Saturday, November 06, 2004

Trans-Sahara Counter Terrorism Initiative

Fearing that huge tracts of largely deserted African territory could become a safe haven for terrorist groups, the US is poised to increase efforts to assist governments on the continent to better control their territory.

According to Gen Charles Wald, Deputy Commander of US European Command (EUCOM), there is a lack of government control in and around the Sahara region and “we can’t allow areas like that to be ungoverned, to become a haven for terrorists”.

A new US security assistance programme, called the Trans-Sahara Counter-Terrorism Initiative (TSCTI) and costing as much as $100 million, aims to address these concerns. The programme would be an expanded follow-on to the Pan Sahel Initiative (PSI), which helped train and equip one rapid-reaction company, about 150 soldiers, in each of the four Saharan states: Mali, Mauritania, Niger and Chad.

The follow-on programme is needed, US officials say, because increasing the capability of friendly governments in the region to better control their territory is a long-term process and one that Gen Wald said Washington was committed to maintaining. One US defence official added that, given the vast swaths of territory involved, 150 soldiers per country “is not nearly enough”. The TSCTI would train additional forces, include more countries and help foster better information sharing and operational planning between regional states, considered as important as creating new units.

The problem, Gen Wald said, is that the Sahel has a history of being a centre through which arms and other illicit trade have flowed. Now, terrorists could seek to use those traditional routes as a safe haven, a recruiting ground, or for fund raising. Explaining US concerns, Gen Wald said the problem was “a combination of some [current] terrorism activity and the potential for a lot more if we don’t watch it”.

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