KATI, Mali — Meet Cmdr. Alou Ongoiba’s special forces company of 40 men in mismatched uniforms and doo-rags sheared from actual rags — soldiers charged with scattering terrorists from the bleak Malian badlands that begin about 600 miles northeast of this practice battlefield.
On a Monday, in 105 degrees Fahrenheit, Ongoiba’s troops and their American trainers were supposed to be shinnying down from helicopters and ambushing a make-believe Al Qaeda bivouac.
“But a helicopter requires four or five hours of maintenance for every hour of use,” explained a U.S. military official, who insisted on anonymity, so no chopper. Instead, Ongoiba’s commandos spent their morning learning how to jumpstart a car. Tk-tk-tk-vroom.
Their Senegalese counterparts napped underneath some trucks.
This is Flintlock: The time each year since 2005 when U.S. and European military drill sergeants come to Mali, Niger, Senegal, Burkina Faso — all across Africa’s sandy top — to train in counterterrorism blitzes with African armies.
Well north of the military vehicles stalled in Kati, across the dunes of the Sahara desert, grows a threat that worries U.S. strategists: Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. The annual training by Western military units is designed to get African armies, like Mali’s, to neutralize the threat from Islamic radicals.
The world’s biggest name in terrorism has opened a highly profitable West African franchise kidnapping tourists and aid workers and raking in ransoms that experts worry will bankroll more terrorist activities.
In addition to abducting sightseers, the Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb regularly ambushes Algeria’s army and nearly blew up its president in 2007. They’re increasingly linked to West Africa’s booming cocaine trade and Tuareg rebels — anti-government operations sprawled across ancient caravan routes in the world’s largest desert.
“These deepest areas of the Sahara are providing safe havens,” Special African Operations Lt. Col. Chris Schmidt said, bringing back a buzzword from the early days of the war in Afghanistan. In some ways, the Sahara is Afghanistan — another craggy and history-steeped Islamic hinterland where militias rove a vast territory of unpatrolled, government-free barrens.
Africa’s western bulge is fast becoming a chessboard of disparate rebellions to check, from conflicts a generation old — like oil bandits in Nigeria, separatists in Senegal’s Casamance and Tuareg resistance in Niger and Mali — to fresher worries, like religious pogroms in northern Nigeria, a smoldering cocoa-funded conflict in Ivory Coast, recent coups in Mauritania, Guinea, Niger, trouble in Guinea-Bissau and cocaine smuggling all over.
America’s Flintlock program is small scale. It involves about 1,200 troops across West Africa, from Ongoiba to the army bureaucrats mingling around Kati clutching clipboards.
“It’s got to be driven by them, not by us,” Schmidt said, explaining the operation’s bargain $10 million price tag purchases, among other logistics, 28,000 bottles of water, Kevlar vests for Ongoiba’s men and 42 four-wheel-drive vehicles for the Malian border control.
The vehicles are to patrol 4,500 miles of borders and one plane is to fly over 479,000 square miles.
Back in Kati, the even trickier question concerns the human element. After five years of the training sessions, American military leaders wonder how ready the Mali military is to confront Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
“We’re teaching them basic soldier tasks,” said Army Special Forces Capt. Shane West, trainer for Ongoiba’s company, cautioning that his soldiering 101 curriculum isn’t necessarily a reflection of their skill level.
Some American military trainers say privately that they have doubts about the whether the Mali soldiers are up to the task of countering the Islamist threat. But the Africans assert that they are.
“Right now, we already have the capacity, we’re ready” said Ongoiba. “One unit patrolling Mali’s north, I think it’s enough. We don’t need anymore. This unit will be able to face the challenges we have.”