The commanding general of U.S. Special Operations Forces in Europe and most of Africa says the United States is monitoring Islamic preaching and schools in Africa for signs of any growth in militancy, but has so far not found anything of particular concern. Still, in a VOA interview the general said there is reason for concern that parts of the continent could become breeding grounds for terrorism. The general was observing military exercises involving troops from the United States and several largely Muslim African countries.
Building on experience in other parts of the world, Major General Thomas Csrnko says the United States keeps track of what is being preached in mosques in Africa, and what is being taught in Islamic schools.
"You'll have the preachings in the various countries, various regions, that will go all the way from very 'pro-,' to very 'anti-.' I think the challenge we have is to be sensitive to the culture and to understand what is being said," General Csrnko says.
General Csrnko says so far there is no significant movement toward militancy either in mosque sermons or in Africa's Islamic schools, trends that contributed to growing militancy in some Middle Eastern and Asian nations. The general emphasizes that, in his words, "Islam does not equal terrorism." But he adds that Africa's geography provides opportunities for those who do want to engage in terrorism.
"The conditions in the area exist for the development and sustainment of terrorist organizations. The potential does exist within the Sahara region for the development of sanctuaries," General Csrnko says.
That is why General Csrnko and hundreds of his Special Forces troops were in West Africa for the past two weeks, working with the armies of Algeria, Tunisia, Mauritania, Mali, Niger, and Chad to increase their ability to control remote and border areas. All of those countries have large Muslim populations, and some of them significant Muslim majorities.
Already, some terrorist groups are operating in Africa, notably a group called GSPC, which launched a raid into Mauritania near the Algerian and Malian borders just two weeks ago, attacking a Mauritanian army post and killing 15 soldiers before fleeing back across one of the borders.
"A way to look at defeating a terrorist network, or organization, is to work on the capability of denying them sanctuary, denying them mobility and denying them support," General Csrnko says.
The military exercises focused on specific skills such as marksmanship, but also on broader capabilities like the coordination of ground, air and naval forces. And late last week, senior officers from the six countries plus three others with large Muslim populations, Morocco, Nigeria and Senegal, participated in a command post exercise in which senior officers figured out how to work together to respond to a series of mock terrorist threats in the region.
First Officer speaking French: Am I right?
Second Officer: Talking about synchronization and the force placement, we should, you know, revise our assumption."
The Special Forces officer in charge of the command post exercise who can be identified only as Lieutenant Colonel Stewart, says he thinks the effort accomplished its main goals.
"They seem to be getting around the language barrier fairly well. I think that's a reality of the continent. Everyone seems to be learning the objectives we came here to learn. And I think they've made a lot of good friends to carry them through the years," Lieutenant Colonel Stewart says
Observers from several other countries, including Botswana, also attended the command post exercise. General Csrnko says he was pleased that at least part of the exercise involved countries from other parts of the continent.
"The impact and potential for franchise networks or additional organizations to exist don't just stop at the Sahara," General Csrnko says. "So I think it's important that you don't just focus just in one area, and say, 'OK, we enhanced their capability. We were successful there. So, that means that nothing will happen anywhere else on the continent.'"
General Csrnko mentioned Nigeria in particular as a potential target for terrorists, because of its oil wealth.
Some of the African officers indicated they do not see the potential for terrorism in their countries as particularly urgent. But the U.S. ambassador to Senegal, Richard Roth, says he hopes the African countries will continue to participate in programs to improve their military capabilities, and ensure that the potential problem does not become urgent.
"Certainly the ones that have come to participate in this exercise are interested. How far that interest is going to extend beyond just this exercise, I think we are hopeful that they're all interested in increasing their capabilities," Mr. Roth says. "So I think that that's a beginning. This is not going to be a process that's going to take six months or a year. It's going to be an ongoing process in which you have a slow and gradual increase in capability."
These exercises, known as Flintlock, are held every two years. In between, the United States holds a variety of other military exercises in Africa. In addition, it is gearing up for a new five-year, $100-million program of aid and military cooperation called the Trans-Sahara Counter Terrorism Initiative, a program U.S. officials hope will further reduce the potential for terrorist groups to take root in Africa.