Pursuing Terrorists in the Great Desert

The U.S. Military's $500 Million Gamble to Prevent the Next Afghanistan

The full extent of Mali's counterterrorism coordination with the United States is unclear. Publicly, the Defense Department denies sending anyone into the Sahel for purposes other than military training. "We didn't have any forces on the ground," Colonel Vic Nelson, the director of West Africa policy at the Pentagon, said when asked if U.S. troops assisted in the hunt for Saifi. But a defense official from Niger confirmed that U.S. special operations forces, working with their Algerian counterparts, had tracked Saifi in the desert, during his race from Mali through Niger to Chad, and that Americans were present during at least one fight. Similarly, two Malian officials said that uniformed and plainclothed Americans had fanned out through the northern reaches of the country for a span of about six months. Meanwhile, just over the Malian border in Algeria, small teams of elite U.S. troops hunted GSPC fighters, and even "put up some kind of infrastructure," according to The Boston Globe. In other parts of the Sahel, Peace Corps volunteers encountered American soldiers traveling in small units to remote villages, far from training bases.

In March 2004, Africa Analysis Ltd., a British firm that issues subscription-based bulletins on security and economic issues in Africa, reported that there was "gossip" among intelligence experts in Washington that 200 U.S. special-operations forces were in the Sahel for a range of clandestine missions, including "electronic surveillance, coordinating human intelligence with satellite data, and calling in computer-guided air strikes." The report noted that the operatives were assisting in the hunt for Saifi, and that the Pan Sahel Initiative was at least partly "cover" for such activities. It went on to say that some former Special Forces were "adamant" that the "public face [of the initiative was] only part of the story." A former Bush administration official familiar with security issues in the Sahel told me that in late 2003 the U.S. military engaged in "a joint effort" with the Malian army to ambush Islamic militants somewhere near the border with Algeria. This would have occurred when Saifi had just begun operating there. "Our guys were advising," he explained. The former official also suggested that other secret missions had been conducted during that time period. "Rumsfeld had his goons running all over the continent," he said.

When Saifi's convoy finally crossed from Niger into Chad's rugged Tibesti Mountains, it found itself cornered by a small contingent of Chadian soldiers. The two sides fought an intense battle, one that would last for three days. When the Defense Department learned that the Chadian military had intercepted Saifi and his men, orders were rushed to Ramstein Air Base in Germany to prepare two heavy C-130 Hercules aircraft with roughly 20 tons of aid for the Chadian army. Normally, it takes two days for the Air Force to prepare such a mission. Ramstein had to have the planes in the air immediately. There was danger that Saifi might flee again. The convoy had reportedly backed into a large cave for cover, and the soldiers had taken losses—three killed and 16 injured. The Chadian soldiers were ill equipped, with little food, ammunition, or medical supplies. In contrast, Saifi and his men were well armed, with rocket-propelled grenades, automatic rifles, ammunition, night-vision goggles, and advanced communications gear. Ramstein had the C-130s airborne in one hour, and 10 hours later, the planes approached an austere military outpost in northern Chad, the Faya-Largeau Airport.

Ammari Saifi
Illustration: Tim O'Brien
Ammari Saifi

As the pilots prepared to land, the limitations of the Chadian military became evident. Brush and sand encroached on the tarmac. In the 100-degree heat, three dozen Chadian soldiers rushed to help unload the C-130s, but doing the job by hand would be disastrously slow. The crew performed an improvised "offload" and the supplies were rushed to the front. By the battle's end, the soldiers had killed or captured 43 militants. But Saifi and some of his men, once again, slipped away. Hungry, destitute, and uncertain of their precise location, the militants wandered off on foot, only to confront further hardships. In Tibesti's desert mountains—some as high as 10,000 feet—there are virtually no natural sources of food or water. The region is controlled by a secular rebel group known as the Movement for Democracy and Justice in Chad, or MDJT, which has been fighting the Chadian government since 1998. It wasn't long before the rebels found Saifi, put him in chains, and announced that the Sahara's most notorious hostage taker had, himself, been taken hostage.


Raffi Khatchadourian's previous work for the Voice includes the five-part series "Path of a Pipeline," about Caspian Sea oil. While researching this story he was a visiting fellow at Johns Hopkins University–SAIS, with support from the International Reporting Project.

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