U.S. military officials are conducting an anti-terrorism training exercise called Flintlock in the Saharan desert with hundreds of military officers from mostly Africa. Some analysts say the U.S. Trans-Saharan Counter-terrorism Initiative is misguided and a waste of millions of dollars. Phuong Tran brings us this report from VOA's Central and West Africa Bureau in Dakar.
American Colonel Mark Rosenguard has been leading what he calls military theatre exercises in Mali's capital, Bamako. The participants decide on common problems they face, like drugs and weapons smuggling.
They then work out how they would deal with a regional blowup of those problems.
Colonel Rosenguard says it does not matter who the enemy is. What matters, he says, is that they learn how to work together to solve regional problems
The colonel has been with the counter-terrorism program since it began as the Pan Sahel Initiative in 2003 to prevent terrorism in West Africa's desert regions, working first with Chad, Mali, Niger and Mauritania.
Two years ago, the program added Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Senegal, and Nigeria.
But French criminologist Xavier Raufer with the University of Paris says the program's biggest problem is that Americans do not understand criminality in the Sahel desert stretching from Senegal to Sudan.
"You have guys arriving in an office and they have pages with questions and answers. They want answers that can fit into a computer," he said. "Such a thing as a 100-percent pure unadulterated bandit or terrorist does not exist in Africa."
Raufer says American attempts to single out potential terrorists from drug and weapons smugglers is ineffective, and potentially dangerous if it builds up to the point of retaliatory U.S. strikes.
"When a cousin is killed fighting for whatever reason, you have got two other cousins replacing him because the basis of a tribal society are the notions of honor and vengeance," he said.
Saharan researcher, U.K.-based Jeremy Keenan says the hard to access terrain prevents an accurate assessment of true dangers in the desert.
"Analysis is based usually on reports you get straight out of the media. Most of it emanates from military intelligence services. Most of them of course have no access to what is going on," he said. "They do not know the terrain, they do not know what was fabricated. "
Keenan adds that African governments take advantage of the desert's secrecy to cry out terrorism to receive money for their under-funded militaries with aging vehicles, tattered uniforms and low salaries.
"Today the word [terrorism] is inappropriately used to describe any incident that is anti-government, causes problems of one sort or another," he said.
But countries receiving anti-terrorism support from America say the threat is real. The Malian government has launched an international appeal to fight a recent resurgence in violence in its northeast.
It accuses ethnic Tuareg nomads of planting landmines that killed about 12 people last month.
Mali's army spokesman, Abdoulaye Coulibaly, says the killings cannot be dismissed as desert banditry, and are clear acts of terrorism.
The military spokesman says the use of landmines, condemned internationally, and killing of civilians cannot be called anything else other than terrorism.
Similar attacks in neighboring Niger carried out by Tuareg rebels have killed at least 40 in an ongoing six month rebellion. The fighters are demanding a bigger share of money from lucrative uranium mines in their northeast desert home.
The attackers are holding about 60 government security forces hostage.
U.S. Department of State officials in charge of African counter terrorism programs did not respond to questions for this report about how the Trans-Saharan program defines terrorism, how it tracks spending, and how it measures program success.
But in issues of the Quarterly Defense Review, a publication of the U.S. Department of Defense, senior military officials write the Trans-Saharan Initiative has helped prevent transnational terrorists from taking refuge in eastern Niger, without going into details.
According to a congressional budget document, the U.S. government has requested more than $27 million to spend on terrorism initiatives in Africa, up from the current $20 million.
The Flintlock training ends on Saturday, and is the second one carried out by the Trans-Saharan Counter-terrorism Initiative.