The New Terrorist Training Ground

Last year, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb did something no other modern terrorist group has: conquered a broad swath of a sovereign country—Mali. Since then, despite French intervention, northern Mali has become a jihadist  front, with Islamist militants flowing in from around the world. While America remains focused on threats from the Middle East and South Asia, the new face of terror is likely to be African. 

Both men had reemerged by early 2012 at the forefront of the Islamist forces that quickly pushed the ill-equipped and undermanned Malian army out of the northern half of the country. The Malian troops who fled south left behind pickup trucks, armored vehicles, weapons, ammunition, radios, and equipment. Much of the equipment had been donated by the U.S. for use against the Islamists. Instead the Islamists used the weapons and trucks to cement their control of Timbuktu, Gao, and the region’s other cities and towns.

The United States is racing to expand its military and intelligence capabilities in Africa, taking advantage of the fact that some governments that were once reluctant to house American military facilities on their soil are so rattled by the unrest in Mali, Somalia, and other African nations that they now welcome U.S. personnel with open arms. In March, The Washington Post reported that the United States opened a new drone base in Niamey, the capital of Niger, to complement existing facilities in Ethiopia and Djibouti. (The U.S. government denies that such a base exists.) According to the article, the Predator drones flying out of Niger are currently being used to feed surveillance footage to French and African troops on the ground in Mali, but the aircraft could easily be outfitted with missiles if the administration chose to adopt a more muscular approach to the conflict. Niger’s president, Issoufou Mahamadou, told The Post that his country needed the drones because its military was too weak to defend its borders on its own. “We welcome the drones,” he said.

The U.S. drones flying out of a Nigerien airfield near Niamey are assigned to the Pentagon’s Africa Command, or Africom, which is responsible for coordinating all American military activities on the continent (except for those in Egypt) and for carrying out the Obama administration’s strategy for countering the growing Islamist threat in Mali, Somalia, and other countries. Africom was hobbled at the outset by poor leadership, an uncertain mission, and a lack of resources. The Pentagon is now considering whether to eliminate Africom altogether as a cost-cutting measure, according to an August report in Defense News. If it’s abolished, Africom’s current responsibilities would be divvied up between Central Command and European Command. The idea for Africom originated with former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who saw it as a way of consolidating the U.S. government’s disparate efforts to train individual African militaries. Rumsfeld’s successor, Robert Gates, saw it as a way to strengthen the capabilities of the continent’s emerging democracies, Mali very much included. Gates formally announced its creation in February 2007. Later that month a small military transition team deployed to Stuttgart, Germany, to set up what was supposed to be a temporary headquarters.

U.S. military planners wanted to move Africom to Africa, but many African nations, still haunted by the ghosts of past colonial abuses and not yet threatened by clashes on their own borders, refused to house the new organization. The only country willing to host the new command was Liberia, an isolated and impoverished country that would have presented the military with significant logistical challenges. In February 2008, after a year of fruitless searching, the Pentagon said Africom would remain in Germany, nearly 1,000 miles from the continent it was created to oversee. U.S. Central Command, which has responsibility for the Middle East, Egypt, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, is based in Tampa, Florida, but it has a large forward headquarters in Qatar. One of Africom’s subordinate commands has roughly 4,000 troops stationed at Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti: Africom’s sole significant physical presence in Africa.

Africom’s biggest shortcoming is that it is a command in name only: it has no troops, tanks, or aircraft of its own. The 2011 U.S. military intervention in Libya was the most important moment in Africom’s history, but General Carter Ham, then the commander of Africom, had to borrow aircraft and helicopters from European Command because he had none of his own. Africom controls the drones flying over Mali from the bases in Niger and other nearby countries. But any future U.S. intervention in Mali, Somalia, or other emerging terror sanctuaries on the continent—whether via air strikes, which are a possibility, or the deployment of American combat troops, which appears highly unlikely—would require Africom’s new commander, General David Rodriguez, to ask other parts of the military for aircraft, armaments, and troops.

In Mali, the U.S. is relying on the same military that fled the north in the spring of 2012 to hold the line after the French withdraw their troops later this year. The confidence seems misplaced. The Malian armed forces have about 7,000 troops, many with little to no combat training. Malian army commanders in the north are so concerned that Islamists will use purloined uniforms to slip onto their bases to mount new attacks that they’ve given loyalist soldiers swaths of red fabric to attach to their uniforms. When I asked one officer what would prevent the Islamists from simply buying identical bits of fabric, he shrugged and told me, “The future of this place is in God’s hands.”

It’s also in the hands of Colonel Didier Dacko, a fluent English speaker who serves as the Malian army’s top commander in the north and faces the difficult task of maintaining control of the region until the French withdraw their troops. Maintaining control is a job Dacko has spent his entire military career preparing for.

“The bomb hit me right here,” Dacko told me one afternoon in March, pointing to his left leg with a lit cigarette, one of the 20 or so he’d smoked since we’d driven away from his base outside Gao two hours earlier. In 2008, Dacko had heard rumors that armed Tuareg rebels were massing in a savanna-like swath of hills and valleys alongside the nearby Niger River, and he wanted to find and hit them before they could find and hit him. “I had some broken bones, but nothing too bad. I can still walk with both feet. Speaking frankly, I was surprised it hadn’t happened sooner.” Dacko was understating the severity of the injuries he’d suffered when his pickup truck rolled over a buried land mine near Mali’s northern border with Algeria; the explosion nearly severed his leg, and one of Dacko’s aides later told me that the commander almost died from blood loss.

Dacko is a rarity in the Malian army: a combat-hardened commander respected by American and French officers, who disparage many of Dacko’s colleagues as incompetent, cowardly, or in secret collaboration with the rebels. When the broken and demoralized remnants of the Malian army fled south last year after the Islamists swept through the north, Dacko was the one who formed a last-ditch defensive line outside Mopti, the final major city before the capital of Bamako. If Mopti had fallen, the militants would have had a clear path to Bamako. Dacko held the Islamists at bay until French forces arrived and began pushing the militants back north.

Dacko, a thin man whose wispy gray mustache gives him a faint resemblance to Attorney General Eric Holder, was born in the southern-Malian region of Sikasso in 1967. His father had fought in Indochina and Algeria for the French, and Dacko grew up hearing stories about the glories of combat and the unique bonds between fighting men. Still, he had vastly different ambitions. “As a child, I wanted to be a singer,” he told me, laughing over a late-night beer. “Then I realized I didn’t have a particularly good voice.”

Dacko joined the military at age 21, after studying electrical engineering at the University of Bamako. His first posting was in Kidal, the northernmost city in Mali; Dacko has spent his entire military career either fighting in northern Mali or trying to prevent others from having to do so. The bomb that nearly killed him went off outside Kidal, just as Dacko’s men were defeating the last of the rebelling Tuareg forces. He spent much of 2008 recovering from his injuries and then headed to Washington’s National Defense University in 2009 for a yearlong academic posting.

Dacko devoted his time at the school to studying counterinsurgency theory, which argues that troops looking to defeat a homegrown uprising need to gradually convince ordinary citizens to back the government, rather than the rebels, by providing them with security, jobs, and improved access to schools and hospitals. He devoured the writings of David Galula and T. E. Lawrence, the intellectual forefathers of counterinsurgency, and decided that their ideas about combating rebellions in Algeria and the Middle East held lessons for his country as well.

“What I took away was that in dealing with insurgencies, the most important thing is to work with the population and win them over without using too much force,” he told me one night over a shared plate of red rice, eggplant, and lamb. “We need the Tuareg on our side, or at least not as our enemies. We can’t win over the jihadis; we need to crush them. But we can’t do it if we’re fighting all of the Tuareg as well.”

In May 2010, Dacko distilled his thinking into a 62-page thesis for NDU called “How to Improve the Security Situation in Northern Mali.” He argued that the series of Tuareg rebellions over the previous 50 years had cleared the way for Islamist groups to move into northern Mali and use it as a haven to plan and carry out strikes in Algeria and Mauritania while developing the capability to eventually conduct terror attacks in Europe as well. Given enough time, he wrote, al‑Qaeda would move into the region. “It is possible that northern Mali could become the next Afghanistan, if the security situation is not managed at the right time,” he wrote.

Dacko is now the man most directly responsible for making sure that doesn’t happen. He lives and works out of a compound of crumbling one-story buildings in Gosi, a tiny town about an hour from Gao. It has no electricity or running water; Dacko and his men use markers to chart the movement of French and Malian troops on a laminated map taped to a stucco wall. During my night at the base, an aide carried out a small TV, plugged it into a generator, and tuned it to a French news channel. Dacko spent an hour watching video footage of a battle raging less than 50 miles away before going to sleep on a cot outside his headquarters building.

In his current post, Dacko is putting his thinking about counterinsurgency into practice. One afternoon, he and his men got into body armor and grabbed AK-47 assault rifles before leaving the compound in search of the Tuareg fighters they’d been told were hiding nearby. Dacko’s men made their way over steep hills and through dense patches of trees, but they couldn’t find any trace of the militants. On their way back, Dacko spotted the distinctive round tents of the Bella, a group of black nomads who are routinely enslaved by the Tuareg and other ethnic groups. Goats were tied to trees, watched over by young boys with wooden sticks. Herds of camels ambled in the distance, lazily chomping on mouthfuls of mottled green grass.

Dacko stepped out of his truck, flanked by a pair of soldiers, and asked the first Bella man he saw to direct him to the tribal elder. A man of about 60 emerged from one of the tents, his face largely obscured by a black-and-white scarf. Dacko extended his hand and asked whether any militants had been seen or heard nearby. The man shook his head, avoiding eye contact. Dacko told him to visit the Gosi base if he or anyone in his village spotted fighters or needed medical attention, food, or water. The man nodded and walked back inside the tent. He hadn’t said a single word the entire time. “I’ll never hear from them,” Dacko told me on the drive back. “They’re too scared. That means there are probably jihadis nearby.” He radioed one of his officers and told him to lead another patrol at sunrise.

Dacko’s offers of food and water come straight from his NDU thesis, which said that the Malian government could dislodge the militants only if they won over local residents by providing educational and economic opportunities while simultaneously conducting targeted strikes against the Islamists. Done correctly, Dacko predicted, this strategy could clear the militants out of the region within three years. “I didn’t see this current war coming,” he told me one night. “I saw why the north was ripe for another war, but I didn’t know it would come so soon, or with so much force. I thought we were stronger and they were weaker.”

The U.S. didn’t see the war coming either, and the Islamists’ conquest of the north put the White House in a bind. Washington had been tracking AQIM for years and knew that it posed a growing threat to American and Western interests across Africa, but wasn’t sure how to respond. In 2009, the White House had considered, and by most reports rejected, a covert plan code-named “Oasis Enabler,” which would have cleared the way for elite U.S. commandos to take part in counterterrorism missions inside Mali. The U.S. presence there was instead limited to a handful of Special Forces teams charged with training the Malian military and providing Bamako with satellite imagery of rebel encampments.

Washington had provided the Touré government with more than $100 million a year in foreign aid and military assistance. But under laws approved by Congress every year for decades, the U.S. had to halt all its aid programs and withdraw all its military personnel when Touré was deposed in the March 2012 military coup. That meant the United States had no troops on the ground as Mali, a close ally, was being torn apart by fighters from a terrorist group the Pentagon had been tracking for nearly a decade.

The American withdrawal had left Dacko baffled and angry. “The coup happens, we’re weaker than ever, and then you pull your aid?” he said. “We’re fighting the same enemies. Why should a coup be more important than defeating AQIM? It’s your enemy just as much as it’s ours.”

Mali held democratic elections this summer. Washington plans to reopen the aid spigot and dispatch more American military trainers as soon as Mali’s generals hand back control of the country. Still, the earlier aid cutoff meant that the U.S. was a bystander when the last major battle of the war took place, this past January, in Konna, a small town about 30 miles from Dacko’s makeshift headquarters in Mopti.

The battle began with the launch of Operation Serval, a muscular French air-and-ground assault on Islamist targets across northern Mali. French air strikes on January 11 destroyed a militant command post and several armored vehicles just outside Konna, killing dozens of fighters and pushing the survivors out of the town. French troops quickly conquered Gao, Timbuktu, and the rest of the north’s major cities. By the end of January, northern Mali had been brought back under the control of the Malian government.

I passed through Konna on my way to Gao, stopping to walk through a deserted compound that had once served as an extremist base. The ocher outside walls were pocked with bullet holes, and the half-dozen Islamist armored vehicles and jeeps closest to the main road had been reduced to blackened, melted husks. The remains of a trio of Toyota pickup trucks littered the back of the property; the owner’s manual for one of the trucks lay on the ground, opened to a page about how to operate the vehicle’s stereo system. The extremists had fled so quickly that discarded shirts and pants littered the courtyard, rustling in the slight breeze. They don’t appear to have gone very far: on March 31, a week after I left Konna, a buried bomb killed two Malian soldiers in Gao. Suicide bombers hit Timbuktu and Kidal in the following weeks. U.S. and Malian officials expect more strikes later this year as France withdraws.

Timbuktu, of course, isn’t Washington, D.C., and Kidal isn’t New York City. AQIM and its allies have hit U.S. targets in Libya and Algeria, but American officials believe that Mali’s Islamists aren’t yet capable of carrying out attacks in Europe or the U.S. “I would say that at this point it’s aspirational,” Amanda Dory, the Pentagon Africa official, told me. Still, she cautioned that Africa contained an array of potential militant targets. “If you are an American business operating in the region, if you’re an American tourist visiting in the region, if you’re an American diplomat working in the region, then there is certainly a threat.”

Washington has spent the past 12 years trying to keep tabs on militant organizations all over the world and decide which ones require immediate attention and which do not. In practice, this has meant that the U.S. is almost always reacting to attacks rather than trying to prevent new ones. In Yemen, for instance, the Obama administration didn’t begin hammering al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula with drone strikes until after the terror group came close to downing a packed passenger jet on Christmas Day and managed to sneak a pair of explosive-laden packages onto a cargo plane bound for Chicago. U.S. strikes have since killed hundreds of alleged militants in Yemen, including at least three American citizens.

“You’ve got to rack and stack these guys,” the U.S. official familiar with the region said. “At some point you have to prioritize and deal with the guys who are punching you in the face first.”

The fundamental question confronting American policy makers is whether AQIM and Africa’s other Islamist groups have become enough of a threat to warrant a concerted U.S. effort to kill their key leaders and destroy their weapons caches and training camps. Doing so would be an extremely difficult task for the U.S. military because of the region’s size and remoteness, but it wouldn’t be impossible. In the end, it would come down to a question of American will, not American capability. Send troops in too soon, and a war-weary public will accuse the administration of jumping the gun. Wait until an attack has taken place, and the same public will lambaste the White House for not taking action earlier. The U.S. has largely ignored Africa’s Islamists for more than a decade. We keep doing so at our own peril.

Presented by

Yochi Dreazen, an Atlantic contributing editor, is working on a book about military suicide. Reporting for this article was supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting.

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