Noting that Islamic radical organizations were using remote bases in the arid regions of the Sahara and Sahel (the semi-desert region just south of the Sahara), in 2003 the U.S. began the "Pan-Sahel Initiative," a program that uses Special Operations Forces personnel to train local security forces in a number of the ten Saharan nations. Over the next three years American training teams, mostly from the Army's Special Forces, helped organize, train, and equip one or more 150-man strong "rapid-reaction" companies (per country) in Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger. In June of 2005, this program was supplanted by the "Trans Saharan Counterterrorism Initiative" (TSCTI) which essentially extends the program to the rest of the Saharan states. In addition to the original four countries, it is believed that Algeria, Ghana, Morocco, Senegal, Nigeria, and Tunisia are taking part in the program, and that Libya has expressed a willingness to participate as well. One objective of the new program is to develop battalion-sized counterterrorism forces in each of these countries, and improve command, control, communications, and intelligence capabilities, to enhance effectiveness against terrorists infiltration.
The program, which is to operate on a budget of about $100 million a year, is a low profile effort. Only a very small number of special operations personnel are involved, and they are being careful to keep out of combat operations (though they have reportedly occasionally been involved in planning). One of the missions seems to be to promote inter-national cooperation against terrorism, which has borne fruit in a number of interesting developments. Several of the countries involved have been sharing information on the movements of potential terrorists, and in a number of instances have cooperated for mutual security; for example, Mali and Mauritania have actually concluded a pact allowing each their troops to conduct some operations on the other country's soil.
The TSCTI has the potential to play a major role in defeating Islamic terror in northern Africa, and could serve as a model for similar programs elsewhere. But there are some dangers. Several of the countries involved have fragile governments, and some have problems with internal opposition groups that may align themselves with Islamists as the only alternative to corrupt and oppressive regimes. To promote greater stability in the region, several other U.S. agencies (AID, etc.) are planning educational and developmental projects.