It's a sweltering morning in Chad's scrub-brush desert. A herd of
goats grazes on tufts of green. Round huts bake in the strengthening
Suddenly the goats scatter as gunfire fills the air. Chadian
soldiers behind a row of machine guns unload on their target: a
giant berm standing in for Al Qaeda. Villagers turn as a batallion
of Chadian Army troops swoops in from the right. The thap-thap of
their AK-47s joins the chorus as shots pound the dirt mound.
And 23 US Marines look on.
For six weeks they've been teaching 168 Chadian soldiers
counterterrorism basics - surprise attacks, border patrolling,
intelligence gathering, and more. This is the final exam.
"Lookin' good," says Maj. Paul Baker, the mission commander.
The training here in remote Chad is just one sign of how the US
military is engaging Africa in the global terror war as never
before. There are, for instance, joint US naval exercises with
Nigeria this month. There are reported antiterror patrols along the
Kenya-Somalia border. And there's the new expansion of the Chad
program from a four-nation, $7 million project to a nine-country
plan with an expected budget of up to $125 million. It aims to
prevent terrorists from roaming in and around the Sahara desert.
We're "looking at Africa as a place of growth for the Marine
Corps and the Department of Defense," says Major Baker, standing in
his command post under a giant shade tree. There's growing evidence
of terrorist activities on the continent. And there's a need to
protect Africa's rapidly expanding oil industry. So the US military
is paying attention.
From eight bullets to 122,000
The American presence is having a big impact around the region.
Before the Marines arrived in Chad, the Chadians had nearly no real
military experience. During their basic training each one shot just
eight bullets - it's all the government could afford. Chad ranks
167th out of 177 nations on the 2004 United Nations Human
Development Index. Per capita income is 73 cents a day.
The soldiers weren't much for marksmanship. "They couldn't hit a
15-foot berm from 20 meters away," marvels Baker. But in six weeks
of US-sponsored training, they shot about 122,000 bullets. They've
also gotten new US uniforms and 13 new Toyota pickups. It will all
be used to patrol the vast open spaces in northern Chad. Back in
March, Chadian troops - with help from a US surveillance plane -
reportedly killed 42 Islamic fighters in the desert highlands of the
Troops in the nearby countries of Niger, Mauritania, and Mali
have also received similar training and gear as the Chadians. And as
part of the new Trans-Saharan Counter Terrorism Initiative, troops
in Senegal, Nigeria, Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco will get US
training and hardware, too - at a cost to the US of up to $125
But why the American largesse?
All these nations are in and around the Sahara Desert and the
Sahel, a band of land that's south of the big desert and that runs
east to west Across Africa. These are vast, lawless lands where
terrorists linked to Al Qaeda are known to operate - and where the
region's large Muslim populations sometimes offer support or
sympathy to extremists.
For instance, a man named Emad Abdelwahid Ahmen Alwan reportedly
traveled across this part of Africa in 2002 recruiting and raising