Pursuing Terrorists in the Great Desert

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

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A U.S. soldier trains forces in Mali.
photo: Sgt. Leah A. Cobble/Newscom

The limits of U.S. intelligence raises another important question about netwar's effectiveness. Identifying clear targets in places like North Africa and the Sahel, where political rebellion, common criminality, and international terrorism merge seamlessly, may be not only difficult, but impossible. Xavier Raufer, a terrorism expert at the University of Paris, told me that many GSPC fighters were essentially "bandits by day, jihadists by night." In his writings, Raufer refers to "hybrid groups" composed of such militants—men like Saifi, or Mokhtar Belmokhtar—who operate within "melting pots of crime" that "blend religious fanaticism, famine, massacres, piracy at sea, or airline hijacking with [the] trafficking of human beings, drugs, arms, toxic substances, or gems." These men are experts at exploiting the political and economic vulnerabilities of their societies: Black-market activities like cigarette and gun smuggling fuel their operations, but those same black markets also serve as important sources of income for people who live in the most desolate and impoverished reaches of the Sahara. A netwar-type strike that brings down the wrong militant, or even the right one, might curtail regional smuggling, but with no economic alternatives in place, it will likely strand and anger the very people the United States is trying to win over in the Muslim world.

Some Africa specialists complain that since 9-11 the United States has wrongfully collapsed the Sahel's manifold problems into an all-too-simple issue: hunting bad guys. "We are exaggerating the whole terrorism thing," said Robert Pringle, a former ambassador to Mali. Benjamin Soares, an anthropologist at the African Studies Centre in Leiden, Holland, agreed. "There is some hysteria about the terrorist threat in the Sahel," he said. "Heads need to be cooler." Similar views can be found in Washington, where a number of people said that European Command had a bureaucratic imperative to cast militant Islam in the region as an impending danger. A retired CIA specialist in counterterrorism told me that European Command had its "nose out of joint" because the main theaters of the war on terrorism fell under Central Command, the division responsible for American forces in Afghanistan and Iraq. A former U.S. diplomat who worked closely with the Defense Department said, "I mean, for European Command, when they tore down the Berlin Wall, a lot of their missions evaporated—so it's a matter of having resources [allocated by Congress] and then trying to find missions to justify them." A State Department official familiar with the military's Saharan strategy called it "a hammer looking for a nail."


Still, no matter what motivates European Command, there are good reasons to keep a careful eye on the region. During Saifi's push into southern Algeria, and then into Mali, Niger, and Chad, he left behind, in each country, a kind of organizational imprint. "What he did was set up a fantastic structure," Selma Belaala, a North Africa specialist, said. "It can be activated whenever it's needed." This is possibly one reason why the 9-11 Commission Report cites Mali as a potential haven for terrorists; Islamists from Saudi Arabia and Pakistan have been targeting key Malian communities for conversion to the most radical forms of Islam, and tellingly much of that activity is occurring in parts of the country where the government has little or no control. As William J. Foltz, a professor of African studies at Yale and a former member of the National Intelligence Council, explained: "If you take the whole Sahel, it's not a threat in the sense that it's going to declare war on the United States, but the United States generally pays a price if there is great disorder going in some part of the world." Such places, in fact, have been a topic of intense discussion throughout the Defense Department since the end of the Cold War. Thomas Barnett, a military theorist whose ideas are popular within European Command, argues that societies cut off from globalization constitute a dangerous "non-integrating gap." He says that their "disconnectedness is the ultimate enemy"—the root cause of myriad political ills and threats—and that the United States' primary national security objective should be to "shrink the gap." Wald has framed this notion as "the problem of ungoverned spaces," and Wald's superior, General James Jones, demonstrated a competent understanding of how the problem could be solved when he told Congress: "I think the only way to halt the trends that we see going on with the migration of radical fundamentalism [into the Sahel] is to give people some alternative. And the alternative is not just military dictatorship and oppression. The alternative is education, jobs, and market development. And this is where, if we turn our focus on—at least in those areas that warrant it—I think we can make dramatic changes in a short period of time."


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General Charles F. Wald
photo: Sani Mohammed
If fighting a netwar requires working with effective partners, and if the Sahel doesn't have many, then it should not come as a shock that European Command is becoming increasingly involved in training and equipping the region's militaries. Not long ago, General Carlton Fulford, who retired from European Command in 2002, explained just how much work needed to be done. On an official trip to Mali, he inspected a military outpost near Algeria. "You've got 30 Malian soldiers with their families," Fulford told me. "It's basically a 'camel corps' and their job is to monitor the border." Fulford did some math in his head; the border was roughly 750 miles long. "It basically took them a year to cover," he went on, "if they even ended up covering all of it." After his visit to the frontier, he met with the Malian president and asked how the camel corps could be effective in so vast and desolate an area. "Those regions are tribal," the president replied. "No one comes in without me knowing." As Fulford told the story, he paused to consider that last statement. He understood the importance of local knowledge, he said, but "it's going to take a bit more than that."
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