saharan countries, teaching military tactics critical in enhancing regional security and stability. At the same time, they will encourage the participating nations to work collaboratively toward confronting regional issues, Whelan said during an interview today with the American Forces Press Service.
The Trans Saharan initiative builds on the successful Pan Sahel Initiative, launched after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to prevent terrorists from setting up safe havens in Africa.
Vast, relatively unpopulated areas and a lack of strong government controls make parts of Africa particularly attractive to terrorists, Whelan explained. Traditional caravan routes in this area can provide hideouts and staging areas for international and regional terrorists and criminals who move goods and money to support their operations without detection or interference, she said.
Other factors — war, poverty, disease, corruption and lack of education, among them – create an atmosphere of hopelessness where extremists’ messages resonate, particularly with the younger generation, she said.
“The very conditions that cause these humanitarian tragedies are also the very conditions that lead to breeding grounds for the kinds of threats that we’re most concerned about in this region,” Whelan said.
The Pan Sahel Initiative, which began in 2003, helped address this problem by training and equipping six light infantry companies in Mali, Mauritania, Chad and Niger in skills needed to help secure the region’s vast border areas.
One of the program’s biggest successes was the capture of Abderrazak al-Para, a key figure in the extremist Salafist Group for Call and Combat, who was turned over to the Algerian government last year.
But despite its successes, Whelan said, the Pan Sahel Initiative was constrained from its inception by limited funding and a limited focus. The $6.25 million in funding it received during its first year as part of the State Department’s budget represented “just a drop in the bucket” in light of the need, she said.
“It was a little bit of a Band-Aid approach” to the security crisis in the region, she said, but at least represented a positive step forward.
“We were under no illusions that a single company could, say, patrol and control the whole Mauritanian border,” she said. “But we felt that if they had a military unit that was capable of responding more effectively to information on threats in the region, that that would at least we a step in the right direction.”
The Pan Sahel Initiative and the inroads it made laid important groundwork for the new Trans Saharan Counterterrorism Initiative, she said.
The new program will be better funded – it will receive about $100 million a year for five years – and have a wider scope, adding Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Senegal and Nigeria to the original four countries included in the Pan Sahel Initiative, Whelan said.
And unlike the program it replaces, Whelan said the Trans Saharan Counterterrorism Initiative will introduce a more comprehensive approach to regional security.
The Defense Department will continue to focus on military operations, expanding its scope from the company to the battalion level.
But other U.S. government agencies also will become active players in the program, Whelan said. The U.S. Agency for International Development, for example, will address educational initiatives; the State Department, airport security; and the Department of Treasury, efforts to tighten up money-handling controls in the region.
“It becomes a broader package approach,” Whelan said. “You’re not just developing one muscle in the body, you’re developing the whole body.”
While providing an interagency approach to the region, the United States will continue efforts to get participating nations to think regionally about their mutual security concerns. “If we revert to bilateral, stovepipe programs, we simply won’t be as effective as if we can maintain a multilateral effort,” Whelan said.
Whalen said the new initiative represents an important step in the United States’ effort to address and fight global terror, with an emphasis on prevention rather than reaction.
By building African nation’s ability to counter terrorism within their borders, the United States can help prevent the region from becoming a safe haven where terrorists can train, organize and plan their operations, she said.
“This is an excellent example of getting ahead of the power curve and not being behind it and having to try to catch up,” she said. “And we are getting ahead of the power curve by building the capacity of our friends.”
The notion that the United States is capable of confronting the threat of global terrorism alone is “just a physical impossibility,” Whelan said.
“So you have to build the capacity of like-minded states to be able to help you confront the threat. And that’s what the Trans Saharan Counterterrorism Initiative represents.”