Pursuing Terrorists in the Great Desert

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

While senior U.S. military commanders monitored Saifi's growing influence in the Sahel, they pressured the Malian government to take aggressive action. According to a U.N. official, the Malian government was hesitant to attack the convoy because it "feared that the GSPC might retaliate." A former U.S. diplomat in the region said the Defense Department was "unhappy because basically, the Malians haven't gone and kicked butt in the desert." Where Mali's impoverished army was too timid, or unable, to act, the U.S. military stepped in. American Navy P-3 Orion reconnaissance aircraft, dispatched from Italy, tracked Saifi's movements, and U.S. "military experts," according to a local press report, conducted operations on the ground. American military teams in northern Mali helped Algerian and local security forces chase Saifi's militia into Niger, where they engaged in several gunfights. They found that the convoy, though battered, was well equipped for desert warfare. Saifi had fitted the vehicles with GPS navigational devices that enabled his men to locate secret caches of water and supplies in the vast, uninhabited stretches of desert. In truck beds, 12.7mm machine guns and 14.5mm Russian anti-aircraft guns threatened adversaries that approached by land and air.

With the multinational force closing in, and American reconnaissance planes observing from above, Saifi's convoy raced across Niger toward the Chadian border. As the vehicles pushed forward, weapons rattled in their mountings and the roar of engines cut through the desert silence. Stray rocks and loose sand battered the vehicles' exteriors. Windshields clouded over with sediment. During a recent battle, fire had damaged some gear, and certain electrical devices began to fail. One truck broke down near a forlorn place in Niger known as the Tree of Ténéré, where an ancient and solitary acacia once stood. The truck was abandoned. Occasionally, if Saifi believed there was time for prayer, he might stop the convoy. At these moments, his men would walk some way from the trucks, lay in a row their small woven rugs over the ocher dust, shriveled scrub, and stones, and bow toward Mecca. Sometimes, as they prayed, fierce winds would blow through the folds of their desert gowns, and the sun would cast their shadows across the sand.

Ammari Saifi
Illustration: Tim O'Brien
Ammari Saifi

In the desert mountains, Chadian rebels proved more adept than government soldiers.
photo: Alvaro Canovas/Paris Match/Gamma
The American most attentively following the convoy's trajectory as it approached the jagged foothills of Chad's Tibesti Mountains was arguably Charles F. Wald, a four-star Air Force general and the deputy commander of U.S. European Command in Stuttgart, Germany. European Command oversees American troops and military operations in 91 countries, from Europe to the former Soviet Union to Africa. Wald is a former F-15 fighter pilot who has flown missions in Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Iraq, and Bosnia, and is known as a forward-thinking strategist and a man who is quick to speak his mind. (Recently, he announced that the Pentagon might soon begin working with Libya—a prediction that, he later kidded, provoked a reprimand from the military's public affairs office, but which he holds to be true.) In the 1980s, Wald headed a counterterrorism center for the Air Force. After the 9-11 attacks, he became a key architect in developing the Pentagon's new strategy for northern, western, and southern Africa.

The United States began taking an interest in the security problems of North Africa and the Sahel not long after 9-11. In 2002, State Department officials were monitoring terrorist groups worldwide and determined that people and money with "links" to Al Qaeda had been moving into the region. The links seemed to be small and isolated, but the State Department believed that, if ignored, they could lead to an entrenched Al Qaeda presence. After all, from 1992 to 1996, bin Laden had operated from the Sahel, in Sudan. And so the officials approached Wald and other members of European Command with a proposal to deploy U.S. forces to the region. As Wald would later recall, the logic behind the program was: "Where there's smoke, there's fire—and one of the lessons we've learned [from Afghanistan] is you can't wait for the problem to become large and then address it." Wald has called for better intelligence on African terrorism, and for U.S. operatives to "infiltrate" the countries that share the desert "so we can get into their environment."

Netwar promises to be an effective way to fight terrorists, but it also risks causing political chaos, or worse, lethal military confusion.

Some State Department officials said that European Command began with an inappropriately aggressive strategy. For instance, in 2002 the two sides fought bitterly over aerial bombing missions that the military had drawn up for the region. A Pentagon official told me that these missions were never "serious options." But on at least one occasion, military strategists in Germany clashed with the State Department over how to deal with an Algerian militant named Mokhtar Belmokhtar, "The One-Eyed." Mokhtar had ties to the GSPC, and for years had run a transnational smuggling and banditry operation from the deserts of northern Mali. The U.S. military believed that after 9-11 Mokhtar was recruiting and arming religious radicals in the area; it wanted to attack his camps. The State Department argued that the intelligence on Mokhtar was not conclusive, and the American embassy in Mali insisted that an air strike on Mokhtar would "radicalize people you don't want to radicalize," according to a U.S. government official in the Sahel. In the end, the attack was called off. Vicki Huddleston, who was then U.S. ambassador to Mali, said that rather than arming terrorists, Mokhtar was supporting the Kunta Arabs, a nomadic group that was fighting other desert tribes. Huddleston has since retired from government, and declined to discuss her official conversations with European Command, but when asked about the dispute, she said, "If you're correct that we discouraged [the Defense Department], it was a good thing. If we had bombed a bunch of Kuntas, I think the whole place would have gone crazy. They're certainly not terrorists."

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