DAKAR — U.S. President Barack Obama plans a visit to Senegal as the country, and the greater Sahel region, face unprecedented security challenges from transnational jihadist groups like Boko Haram in Nigeria and The Signed in Blood brigade, thought to be active from northern Mali to Libya. The United States is for the first time offering cash rewards to help track down the leaders of these and other terrorist groups in West Africa, a move that analysts say reflects the severity of the threat to the region as well the decades-old U.S. strategy of containing threats in Africa by helping local security forces fight them off themselves.
France blitzed into Mali in January with air strikes and 4,000 ground troops to push back a southern offensive by al-Qaida affiliates still active in the Sahel-Sahara region.
That is not something you will see the United States doing in the region anytime soon despite the recent targeting and killing of Americans at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi and a natural gas facility in Ain Amenas.
President Barack Obama said in May that America will not be opening new fronts in the war on terror.
“And while we are vigilant for signs that these groups may pose a transnational threat, most are focused on operating in the countries and regions where they are based," he said. "And that means we'll face more localized threats like what we saw in Benghazi, or the BP oil facility in Algeria, in which local operatives -- perhaps in loose affiliation with regional networks - launch periodic attacks against Western diplomats, companies, and other soft targets, or resort to kidnapping and other criminal enterprises to fund their operations.”
U.S. military engagement in Africa centers on training missions like one conducted in Senegal in 2013.
An American-trained army captain overthrew Mali's government in March 2012. The U.S. had poured millions of dollars into Mali's army to help it fight the terrorists who then took over the north after the coup.
International Crisis Group West Africa Director, Gilles Yabi says training African troops is a good idea but the crisis in Mali offers some lessons.
"You can't just train a core nucleus of soldiers within the armed forces to be very competent in counter-terrorism, while not addressing the fact that the army as a whole is dysfunctional," he said.
Coordinated double suicide attacks in northern Niger that killed at least 26 people in May have been some of the worst regional fallout incidents from the French-led intervention in Mali. Countries in the region are bracing for more.
"The Sahel-Sahara zone is very vast and not very populated. It is difficult to operate and fight in the desert," said retired Senegalese military police colonel and former defense attache to Mali, Djibril Ba. "Security forces must depend on locals who are infiltrated by militants. There are lots of potential sanctuaries for militants. Locals need to be patriotic enough to help us identify them, track them and arrest them. This is not conventional warfare and our security forces need to be trained how to do it."
This year, the U.S. opened its second drone base in Africa, at the heart of the Sahel, in Niger.
Yabi says aerial surveillance is useful but countries in the region cannot rely on American drones.
"Drones are expensive and the country that owns them will ultimately use them for its interests," he said. "Drones should not be a substitute for countries in the region learning to work together to control their borders and work with local communities who are really the best source of surveillance and information."
The U.S. State Department is now offering a total of $23 million in rewards for information leading to the capture of Nigerian extremist leader Abubakar Shekau and four other top militants in the region.