Pursuing Terrorists in the Great Desert

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

By the end of 2004 it appeared as though Saifi might languish in Chad's Tibesti Mountains indefinitely. Brahim Tchouma, an MDJT leader, told me by satellite phone that he had tried, in vain, to turn Saifi over to the United States. "I personally made several overtures to the American ambassador in Paris," he said, "but the embassy put me in touch with someone who didn't want to listen. He kept saying, 'No, no, no. I don't deal with that.' He kept saying that his department was not responsible for that sort of thing. That's when I let it go. I figured that the Americans could do whatever they wanted with the information that I had given to them, and I called The New York Times." Eventually, Saifi was handed over to Libya, which in turn passed him along to Algeria, where he stood trial last year. In June, a jury in Algiers pronounced Saifi guilty of forming a terrorist group and "propagating terror among a population." He received a life sentence. The Algerian government has kept many details about the trial secret, and it is unclear whether Saifi will be extradited to Germany or anywhere else. An official at European Command told me, "Personally, I think he's probably dead, or wishes he was."

Not long before the verdict, I visited Mali to follow up on what the United States was doing in the Sahel. Since the war in Iraq, talk of a heightened terrorist threat in the region was occurring against a dismaying backdrop: The Sahel's economic difficulties appeared to be on the rise too. Locust plagues had affected crop yields. Same with drought. As was widely reported last year, famine in Niger scarred the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. The leaders of European Command say that they recognize that the military can only be of limited help on such issues. (The Defense Department has spent $20 million in AIDS programs throughout the continent.) "Africa's problems are not going to be solved by the United States military," Wald said at AEI. "They can't be." And he is correct— especially in the Sahel. But because no other U.S. agency is paying much attention to what is happening in the region, it is the military that has come to define what the United States is doing in this part of the world. USAID, for instance, has an office in only one of the four countries that participated in the Pan Sahel Initiative, and money for non-military projects has been scarce. In 2003, bilateral American aid to Mali, Mauritania, Niger, and Chad averaged less than $3 per person.

European Command says that future missions across the Great Desert will have important humanitarian components to them. But the job goes far beyond the military's capabilities. Barnett points out that the United States must export "justice as much as order" and, more importantly, ensure that the world's poorest, most isolated societies have greater economic opportunities. "That is how you turn a 'heroic' terrorist into a common criminal: you surround him with a society deeply connected to the larger world of rules, opportunity, and hope," Barnett explains in his book The Pentagon's New Map. "You render him an outcast among his own. You shame him out of existence. What you cannot do is simply catch him and kill him, because there will always be more. Over time, your violence will be delegitimized and his honored, unless yours is employed on behalf of a society growing in connectivity. Your effort must be intimately identified with that growing connectivity; your war must be in the context of everything else."

Ammari Saifi
Illustration: Tim O'Brien
Ammari Saifi

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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