Two dozen U.S. Marines are currently giving anti-terrorism training to Niger's army to protect the West African nation's large desert areas from becoming transit areas for terrorists. Niger is the last stop for the four-country, $8 million U.S. exercises, previously held in Mali, Mauritania and Chad. Soldiers seem to welcome the training, but as VOA's Nico Colombant reports from the Tondibiah military camp in southern Niger, ordinary citizens and human rights activists appear more skeptical.
Marines bark orders, as teams of two Nigerien soldiers fire machine guns at the sniper range of the Tondibiah camp on the outskirts of Niamey.
More training is needed though, as once again, the soldiers have fired out of order. As dust swirls around him, Sergeant Scott Hill explains, they are also shooting in the wrong direction.
"You have to aim on six o'clock on the target, you're pulling it in really tight and the A-gunners have to be talking to these guys, and letting them know exactly where they're shooting," he explains.
Niger's Sergeant-Major Ibrahim is acting as translator. He has been given repeated training in the United States, and says he welcomes the American way of getting things done, even in these dry, hot desert conditions.
"I know that they would be able to adapt everywhere in the world," he says. "I know them, I work with Americans. I used to be in American schools. I've been trained by Americans, so I know a little bit of who they are."
Later in the morning, lessons have been learned, and rounds go off without comment. The officer in charge, Major Paul Baker, says, despite cultural barriers in this largely Muslim nation, training is progressing nicely.
"They've been very friendly, very supportive. We've had absolutely nothing negative, as far as a Muslim threat, or anything," he notes. "They have been soldiers. We have been soldiers. Together, we have trained warriors, and that's what we do."
Other activities include closed quarter combat, making antennas out of wire and water bottles, as well as mortar training with cans.
Defense attaché at the U.S Embassy Roman Fontes says, because Niger is wedged between unstable neighbors Nigeria, Algeria, Mali and Chad, the terrorist threat is present.
"You have a number of different elements, such as traffickers that can involve anything from smuggling weapons to drugs to cigarettes that cross the whole of Niger, a lot of commercial interests in a very mobile society," he says. "And mixed in with them, you have the Salafists group that's common to everybody as the group Salafist for Preaching Combat, the GSPC, that comes out of Algeria that have trafficked and crossed through Niger in the north. They have ties to different other terrorist organizations in the world. Here in Niger you have to be aware of it, that it is going, on and it is a concern, and part of what we do here is to keep on track with the latest events on that."
After a recruiting trip through Mali, Niger and Chad earlier this year, leaders of the Salafist group, who seek to impose an Islamic state in Algeria, were captured by Chadian rebels. They remain in their custody.
Despite this terrorist presence, many Nigeriens, interviewed for this report, say they are skeptical of the usefulness of the American training. Some suggested more intelligence was needed instead.
The skepticism was particularly strong in the Islamic stronghold of Maradi, as Muslims went to attend evening prayers.
One shopkeeper, Maman Iro, says he fears that if Niger's military becomes too strong, it might unleash a crackdown on Islamist activists like himself.
He also says he doesn't want to see a repeat scenario of what happened in Algeria, where Islamists turned into extremists, after being ostracized by the government. A university student, Abdourahman al-Kassoum, also fears the anti-terrorism training could incite terrorism, rather than squash it.
"If there are terrorists in the north of Niger Republic, the answer could not be the violence, could not be the weapons, but the soft power, the negotiations, the dialogue, that's the best way," he adds. "If we take an example, in Sierra Leone, in Liberia, in Ivory Coast, everywhere in this world, we can see that never, never, violence has never been a response, has never been a weapon, has never been a power to eradicate the violence, to eradicate the terrorists, to eradicate the rebellion."
A Niamey-based human rights activist, Saidou Arji, also fears bolstering the army will lead to civilian casualties.
"You know, when soldiers are striking terrorists, they can kill other people, who are not terrorists," he says. "In Niger we have the experience during the Tuareg rebellion, sometimes soldiers killed citizens, because they think that the citizens are with the rebels. Sometimes, there are errors, because soldiers can kill people and discover after that they are not rebels."
Back at the camp, about 50 Nigerien soldiers are learning how to conduct desert raids. In all, 150 soldiers are receiving the training to become Niger's anti-terrorism unit. After the seven weeks of training, the Marines will be leaving behind 12 trucks, cartridges, uniforms, land navigation tools, fuel cans and other equipment.
For their part, some of the Marines will be heading back to Iraq, where they will apply their own training in combating terrorist groups.