The New York Times is reporting that the U.S. is helping to form elite counter-terror units within the militaries of four African countries. It’s another sign that the U.S. views Islamist extremism in western and northern Africa as more than a purely local or regional threat.
The four countries — Niger, Mauritania, Mali, and Libya — are all problematic and potentially unstable. Their governments aren’t necessarily in immediate danger of falling to Jihadi organisations. But they’re the types of places where Islamist groups are strong enough, and the government is weak enough, to potentially send the country on the path to state collapse or civil war, barring the kind of high-level security assistance the U.S. is capable of providing.
Niger is home to some of the world’s largest uranium reserves, thanks to the facility at Arlit — which was the target of an Al Qaeda affiliate attack in May of 2013. Later that year, 22 terror suspects were freed during a prison break in the capital of Niamy, an operation that an Al Qaeda splinter group orchestrated.
Mauritania is a restive multi-ethnic state held together by a deeply corrupt yet relatively pro-western military regime. But Mauritania is a safe haven for Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, a development that apparently overrides the moral hazards of training its military, at least in the minds of U.S. planners.
In 2012, the northern half of Mali fell to an Al Qaeda affiliate within months of a military coup in the capital of Bamako. The leader of the coup was a U.S.-trained army officer. The swiftness of Mali’s near-collapse, and the gathering threat from AQIM, are apparently still alarming enough to justify increased military-to-military cooperation.
Libya is perhaps the most problematic of these four countries. Parts of Libya have been sliding into anarchy since the 2011 NATO intervention that helped overthrow dictator Muammar Gaddafi. With even the military fracturing in the face of Islamist militias, the U.S. could be looking for any source of potential stability in a Mediterranean country where the state’s long-term survival is still in question.
The U.S. has had some success in training elite troops for African governments operating under the threat of international terrorism. The most competent branch of Somalia’s nascent military is the U.S.-trained Alpha Group, which has helped preserve the Somali government in the face of attacks from Al Shabaab, an Al Qaeda-linked Jihadist organisation that once ruled most of Somalia’s capital city.
This new training program is yet another attempt at preserving weak states against what’s perceived as a growing Islamist threat — and it’s an acknowledgment of just how capable and ambitious Al Qaeda’s African affiliates, and regional Jihadist groups with Al Qaeda-like ideologies, have become.
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