Nouakchott, Mauritania The United States is expanding anti-terror efforts to the remote reaches of West Africa's Sahara borders, dispatching U.S. troops and contractors to help seal the predominantly Islamic region to al-Qaida and its allies.
American officials gave The Associated Press details of the anti-terror program, and Mauritania officials confirmed to AP a massive explosives theft that illustrates why the West is concerned about the region.
A U.S. anti-terror team arrived Saturday in the arid, Arab-dominated Islamic republic of Mauritania, U.S. Deputy Undersecretary of State Pamela Bridgewater said.
The small team will be followed in coming months by U.S. Army experts and defense contractors, under a $100 million Bush administration anti-terror initiative for the Saharan nations of Mauritania, Mali, Chad and Niger.
The U.S. Pan-Sahel Initiative will provide 60 days of training to military units within the four nations, coaching them in everything from desert navigation to small-unit infantry tactical skills, said Lt. Col. M.J. Jadick, spokeswoman for the U.S. European Command in Stuttgart, Germany.
The initiative also will provide Toyota Land Cruisers, radios, and uniforms for the border efforts in the largely poor countries, a West Africa-based U.S. diplomatic official involved in the program said on condition of anonymity.
The West long has seen plenty to worry about in the western Sahara: little-patrolled desert crossings and coastlines, alleged al-Qaida cells, centuries-old trade and cultural links to the Middle East, and large sectors of Muslim populations sympathetic to Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein.
The program marks the low-profile spread of U.S. security efforts away from U.S. bases and NATO deployments at East Africa's Horn of Africa.
"There is a military principle that a quiet front needs to be watched and dealt with just as seriously as an active front," the U.S. diplomatic official said.
"We've seen how the terrorists operate -- instead of going for the obvious countries, they go for soft spots. And the spots are usually the countries that have low levels of security," said analyst Dapo Oyewole, London-based executive director of the Centre for African Policy and Peace Studies.