U.S. Training Elite Antiterror Troops in Four African Nations By ERIC SCHMITT The New York Times
WASHINGTON — United States Special Operations troops are forming elite counterterrorism units in four countries in North and West Africa that American officials say are pivotal in the widening war against Al Qaeda’s affiliates and associates on the continent, even as they acknowledge the difficulties of working with weak allies.
The secretive program, financed in part with millions of dollars in classified Pentagon spending and carried out by trainers, including members of the Army’s Green Berets and Delta Force, was begun last year to instruct and equip hundreds of handpicked commandos in Libya, Niger, Mauritania and Mali.
The goal over the next few years is to build homegrown African counterterrorism teams capable of combating fighters like those in Boko Haram, the Islamist extremist group that abducted nearly 300 Nigerian schoolgirls last month. American military specialists are helping Nigerian officers in their efforts to rescue the girls.
“Training indigenous forces to go after threats in their own country is what we need to be doing,” said Michael A. Sheehan, who advocated the counterterrorism program last year when he was the senior Pentagon official in charge of Special Operations policy. Mr. Sheehan now holds the distinguished chair at the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point.
As the United States military seeks to extend its counterterrorism reach in Africa, President Obama is expected to appear at West Point on Wednesday to emphasize a foreign policy that would avoid large land wars, like those in Afghanistan and Iraq, and instead stress the training of allied and partner nations to battle militants on their own soil.
Since the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, the United States has slowly built a multipronged counterterrorism strategy in Africa: It has carried out armed drone strikes in Somalia from its only permanent base on the continent, in Djibouti; backed African proxies and French commandos fighting Islamist extremists in Somalia and Mali; and increasingly trained African troops to combat insurgents.
Under the new Africa plan, the Pentagon is spending nearly $70 million on training, intelligence-gathering equipment and other support to build a counterterrorism battalion in Niger and a similar unit in nearby Mauritania that are in their “formative stages,” a senior Defense Department official said.
In a cautionary note about operating in that part of Africa, troubled by a chronic shortage of resources and weak regional partners, the effort in Mali has yet to get off the ground as a new civilian government recovers from a military coup last year. In Libya, the most ambitious initial training ended ignominiously last August after a group of armed militia fighters overpowered a small Libyan guard force at a training base outside Tripoli and stole hundreds of American-supplied automatic weapons, night-vision goggles, vehicles and other equipment.
As a result, the training was halted and the American instructors were sent home. Libyan and American officials have been searching for a more secure training site in Libya to restart the program. But last summer’s debacle and the political upheaval in Libya since then have caused American officials to rethink how they select local personnel.
“You have to make sure of who you’re training,” said Maj. Gen. Patrick J. Donahue II, the commander of United States Army soldiers operating in Africa. “It can’t be the standard, ‘Has this guy been a terrorist or some sort of criminal?’ but also, ‘What are his allegiances? Is he true to the country, or is he still bound to his militia?’ ”
The American military uses conventional troops and elite Special Operations forces to train foreign armies all over the world. The tasks range from teaching basic marksmanship to more advanced counterterrorism tactics and techniques.
In the past decade, the Bush and Obama administrations put a premium on training and equipping foreign troops to combat terrorists and other Islamist extremists and persuaded Congress to approve funding for those programs.
The new program to train small counterterrorism forces in Africa resembles larger efforts by American Special Operations troops carried out in Iraq and Afghanistan. Pentagon officials declined to comment publicly on the new program, but budget documents reveal some details.
In Libya, the Pentagon has allotted just over $16 million from a train-and-equip fund to develop two companies of elite troops and their support elements “to counter terrorist and extremist threats in Libya,” according to budget documents. For the aborted training outside Tripoli, the Defense Department also tapped into a classified spending account called Section 1208, devised to aid foreign troops assisting American forces conducting counterterrorism missions.
For Mauritania, about $29 million has been set aside for logistics and surveillance equipment in support of the specialized unit.
For Niger, where the United States launches unarmed surveillance drones to fly over Mali in support of French and United Nations troops, the Pentagon is spending nearly $15 million on the country’s new counterterrorism unit. The funds are part of $39.5 million this year to train and equip the West Africa nation’s army as it struggles to stem a flow of insurgents across Niger’s lightly guarded borders with Mali, Nigeria and Libya.
Maman S. Sidikou, Niger’s ambassador to the United States, said he could not comment on the counterterrorism unit, but he added in an email, “Training remains a critical part of our needs to further increase our men’s readiness to face the many challenges of our regional environment.”
Mr. Sheehan, the former Pentagon official, said a 12-member Army Special Forces team could train about 50 soldiers initially, and expand after that. “It can be done,” said Mr. Sheehan, who conducted similar training in Latin America in the 1980s as a Special Forces commander.
J. Peter Pham, director of the Africa Center of the Atlantic Council, a policy research group in Washington, said the United States must make tough political judgments before investing in ambitious counterterrorism training programs. Mr. Pham cited the lessons of Mali, where American-trained commanders of elite army units defected to Islamic insurgents that seized the north last year.
“The host country has to have the political will to fight terrorism, not just the desire to build up an elite force that could be used for regime protection,” Mr. Pham said. “And the military has to be viewed well or at least neutrally by a country’s population.”
American counterterrorism officials also warn that without a commitment to support the specialized units, training can stall. “It’s very difficult, very challenging dealing with African forces,” said Rudy Atallah, the former director of African counterterrorism policy for the Pentagon. “You train them to a certain level, and then they can run short on gear, communications, even tires for their vehicles.”
American officials say trainees must be carefully screened and monitored for possible human rights violations or shifting allegiances. “Any unit we train could be used to go after political opponents rather than Al Qaeda,” said Frederic Wehrey, a senior policy analyst with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who has visited Libya frequently.
No episode is a more sobering reminder of these risks than the collapse of the American counterterrorism training mission last August at Base 27, also called Camp Younis, a Libyan military installation about 15 miles from Tripoli, the capital.
The American trainers issued the Libyans M4 automatic rifles, night-vision goggles, Glock pistols and armored vehicles. The Libyans took custody of the weapons and equipment and were responsible for safeguarding them in a warehouse at the camp, American military officials said.
In a predawn raid on Aug. 4, gunmen believed to be from one of the local militias overpowered the Libyan guards and seized the weapons and equipment in the storage area, American officials said.
The American trainers were not at the training camp when the raid occurred because they regularly stayed at a nearby villa that served as a safe house at night, American officials said.
American military officials briefed on the raid suspect that the theft was an inside job in which a Libyan officer or soldier tipped off some local Tripoli militia members about the matériel stored at the base. Much of the stolen equipment was later recovered, but not before news reports indicated that some of the pilfered weapons had showed up online for sale on the black market.
The episode abruptly ended a weekslong training course that American and Libyan officials had hoped would restart broader training efforts that were suspended after the attack on the American Mission in Benghazi on Sept. 11, 2012.
A former American Special Operations officer said there was a broader lesson for any future Libya training mission: “The take-away here is they’re going to take a lot more adult supervision to make sure the checks and balances are in place, so you don’t have outside militia taking over.”
A version of this article appears in print on May 27, 2014, on page A1 of the New York edition with the headline: Elite U.S. Troops Helping Africans Combat Terror. Order Reprints|Today's Paper|Subscribe