With training and partnerships, U.S. military treads lightly in Africa

(Reuters) – On a dusty training ground in Niger, U.S. Special Forces teach local troops to deal with suspects who resist arrest. “Speed, aggression, surprise!” an instructor barks as two Nigeriens wrestle a U.S. adviser out of a car.

The drill in the border town of Diffa is part of Operation Flintlock, a counter-terrorism exercise for nations on the Sahara’s southern flanks that the United States organizes each year. Washington’s aim is to tackle Islamist militants in the Sahel region while keeping its military presence in Africa light.

A growing number of European nations taking part shows their increasing concern about security in West Africa. Central to the international effort is a blossoming relationship between the United States and France, the former colonial power and traditional “policeman” of the turbulent region.

When Paris deployed 4,000 troops to fight Islamist militants in neighboring Mali last year, the U.S. military lent a hand by airlifting French soldiers and equipment, providing intelligence and training African forces to join the operation.

French troops are stretched by hunting the militants in Mali and tackling religious violence in Central African Republic, so only a handful participated in Flintlock. Nevertheless, they welcomed their new partnership with Washington.

“The Americans want to get involved in Africa. That’s good for us. We know that with the Americans it will be more efficient,” said a French Special Forces officer, who asked not to be named. “We use American logistics – that’s what we are missing. On the other hand, we provide the local knowledge.”

The United States fast-tracked the sale of 12 Reaper drones to France last year, the first two of which started operating in Niger in January alongside U.S. drones already there.

In a reminder of the partnership, a drone quietly taxied past troops and dignitaries at Flintlock’s closing ceremony in the capital of Niamey before taking off to scour the Sahara.

U.S. FACING BUDGET CUTS

Military experts say direct U.S. military action in Africa is limited to short raids on “high-value” targets in places such as Somalia and Libya, while French troops take on longer, bigger operations.

J. Peter Pham, director of the Africa Center at the U.S.-based Atlantic Council, said this arrangement suited U.S. military planners who face budget cuts and a diminished American appetite for combat after conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

However, he warned that the French military was at the limit of its ability to strike militants hard. “If the French are not able to provide that blunt instrument, is the U.S. willing to do so?”

Nine years after the Flintlock exercises began, the enemy has evolved from a group of Algerian-dominated fighters focused on northern Mali and now threatens nations across the Sahara and the arid Sahel belt to the south.

For most of 2012, militants occupied northern Mali, a desert zone the size of France. Scattered by a French offensive last year, many are believed to be regrouping in southern Libya.

Hundreds of people are being killed every month in clashes with Boko Haram militants in northern Nigeria. Many in Niger fear this conflict could spill over the border and the government in Niamey has appealed for more military support.

“Instability in neighboring states has given everybody a new incentive,” General James Linder, commander of U.S. Special Operations Command Africa, told Reuters while visiting Niger

This year’s three-week Flintlock exercise – involving over 1,000 troops from 18 nations – was the biggest yet and runs alongside more permanent training by U.S. Special Forces in Niger, Mauritania, Senegal and Chad.

Training in Diffa, only a few kilometers from where Boko Haram militants are fighting the Nigerian army across the border, ranged from basic patrolling skills and setting up checkpoints to sharing intelligence and providing medical care.

In a region where armies often lack basics such as ammunition for target practice and fuel for vehicles, the quality and tempo of the U.S.-sponsored exercise eclipses the training most soldiers in the region receive in a year.

Colonel Mounkaila Sofiani, the local Niger commander, said Flintlock and other U.S. initiatives helped his country to tackle threats from the west, north and south better. “Little by little people are being trained,” he said. “Once there are enough, they’ll form the spine of a reliable force.”

Training is meant to build up coordination between armies but Sofiani said just finding radio equipment compatible between nations is difficult. In the field, officers exchange mobile phone numbers to bypass blockages in official channels.

A lack of trust between governments also hinders responses. At a recent meeting of intelligence chiefs, the Nigerien and Libyan representatives argued over the risk of instability spreading from Libya’s lawless south, a diplomat told Reuters.

Coups in Mauritania, Niger and Mali since the Flintlock exercises began also halted cooperation until civilian rule was restored. Mali’s 2012 coup, led by a captain with U.S. training, opened the door to the Islamist takeover of the north, prompting questions about what the years of exercises had achieved.

Pham said better military capabilities had not been matched by improvements in governance, citing a failure by Mali to tackle corruption. Chad’s military, however, has won praise for leading the charge alongside French troops in flushing out the militants from Mali’s desolate northern mountains.

U.S. officials stress the exercise is African-led and are wary about people reading too much into U.S. troops being on the ground near African conflicts. But the show of foreign support is popular in Diffa.

“It sends a message to Boko Haram and others,” said Inoussa Saouna, the central government’s representative in Diffa. “Before Mali, we thought terrorism was a problem for whites but now we’ve experienced it ourselves.”

BY DAVID LEWIS
DIFFA, Niger Thu Mar 13, 2014 3:17am EDT
(Editing by Daniel Flynn and David Stamp)

Find this story at 13 March 2014

Copyright Thomson Reuters

Intelligence chiefs and special forces plot Sahara mission

Action against al-Qa’ida in North Africa could last decades, PM warns

The West faces a decades-long battle to defeat al-Qa’ida in North Africa, David Cameron warned today, as he signalled a dramatic shift in the UK’s fight against terrorism.

The heads of MI5, MI6, GCHQ and the Chief of the Defence Staff will gather on Tuesday to begin planning Britain’s response to the burgeoning terror threat from Saharan Africa.

Britain will offer money, military co-operation and security training to African states to head off the advance of Islamist radicalism.

Special forces are understood to be preparing to hunt down the jihadist leader behind the siege and hostage killings in Algeria, Mokhtar Belmokhtar.

Britain will use its chairmanship of the G8 to focus militarily and diplomatically on the Sahara region, following the hostage crisis which claimed the lives of up to six Britons. One Middle East expert likened the long-term impact of the atrocity in Algeria to the 9/11 attacks.

Following the end of the four-day stand-off at the BP gas plant at In Amenas, Algerian forces discovered 25 more bodies and took five militants alive. The death toll had previously been put at 23 hostages and 32 captors.

Three Britons have been confirmed among the dead and another three are feared to have been killed during the siege, which ended with a shoot-out on Saturday. Tonight 46-year-old Paul Thomas Morgan was the first British victim to be named by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

Kenneth Whiteside, an engineer from Glenrothes in Fife, and Garry Barlow, a BP systems supervisor from Merseyside, are also understood to be among the dead. Another UK resident was also believed to have been killed.

Twenty-two other British nationals have arrived home, many with chilling stories of how they evaded capture by jihadists belonging to an al-Qa’ida splinter group styling themselves Those Who Sign In Blood.

Alan Wright, from Aberdeenshire, told of how he hid in an office for 24 hours before joining Algerian workers who cut their way through a perimeter fence and fled.

Mr Cameron will update MPs on the attack today and hold a meeting of Whitehall’s emergency Cobra committee to consider the implications of the attack.

French forces – with support from Britain – are attempting to oust insurgents from northern Mali, amid fears that neighbouring countries including Niger and Mauritania could fall under their influence.

As the French Defence Minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, described the hostage-taking as an “act of war”, Belmokhtar was reported to be “ready to negotiate” in return for an end to the action in Mali.

Last night Mauritanian news website Sahara Media said Belmokhtar had claimed responsibility in the name of al Qa’ida for the hostage-taking in a video. He had said: “We in al Qa’ida announce this blessed operation. We are ready to negotiate with the West and the Algerian government provided they stop their bombing of Mali’s Muslims. We had around 40 jihadists, most of them from Muslim countries and some even from the West.”

A BP spokesman would not comment on reports in Algeria that Belmokhtar’s men had infiltrated the gas plant as drivers, cooks and guards working on short-term contracts.

Mr Cameron spelt out the scale of the challenge posed by al-Qa’ida-affiliated groups operating in the region. “It will require a response that is about years, even decades, rather than months,” he said. “And it requires a response that is painstaking, that is tough but also intelligent, but above all has an absolutely iron resolve. And that is what we will deliver over these coming years.

“What we face is an extremist, Islamist, al-Qa’ida-linked terrorist group. Just as we had to deal with that in Pakistan and in Afghanistan, so the world needs to come together to deal with this threat in North Africa… We need to work with others to defeat the terrorists and to close down the ungoverned spaces where they thrive with all the means that we have.”

The Government has not ruled out giving extra help to the French-led operation in Mali.

However, Whitehall sources said the terrorist threat in the region would ultimately be best tackled by diplomatic means. Britain is to beef up its presence in nations where the UK historically had a limited presence and to liaise more closely with Paris over the challenges faced by the traditionally Francophone area.

Abdelasiem el-Difraoui, an al-Qa’ida expert with the Berlin Institute for Media and Communications Studies, told a French newspaper that the hostage-taking would for France make as “a huge bang as strong as September 11”.

The French Government distanced itself from suggestions among other nations caught up in the hostage crisis that Algeria’s response was “heavy-handed”.

President François Hollande said: “When so many hostages have been taken and when the terrorists are ready to murder them in cold blood, I think the Algerian approach was the best one.”
Britons in the desert

Garry Barlow: Semtex was strapped to his chest

Garry Barlow, 49, was a systems supervisor for BP Exploration Algeria, Statoil and Sonatrach JV. He lived in the Mossley Hill area of Liverpool with his wife Lorraine, and sons Scott, 17, and Paul, 15.

He had been working in In Amenas since October 2011, and had worked previously for Addax Petroleum and Shell EP on the west coast of Central Africa.

He was captured with some of his colleagues including 29-year-old project services contracts administrator Mark Grant, who is believed to have survived the ordeal.

Initial reports suggested Mr Barlow was safe and well and was being repatriated by the Foreign Office, but he is now thought to have died as Algerian troops tried to regain control of the compound.

The last his wife heard from him was a message in which he said: “I’m sitting here at my desk with Semtex strapped to my chest. The local army have already tried and failed to storm the plant and they’ve said that if that happens again they are going to kill us all.”

Paul Morgan: Former soldier died fighting

The first British victim of the Algerian hostage crisis was described last night as a “true gentleman” who “loved life and lived it to the full”.

Paul Morgan, 46, from Liverpool, a former soldier with the French Foreign Legion, reportedly “went down fighting” when the bus he was travelling in was attacked by the kidnappers last Wednesday.

His mother Marianne and partner Emma Steele, 36, paid tribute to him: “Paul died doing the job he loved. We are so proud of him and so proud of what he achieved in his life. He will be truly missed.”

Kenneth Whiteside: Shot as army stormed compound

Kenneth Whiteside had been living in Johannesburg with his wife and two daughters but was originally from Glenrothes in Fife.

An Algerian colleague at the plant is said to have witnessed the BP project services manager “being shot” by his captors as commandos stormed the compound.

The 59-year-old was educated at Auchmuty High School and studied engineering at Glenrothes Technical College between 1970 and 1974.

Friends posted tribute messages on his Facebook account on Saturday. Steward Goodwin in South Africa wrote: “How will we understand this? My heartfelt condolences go to the family and friends who are trying to come to terms with this senseless murder.”

Billy Hunter wrote: “We’ll always remember him and his bagpipes.” “It’s hard to understand such senseless waste of life,” added Joe McMahon.

Nigel Morris, John Lichfield
Monday, 21 January 2013

Find this story at 21 January 2013

© independent.co.uk

U.S. Weighs Base for Spy Drones in North Africa

WASHINGTON — The United States military is preparing to establish a drone base in northwest Africa so that it can increase surveillance missions on the local affiliate of Al Qaeda and other Islamist extremist groups that American and other Western officials say pose a growing menace to the region.

For now, officials say they envision flying only unarmed surveillance drones from the base, though they have not ruled out conducting missile strikes at some point if the threat worsens.

The move is an indication of the priority Africa has become in American antiterrorism efforts. The United States military has a limited presence in Africa, with only one permanent base, in the country of Djibouti, more than 3,000 miles from Mali, where French and Malian troops are now battling Qaeda-backed fighters who control the northern part of Mali.

A new drone base in northwest Africa would join a constellation of small airstrips in recent years on the continent, including in Ethiopia, for surveillance missions flown by drones or turboprop planes designed to look like civilian aircraft.

If the base is approved, the most likely location for it would be in Niger, a largely desert nation on the eastern border of Mali. The American military’s Africa Command, or Africom, is also discussing options for the base with other countries in the region, including Burkina Faso, officials said.

The immediate impetus for a drone base in the region is to provide surveillance assistance to the French-led operation in Mali. “This is directly related to the Mali mission, but it could also give Africom a more enduring presence for I.S.R.,” one American military official said Sunday, referring to intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.

A handful of unarmed Predator drones would carry out surveillance missions in the region and fill a desperate need for more detailed information on a range of regional threats, including militants in Mali and the unabated flow of fighters and weapons from Libya. American military commanders and intelligence analysts complain that such information has been sorely lacking.

The Africa Command’s plan still needs approval from the Pentagon and eventually from the White House, as well as from officials in Niger. American military officials said that they were still working out some details, and that no final decision had been made. But in Niger on Monday, the two countries reached a status-of-forces agreement that clears the way for greater American military involvement in the country and provides legal protection to American troops there, including any who might deploy to a new drone base.

The plan could face resistance from some in the White House who are wary of committing any additional American forces to a fight against a poorly understood web of extremist groups in North Africa.

If approved, the base could ultimately have as many as 300 United States military and contractor personnel, but it would probably begin with far fewer people than that, military officials said.

Some Africa specialists expressed concern that setting up a drone base in Niger or in a neighboring country, even if only to fly surveillance missions, could alienate local people who may associate the distinctive aircraft with deadly attacks in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen.

Officials from Niger did not respond to e-mails over the weekend about the plan, but its president, Mahamadou Issoufou, has expressed a willingness to establish what he called in a recent interview “a long-term strategic relationship with the U.S.”

“What’s happening in northern Mali is a big concern for us because what’s happening in northern Mali can also happen to us,” Mr. Issoufou said in an interview at the presidential palace in Niamey, Niger’s capital, on Jan. 10, the day before French troops swept into Mali to blunt the militant advance.

Gen. Carter F. Ham, the head of the Africa Command, who visited Niger this month to discuss expanding the country’s security cooperation with the United States, declined to comment on the proposed drone base, saying in an e-mail that the subject was “too operational for me to confirm or deny.”

Discussions about the drone base come at a time when the French operation in Mali and a militant attack on a remote gas field in the Algerian desert that left at least 37 foreign hostages, including 3 Americans, dead have thrown a spotlight on Al Qaeda’s franchise in the region, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and forced Western governments and their allies in the region to accelerate efforts to combat it.

Senator Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat who is chairwoman of the Intelligence Committee, said on CBS’s “Face the Nation” on Sunday that in the wake of Osama bin Laden’s death and the turmoil of the Arab Spring, there was “an effort to establish a beachhead for terrorism, a joining together of terrorist organizations.”

According to current and former American government officials, as well as classified government cables made public by the group WikiLeaks, the surveillance missions flown by American turboprop planes in northern Mali have had only a limited effect.

Flown mainly from Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, the missions have faced stiff challenges as militant leaders have taken greater precautions in using electronic communications and have taken more care not to disclose delicate information that could be monitored, like their precise locations.

General Ham said in an interview on his visit to Niger that it had been difficult for American intelligence agencies to collect consistent, reliable intelligence about what was going on in northern Mali, as well as in other largely ungoverned parts of the sub-Saharan region.

“It’s tough to penetrate,” he said. “It’s tough to get access for platforms that can collect. It’s an extraordinarily tough environment for human intelligence, not just ours but the neighboring countries as well.”

January 28, 2013
By ERIC SCHMITT

Find this story at 28 January 2013

© 2013 The New York Times Company

Into Africa: Ex-navy SEAL sets trail for investors: Erik Prince of Blackwater fame has set up a company that will be the ‘search radar’ to help firms manage the risks of investing there

Investors going to Africa face political risk in some countries and the very bad transportation and infrastructure, says Erik Prince. Photo: SCMP

The man who built up Blackwater – the giant private security force that guarded US diplomats in some of the world’s most dangerous places, including Afghanistan and Iraq – sees Africa as his future.

After Erik Prince sold his firm to investors about two years ago, the former officer in the Navy SEALs – the special US military force that killed Osama bin Laden last year – set up a new company called Frontier Resource Group (FRG) early this year.

FRG is an Africa-dedicated investment firm partnered with major Chinese enterprises, including at least one state-owned resource giant that is keen to pour money into the resource-rich continent.

“Africa is so far the most unexplored part of the world, and I think China has seen a lot of promise in Africa,” Prince said during a brief trip to Hong Kong last week to meet potential Chinese investors and partners. “But the problem is if you go alone, you bear the country risk on your own. You have to get support and maintenance there,” Prince, FRG’s managing partner, told the South China Morning Post in an exclusive interview.

Despite the geographical distance, economic and diplomatic ties between Beijing and many African countries have rapidly strengthened in the past decade.

Earlier this year, Beijing pledged US$20 billion in credit to African governments over the next three years.

Most of the money is to be used to support the development of infrastructure, agriculture, manufacturing and small businesses in Africa.

Prince, who credits the Navy SEALs with bringing out his entrepreneurial spirit, said there were two main risks that perhaps every businessman in Africa must face.

The first one is the political risk in some countries, and the second is the very bad transportation and infrastructure, which means a high cost of doing business there.

“If you can’t get to market cheaply enough, that’s not interesting,” Prince said.

Many foreign investors came to Africa purely for its natural resources, he said, but they forgot that transporting those resources was as important as exploring and producing them.

Prince, who works and lives in Abu Dhabi, where FRG is headquartered, said investing in Africa’s infrastructure, energy facilities and commercial agriculture to meet the local people’s basic needs of work and life should mean as much as investing directly in natural resources.

In July, FRG made the first closing of its first Africa-dedicated private equity fund, having raised US$100 million in a few months.

Prince committed some money himself to the fund to demonstrate a strong, long-term commitment to investing in the continent.

Following the first closing, Prince was invited by sovereign wealth funds, rich families and big banks in Asia, including some from Hong Kong and the mainland, to advise them on investment opportunities in Africa. Some wanted to put money into FRG’s first fund.

Now the firm aimed to raise an additional US$400 million by the first quarter of next year to close the capital-raising period of the fund, Prince said.

He said he was “selective” about his investors, as he only wanted to bring in those who could add value to FRG and its projects in Africa.

In 1997, Prince set up Blackwater, initially with his own money. That company received more than US$2 billion in contracts from US government agencies, including the Central Intelligence Agency and the State Department.

When asked how he turned Blackwater into a business success, Prince said Blackwater was a part of his history and Africa meant the future for him.

However, he said his experience in the SEALs and Blackwater developed his operational expertise for doing business in Africa.

“People come to Africa to help [Africans] to build up the capabilities there and to show them both know-how and capital,” he said. “Our job is to put all these things together and make them good investment opportunities.”

Monday, 19 November, 2012, 12:00am

George Chen

Find this story at 19 November 2012

Copyright © 2012 South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

US General: American Military Spies ‘Across Africa’

A U-28A plane, painted in a civilian paint scheme, is seen about to touch down on a landing strip, in this file photo. (US Airforce)

America’s top commander in Africa revealed that the U.S. military has conducted spy operations all over the continent as part of the fight against international adversaries from al Qaeda-allied terror groups that target the homeland to suspected war criminals like Joseph Kony.

“Do we collect information across Africa? Yes, we do,” U.S. Gen. Carter Ham, commander of U.S. Africa Command, said in a leadership conference at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies Monday.

In an attempt to clarify recent press reports that the U.S. military had set up “spy locations” throughout Africa, Ham said that U.S. troops do at times go on “short-term deployments of capabilities” in various African nations, but always with the permission of the host country.

Ham did not explain what exactly those capabilities are, but gave as an example the hunt for Joseph Kony, the notorious leader of the brutal Lord’s Resistance Army — a hunt the U.S. military has supported with the permission of four local governments. Last October, President Obama announced that 100 American special operations troops had been sent to central Africa to help track Kony.

“To have some intelligence collection capability that has the ability to monitor the areas in which we believe the Lord’s Resistance Army is operating, to be able to see, to be able to listen, to be able to collect information which we then pass to the four nations, four African nations, which are participating, I think is a good way ahead,” Ham said.

Ham’s admission comes two weeks after The Washington Post reported that the U.S. military had secretly expanded its presence in Africa to include a network of small air bases used to spy on terrorist organizations there. According to the Post, the military uses small, unarmed turbo-prop planes disguised as private charters to carry out sensitive intelligence collection.

Part of that program appeared to have been revealed in February when the Department of Defense announced the deaths of four special operations servicemen near Djibouti. The four men died after their U-28 plane — a “non-standard” surveillance aircraft similar in appearance to a private plane — was involved in an accident.

Gen.: Future Role for US Military in Libya, ‘Ideal’ Position in Somalia

Ham echoed fears previously voiced by U.S. officials to ABC News about a possible foothold extremist groups like al Qaeda may be trying to make in Libya and elsewhere in Africa. AQIM, an al Qaeda offshoot based in northwestern Africa, has publicly said it has “benefitted” from the chaos in Libya already.

By LEE FERRAN
June 26, 2012

Find this story at 26 June 2012

Copyright © 2012 ABC News Internet Ventures. Yahoo! – ABC News Network

White House widens covert ops presence in North Africa

WASHINGTON – Small teams of special operations forces arrived at American embassies throughout North Africa in the months before militants launched the fiery attack that killed the U.S. ambassador in Libya. The soldiers’ mission: Set up a network that could quickly strike a terrorist target or rescue a hostage.

But the teams had yet to do much counterterrorism work in Libya, though the White House signed off a year ago on the plan to build the new military task force in the region and the advance teams had been there for six months, according to three U.S. counterterror officials and a former intelligence official.

The counterterror effort indicates that the administration has been worried for some time about a growing threat posed by al-Qaida and its offshoots in North Africa. But officials say the military organization was too new to respond to the attack in Benghazi, where the administration now believes armed al-Qaida-linked militants surrounded the lightly guarded U.S. compound, set it on fire and killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.

Republicans have questioned whether the Obama administration has been hiding key information or hasn’t known what happened in the immediate aftermath of the attack.

As of early September, the special operations teams still consisted only of liaison officers who were assigned to establish relationships with local governments and U.S. officials in the region. Only limited counterterrorism operations have been conducted in Africa so far.

“There are no plans at this stage for unilateral U.S. military operations” in the region, Pentagon spokesman George Little said Tuesday, adding that the focus was on helping African countries build their own forces.

For the Special Operations Command, spokesman Col. Tim Nye would not discuss “the missions and or locations of its counterterrorist forces” except to say that special operations troops are in 75 countries daily conducting missions.

The go-slow approach being taken by the Army’s top clandestine counterterrorist unit – known as Delta Force – is an effort by the White House to counter criticism from some U.S. lawmakers, human rights activists and others that the anti-terror fight is shifting largely to a secret war using special operations raids and drone strikes, with little public accountability. The administration has been taking its time when setting up the new unit to get buy-in from all players who might be affected, such as the U.S. ambassadors, CIA station chiefs, regional U.S. military commanders and local leaders.

Eventually, the Delta Force group will form the backbone of a military task force responsible for combating al-Qaida and other terrorist groups across the region with an arsenal that includes drones. But first, it will work to win acceptance by helping North African nations build their own special operations and counterterror units.

The Obama administration has been concerned about the growing power and influence of al-Qaida offshoots in Yemen, Somalia, Iraq and North Africa. Only the Yemeni branch has tried to attack American territory directly so far, with a series of thwarted bomb plots aimed at U.S.-bound aircraft. A Navy SEAL task force set up in 2009 has used a combination of raids and drone strikes to fight militants in Yemen and Somalia, working together with the CIA and local forces.

The new task force would work in much the same way to combat al-Qaida’s North African affiliates, which are growing in numbers and are awash in weapons from post-revolutionary Libya’s looted stockpiles. They are well-funded by a criminal network trafficking in drugs and hostages.

Published: 07:12 PM, Tue Oct 02, 2012

By Kimberly Dozier

The Associated Press

Find this story at 2 October 2012

Copyright 2012 – The Fayetteville Observer, Fayetteville, N.C.

Mysterious fatal crash offers rare look at U.S. commando presence in Mali

In pre-dawn darkness, a Toyota Land Cruiser skidded off a bridge in North Africa in the spring, plunging into the Niger River. When rescuers arrived, they found the bodies of three U.S. Army commandos — alongside three dead women.

What the men were doing in the impoverished country of Mali, and why they were still there a month after the United States suspended military relations with its government, is at the crux of a mystery that officials have not fully explained even 10 weeks later.

At the very least, the April 20 accident exposed a team of Special Operations forces that had been working for months in Mali, a Saharan country racked by civil war and a rising Islamist insurgency. More broadly, the crash has provided a rare glimpse of elite U.S. commando units in North Africa, where they have been secretly engaged in counterterrorism actions against al-Qaeda affiliates.

The Obama administration has not publicly acknowledged the existence of the missions, although it has spoken in general about plans to rely on Special Operations forces as a cornerstone of its global counterterrorism strategy. In recent years, the Pentagon has swelled the ranks and resources of the Special Operations Command, which includes such units as the Navy SEALs and the Army’s Delta Force, even as the overall number of U.S. troops is shrinking.

At the same time, the crash in Mali has revealed some details of the commandos’ clandestine activities that apparently had little to do with counterterrorism. The women killed in the wreck were identified as Moroccan prostitutes who had been riding with the soldiers, according to a senior Army official and a U.S. counterterrorism consultant briefed on the incident, both of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.

The Army’s Criminal Investigation Command, which is conducting a probe of the fatal plunge off the Martyrs Bridge in Bamako, the capital of Mali, said it does not suspect foul play but has “not completely ruled it out.” Other Army officials cited poor road conditions and excessive speed as the likely cause of the 5 a.m. crash.

U.S. officials have revealed few details about the soldiers’ mission or their backgrounds, beyond a brief news release announcing their deaths hours after the accident.

In many countries, including most in Africa, Special Operations forces work openly to distribute humanitarian aid and train local militaries. At times, the civil-affairs assignments can provide credible cover for clandestine counterterrorism units.

But in Mali, U.S. military personnel had ceased all training and civil-affairs work by the end of March, about a week after the country’s democratically elected president was overthrown in a military coup.

The military’s Africa Command, which oversees operations on the continent, said the three service members killed were among “a small number of personnel” who had been aiding the Malian military before the coup and had remained in the country to “provide assistance to the U.S. Embassy” and “maintain situational awareness on the unfolding events.”

Megan Larson-Kone, a public affairs officer for the U.S. Embassy in Mali, said the soldiers had stayed in Bamako because they were “winding down” civil-
affairs programs in the aftermath of the coup while holding out hope “that things would turn around quickly” so they could resume their work.

Two of the soldiers, Capt. Daniel H. Utley, 33, and Sgt. 1st Class Marciano E. Myrthil, 39, were members of the 91st Civil Affairs Battalion, 95th Civil Affairs Brigade, which is based at Fort Bragg, N.C.

For two months after the crash, the U.S. military withheld the identity of the third soldier killed. In response to inquiries from The Washington Post, the Army named him as Master Sgt. Trevor J. Bast, 39, a communications technician with the Intelligence and Security Command at Fort Belvoir.

The Intelligence and Security Command is a little-known and secretive branch of the Army that specializes in communications intercepts. Its personnel often work closely with the military’s Joint Special Operations Command, which oversees missions to capture or kill terrorism suspects overseas.

During his two decades of service, Bast revealed little about the nature of his work to his family. “He did not tell us a lot about his life, and we respected that for security purposes,” his mother, Thelma Bast of Gaylord, Mich., said in a brief interview. “We never asked questions, and that’s the honest truth.”

Haven for Islamist militants

U.S. counterterrorism officials have long worried about Mali, a weakly governed country of 14.5 million people that has served as a refuge for Islamist militants allied with al-Qaeda.

With only 6,000 poorly equipped troops, the Malian armed forces have always struggled to maintain control of their territory, about twice the size of Texas. Repeated famines and rebellions by Tuareg nomads only exacerbated the instability.

About six years ago, the Pentagon began bolstering its overt aid and training programs in Mali, as well as its clandestine operations.

Under a classified program code-named Creek Sand, dozens of U.S. personnel and contractors were deployed to West Africa to conduct surveillance missions over the country with single-
engine aircraft designed to look like civilian passenger planes.

In addition, the military flew spy flights over Mali and other countries in the region with longer-range P-3 Orion aircraft based in the Mediterranean, according to classified U.S. diplomatic cables obtained by the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks.

In what would have represented a significant escalation of U.S. military involvement in Mali, the Pentagon also considered a secret plan in 2009 to embed American commandos with Malian ground troops, diplomatic cables show.

Under that program, code-named Oasis Enabler, U.S. military advisers would conduct anti-terrorism operations alongside elite, American-trained Malian units. But the idea was rejected by Gillian A. Milovanovic, the ambassador to Mali at the time.

In an October 2009 meeting in Bamako with Vice Adm. Robert T. Moeller, deputy chief of the Africa Command, the ambassador called the plan “extremely problematic,” adding that it could create a popular backlash and “risk infuriating” neighbors such as Algeria.

Furthermore, Milovanovic warned that the U.S. advisers “would likely serve as lightning rods, exposing themselves and the Malian contingents to specific risk,” according to a State Department cable summarizing the meeting.

Moeller replied that he “regretted” that the ambassador had not been kept better informed and said Oasis Enabler was “a work in progress.” It is unclear whether the plan was carried out.

Since then, however, security in Mali has deteriorated sharply. After the coup in March, extremist Muslim guerrillas in northern Mali declared an independent Islamist state. They have imposed sharia law and have begun enforcing strict social codes that include compulsory beards for men and a ban on television.

In the fabled desert city of Timbuktu, al-Qaeda sympathizers have destroyed ancient mausoleums and attacked other shrines as part of a religious cleansing campaign. Western aid workers have abandoned the northern half of the country after a string of kidnappings.

Thousands of Malians have fled to refugee camps in neighboring countries.

A fatal plunge

The three soldiers riding through Bamako in April had rented their 2010 Toyota Land Cruiser from a local agency, according to written statements provided to The Post by the Special Operations Command at Fort Bragg.

Bast was in the driver’s seat and was headed south across the Martyrs Bridge. Preliminary investigative results determined that he lost control of the Land Cruiser, which broke through the bridge’s guard rail and landed in the river below.

Also in the vehicle were three Moroccan women, according to the Army’s statement. Contributing factors in the accident, the Army said, were limited visibility and “a probable evasive maneuver on the part of the vehicle’s driver to avoid impacting with slower moving traffic.”

The soldiers died of “blunt force trauma” when the vehicle landed upside down in the shallow river, crushing the roof, the Army said.

The Special Operations Command said it could not answer questions about where the soldiers were going, nor why they were traveling with the unidentified Moroccan women, saying the matter is under investigation.

Larson-Kone, the embassy spokeswoman, said the soldiers were on “personal, not business-related travel” at the time, but she declined to provide details. Officials from the Africa Command also said that they did not know who the women were, but they added in a statement: “From what we know now, we have no reason to believe these women were engaged in acts of prostitution.”

Coincidentally, the incident occurred less than a week after President Obama’s visit to a summit in Cartagena, Colombia, where U.S. military personnel and Secret Service agents became embroiled in a scandal involving prostitutes.

Little details not adding up

At least two of the soldiers in Mali had been trained as communications or intelligence specialists.

Bast, the master sergeant, was a ham radio hobbyist who originally joined the Navy before switching to the Army several years ago. An Army spokesman described him as a “communications expert” and said he was posthumously given the Meritorious Service Medal but declined to say why.

Myrthil was a native of Haiti who joined the Army two decades ago. Military officials released virtually no details about his service record.

Utley, the captain, was a Kentucky native who joined the Army in 2002 to work as a signals and communications officer but later transferred to the Special Forces.

Friends said he had expected to deploy to Afghanistan last summer but received last-minute orders to go to Africa instead. His Mali assignment was scheduled to end this spring but was extended, they said.

Three weeks after the coup, on April 11, Utley sent a brief e-mail to a friend from college, Chris Atzinger, to report that he was all right and that he would write more later.

Find this story at 9 July 2012

By Craig Whitlock, Monday, July 9, 3:04 AM

Dana Priest and Julie Tate contributed to this report.

© The Washington Post Company

Contractors run U.S. spying missions in Africa

ENTEBBE, Uganda — Four small, white passenger planes sit outside a hangar here under a blazing sun, with no exterior markings save for U.S. registration numbers painted on the tails. A few burly men wearing aviator sunglasses and short haircuts poke silently around the wing flaps and landing gear.

The aircraft are Pilatus PC-12s, turboprops favored by the U.S. Special Operations forces for stealth missions precisely because of their nondescript appearance. There is no hint that they are carrying high-tech sensors and cameras that can film man-size targets from 10 miles away.

To further disguise the mission, the U.S. military has taken another unusual step: It has largely outsourced the spying operation to private contractors. The contractors supply the aircraft as well as the pilots, mechanics and other personnel to help process electronic intelligence collected from the airspace over Uganda, Congo, South Sudan and the Central African Republic.

In October, President Obama sent about 100 elite U.S. troops to central Africa to scour the terrain for Joseph Kony, the messianic and brutal leader of a Ugandan rebel group. But American contractors have been secretly searching for Kony from the skies long before that, at least since 2009, under a project code-named Tusker Sand, according to documents and people familiar with the operation.

The previously unreported practice of hiring private companies to spy on huge expanses of African territory — in this region and in North Africa, where a similar surveillance program is aimed at an al-Qaeda affiliate — has been a cornerstone of the U.S. military’s secret activities on the continent. Unlike uniformed troops, plainclothes contractors are less likely to draw attention.

But because the arms-length arrangement exists outside traditional channels, there is virtually no public scrutiny or oversight. And if something goes wrong, the U.S. government and its partners acknowledge that the contractors are largely on their own.

U.S. Africa Command, which oversees military operations on the continent, declined to discuss specific missions or its reasons for outsourcing the gathering of intelligence.

In response to written questions from The Washington Post, the command stated that contractors would not get special treatment in case of a mishap. Instead, they “would be provided the same assistance that any U.S. citizen would be provided by the U.S. Government should they be in danger.”

Perils of the job

There is precedent for the use of contractors in spying operations. The military hired private firms to conduct airborne surveillance in Latin America in the 1990s and early 2000s, with sometimes-disastrous results.

In 2003, for instance, one American was killed and three others were taken hostage by Colombian insurgents after their plane crashed in the jungle. The contractors, who were working for Northrop Grumman on a Defense Department counter-narcotics program, endured five years of captivity before they were freed in a raid by Colombian police.

Peter W. Singer, a Brookings Institution senior fellow and an expert on military contracting, said the Pentagon typically turns to the private sector for “deniability,” but he added that “it rarely turns out that way.”

“When things go bad, you can have two scenarios,” he said. “Either the contractors are left holding the bag, complaining about abandonment, or else some kind of abuse happens and they’re not held accountable because of a mix of unclear legal accountability and a lack of political will to do something about it.”

Indeed, contractors knowledgeable about the central Africa mission appear to be aware that the downing of one of their planes could have far-reaching implications.

“From a purely political standpoint it is obvious the fallout of such an incident would be immense, especially if hostile forces reached the crash site first,” Commuter Air Technology, an Oklahoma defense firm, wrote in May 2010 in response to a U.S. Africa Command solicitation to expand operations. “This could turn into a prisoner/hostage situation at worst, or at the least a serious foreign relations incident highly damaging to both AFRICOM and the U.S.”

The warning was prescient. That summer, a PC-12 surveillance aircraft operated by a New Jersey contractor as part of Tusker Sand was forced to make an emergency landing in Obo, an isolated town in the Central African Republic where Kony’s forces had terrorized the population.

On board were a handful of Americans working for the firm R-4 Inc., as well as a Ugandan military officer and a Congolese officer.

The unexpected appearance of two foreign soldiers and some Americans aroused the suspicions of tribal leaders, who had been kept in the dark about Tusker Sand by their national government. They detained the crew for several hours as they debated what to do.

“We felt like we were going to prison,” said one of the American contractors involved, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive operation.

The contractor said that his group contacted State Department and United Nations officials but that they declined to intervene. It was even harder to track down Africa Command officials, whose headquarters are in Stuttgart, Germany.

“Eventually, we were able to talk our way out of it,” the contractor said. “That’s all we did over there, pay people off and talk our way out of situations.”

Dwight Turner, vice president of overseas operations for R-4, said he was not personally familiar with the incident. He confirmed that his company had been involved in Tusker Sand but declined to comment further.

A growing appetite

When Tusker Sand began in late 2009, it consisted of a single PC-12, operating out of a Ugandan military hangar at Entebbe airport. The hangar also housed a Gulfstream aircraft for the country’s president, Yoweri Museveni.

According to the contractor who worked for R-4, the presidential palace was so protective of Museveni’s plane that the Americans were required to push their PC-12 out of the hangar by hand, instead of with a tractor, to avoid inadvertent scrapes.

The U.S. military’s appetite for surveillance quickly grew. On June 11, 2010, the Africa Command participated in an “Industry Day” to drum up interest. More than 50 private contractors were invited to develop proposals to expand Tusker Sand and Creek Sand, the program aimed at al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, which operates mainly in Mali.

Unclassified documents prepared for the event show that the military wanted contractors to provide at least a combined 44 personnel for the programs, with double that number if the Africa Command decided to “surge” either one of them. At a minimum, contractors were told that they would have to keep planes flying for 150 hours a month.

Among the jobs to be outsourced: pilots, sensor operators, intelligence analysts, mechanics and linguists. The expectation was that the personnel would be veterans; most needed to certify that they had passed the military’s survival, resistance and escape training course, because of the possibility of aircrews being downed behind enemy lines.

Contractors would have to supply the surveillance gear, including electro-optical and infrared sensors that work in the dark, and a laser-emitting sensor that can peer under the jungle canopy. All had to be concealed within the body of the plane with retractable mounting to avoid attracting suspicion.

Another document stipulated that prospective firms fly “innocuous” aircraft that would “blend into the local operating area.” In a PowerPoint presentation posted on a federal government Web site for contractors, the Africa Command warned firms bidding for the work that African countries would be “uncomfortable” with activities that might look suspicious, adding: “Don’t want covert aircraft, just friendly looking aircraft.”

In addition to expanding Tusker Sand and Creek Sand, the Africa Command said it wanted to start a drone-based program, dubbed Tusker Wing, to search for members of Kony’s militia, the Lord’s Resistance Army.

That plan envisioned contractors using blimps equipped with cameras as well as ScanEagles, small and unmanned aircraft that can be launched with a catapult but stay aloft for 22 hours at a time, according to Gene Healey, a contractor who helped prepare a study for the Africa Command.

Healey said the Africa Command was initially enthusiastic about Tusker Wing but canceled the program, without explanation, before it got off the ground. Africa Command officials declined to comment.

Nonetheless, the number of manned surveillance flights for Tusker Sand has gradually increased. A new contractor, Sierra Nevada Corp., began operating PC-12 flights out of Entebbe in August.

Michelle Erlach, a spokeswoman for Sierra Nevada Corp., based in Sparks, Nev., declined to answer questions about Tusker Sand or the firm’s activities in Africa. “I cannot give any details on that,” she said.

The Africa Command declined to answer questions about the contract for Tusker Sand, saying it was “proprietary in nature.”

Allies on the Hill

Tusker Sand could soon receive another boost.

In March, Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.), one of Congress’s leading voices on Africa, issued a statement expressing concern that the U.S. military was being hindered in its efforts to track the Lord’s Resistance Army.

He called on the Obama administration to give the Africa Command “the full availability” of surveillance aircraft and equipment necessary to catch Kony and conduct other counterterrorism missions.

In an interview a month later, however, Inhofe said Africa Command officials told him that things had improved and that they were no longer being shortchanged. “I have been reassured,” he said. “I think they right now have the assets they need.”

Asked whether he had any qualms about private contractors operating spy missions on behalf of the U.S. military, Inhofe said he’d “rather not get into that.”

“They are working with contractors on these things, and I know there are a lot of people involved,” he added. “I’m just not going to elaborate on where they are or what they’re doing.”

Late last month, however, the Senate Armed Services Committee passed a measure authorizing $50 million for the Defense Department to “enhance and expand” surveillance operations to help Ugandan and other regional militaries search for Kony.

A congressional staff member said the legislators’ priority was to increase and improve the surveillance operations as quickly as possible, adding that Congress was not necessarily opposed to using private companies for the Kony manhunt.

“It’s a concern, but when you’re short on resources, it’s what you have to do,” said the staffer, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive operations. “It’s a permissive environment. Nobody’s getting shot at, and we’re just collecting intelligence.”

Find this story at 15 June 2012

Staff researcher Julie Tate in Washington contributed to this report.

By Craig Whitlock, Published: June 15

© The Washington Post Company

U.S. expands secret intelligence operations in Africa

OUAGADOUGOU, Burkina Faso — The U.S. military is expanding its secret intelligence operations across Africa, establishing a network of small air bases to spy on terrorist hideouts from the fringes of the Sahara to jungle terrain along the equator, according to documents and people involved in the project. At the heart of the surveillance operations are small, unarmed turboprop aircraft disguised as private planes. Equipped with hidden sensors that can record full-motion video, track infrared heat patterns, and vacuum up radio and cellphone signals, the planes refuel on isolated airstrips favored by African bush pilots, extending their effective flight range by thousands of miles. About a dozen air bases have been established in Africa since 2007, according to a former senior U.S. commander involved in setting up the network. Most are small operations run out of secluded hangars at African military bases or civilian airports. The nature and extent of the missions, as well as many of the bases being used, have not been previously reported but are partially documented in public Defense Department contracts. The operations have intensified in recent months, part of a growing shadow war against al-Qaeda affiliates and other militant groups. The surveillance is overseen by U.S. Special Operations forces but relies heavily on private military contractors and support from African troops. The surveillance underscores how Special Operations forces, which have played an outsize role in the Obama administration’s national security strategy, are working clandestinely all over the globe, not just in war zones. The lightly equipped commando units train foreign security forces and perform aid missions, but they also include teams dedicated to tracking and killing terrorism suspects. The establishment of the Africa missions also highlights the ways in which Special Operations forces are blurring the lines that govern the secret world of intelligence, moving aggressively into spheres once reserved for the CIA. The CIA has expanded its counterterrorism and intelligence-gathering operations in Africa, but its manpower and resources pale in comparison with those of the military. U.S. officials said the African surveillance operations are necessary to track terrorist groups that have taken root in failed states on the continent and threaten to destabilize neighboring countries. A hub for secret network A key hub of the U.S. spying network can be found in Ouagadougou (WAH-gah-DOO-goo), the flat, sunbaked capital of Burkina Faso, one of the most impoverished countries in Africa. Under a classified surveillance program code-named Creek Sand, dozens of U.S. personnel and contractors have come to Ouagadougou in recent years to establish a small air base on the military side of the international airport. The unarmed U.S. spy planes fly hundreds of miles north to Mali, Mauritania and the Sahara, where they search for fighters from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, a regional network that kidnaps Westerners for ransom. The surveillance flights have taken on added importance in the turbulent aftermath of a March coup in Mali, which has enabled al-Qaeda sympathizers to declare an independent Islamist state in the northern half of the country. Elsewhere, commanders have said they are increasingly worried about the spread of Boko Haram, an Islamist group in Nigeria blamed for a rash of bombings there. U.S. forces are orchestrating a regional intervention in Somalia to target al-Shabab, another al-Qaeda affiliate. In Central Africa, about 100 American Special Operations troops are helping to coordinate the hunt for Joseph Kony, the Ugandan leader of a brutal guerrilla group known as the Lord’s Resistance Army. The results of the American surveillance missions are shrouded in secrecy. Although the U.S. military has launched airstrikes and raids in Somalia, commanders said that in other places, they generally limit their involvement to sharing intelligence with allied African forces so they can attack terrorist camps on their own territory. The creeping U.S. military involvement in long-simmering African conflicts, however, carries risks. Some State Department officials have expressed reservations about the militarization of U.S. foreign policy on the continent. They have argued that most terrorist cells in Africa are pursuing local aims, not global ones, and do not present a direct threat to the United States. The potential for creating a popular backlash can be seen across the Red Sea, where an escalating campaign of U.S. drone strikes in Yemen is angering tribesmen and generating sympathy for an al-Qaeda franchise there. In a response to written questions from The Washington Post, the U.S. Africa Command said that it would not comment on “specific operational details.” “We do, however, work closely with our African partners to facilitate access, when required, to conduct missions or operations that support and further our mutual security goals,” the command said. Surveillance and intelligence-gathering operations, it added, are “simply a tool we employ to enable host nation militaries to better understand the threat picture.” Uncovering the details The U.S. military has largely kept details of its spy flights in Africa secret. The Post pieced together descriptions of the surveillance network by examining references to it in unclassified military reports, U.S. government contracting documents and diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks, the anti-secrecy group. Further details were provided by interviews with American and African officials, as well as military contractors. In addition to Burkina Faso, U.S. surveillance planes have operated periodically out of nearby Mauritania. In Central Africa, the main hub is in Uganda, though there are plans to open a base in South Sudan. In East Africa, U.S. aircraft fly out of bases in Ethiopia, Djibouti, Kenya and the Indian Ocean archipelago of the Seychelles. Army Gen. Carter F. Ham, the head of U.S. Africa Command, which is responsible for military operations on the continent, hinted at the importance and extent of the air bases while testifying before Congress in March. Without divulging locations, he made clear that, in Africa, he wanted to expand “ISR,” the military’s acronym for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. “Without operating locations on the continent, ISR capabilities would be curtailed, potentially endangering U.S. security,” Ham said in a statement submitted to the House Armed Services Committee. “Given the vast geographic space and diversity in threats, the command requires increased ISR assets to adequately address the security challenges on the continent.” Some of the U.S. air bases, including ones in Djibouti, Ethiopia and the Seychelles, fly Predator and Reaper drones, the original and upgraded models, respectively, of the remotely piloted aircraft that the Obama administration has used to kill al-Qaeda leaders in Pakistan and Yemen. “We don’t have remotely piloted aircraft in many places other than East Africa, but we could,” said a senior U.S. military official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters. “If there was a need to do so and those assets were available, I’m certain we could get the access and the overflight [permission] that is necessary to do that.” Common aircraft Most of the spy flights in Africa, however, take off the old-fashioned way — with pilots in the cockpit. The conventional aircraft hold two big advantages over drones: They are cheaper to operate and far less likely to draw attention because they are so similar to the planes used throughout Africa. The bulk of the U.S. surveillance fleet is composed of single-engine Pilatus PC-12s, small passenger and cargo utility planes manufactured in Switzerland. The aircraft are not equipped with weapons. They often do not bear military markings or government insignia. The Pentagon began acquiring the planes in 2005 to fly commandos into territory where the military wanted to maintain a clandestine presence. The Air Force variant of the aircraft is known as the U-28A. The Air Force Special Operations Command has about 21 of the planes in its inventory. In February, a U-28A crashed as it was returning to Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti, the only permanent U.S. military base in Africa. Four airmen from the Air Force Special Operations Command were killed. It was the first reported fatal incident involving a U-28A since the military began deploying the aircraft six years ago. Air Force officials said that the crash was an accident and that they are investigating the cause. Military officials declined to answer questions about the flight’s mission. Because of its strategic location on the Horn of Africa, Camp Lemonnier is a hub for spy flights in the region. It is about 500 miles from southern Somalia, an area largely controlled by the al-Shabab militia. Lemonnier is even closer — less than 100 miles — to Yemen, where another al-Qaeda franchise has expanded its influence and plotted attacks against the United States. Elsewhere in Africa, the U.S. military is relying on private contractors to provide and operate PC-12 spy planes in the search for Kony, the fugitive leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army, a group known for mutilating victims, committing mass rape and enslaving children as soldiers. Ham, the Africa Command chief, said in his testimony to Congress in March that he was seeking to establish a base for surveillance flights in Nzara, South Sudan. Although that would bolster the hunt for Kony, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court, it would also enable the U.S. military to keep an eye on the worsening conflict between Sudan and South Sudan. The two countries fought a civil war for more than two decades and are on the verge of war again, in part over potentially rich oil deposits valued by foreign investors. Other aviation projects are in the offing. An engineering battalion of Navy Seabees has been assigned to complete a $10 million runway upgrade this summer at the Manda Bay Naval Base, a Kenyan military installation on the Indian Ocean. An Africa Command spokeswoman said the runway extension is necessary so American C-130 troop transport flights can land at night and during bad weather. About 120 U.S. military personnel and contractors are stationed at Manda Bay, which Navy SEALs and other commandos have used as a base from which to conduct raids against Somali pirates and al-Shabab fighters. About 6,000 miles to the west, the Pentagon is spending $8.1 million to upgrade a forward operating base and airstrip in Mauritania, on the western edge of the Sahara. The base is near the border with strife-torn Mali. The Defense Department also set aside $22.6 million in July to buy a Pilatus PC-6 aircraft and another turboprop plane so U.S.-trained Mauritanian security forces can conduct rudimentary surveillance operations, according to documents submitted to Congress. Crowding the embassy The U.S. military began building its presence in Burkina Faso in 2007, when it signed a deal that enabled the Pentagon to establish a Joint Special Operations Air Detachment in Ouagadougou. At the time, the U.S. military said the arrangement would support “medical evacuation and logistics requirements” but provided no other details. By the end of 2009, about 65 U.S. military personnel and contractors were working in Burkina Faso, more than in all but three other African countries, according to a U.S. Embassy cable from Ouagadougou. In the cable, diplomats complained to the State Department that the onslaught of U.S. troops and support staff had “completely overwhelmed” the embassy. In addition to Pilatus PC-12 flights for Creek Sand, the U.S. military personnel in Ouagadougou ran a regional intelligence “fusion cell” code-named Aztec Archer, according to the cable. Burkina Faso, a predominantly Muslim country whose name means “the land of upright men,” does not have a history of radicalism. U.S. military officials saw it as an attractive base because of its strategic location bordering the Sahel, the arid region south of the Sahara where al-Qaeda’s North African affiliate is active. Unlike many other governments in the region, the one in Burkina Faso was relatively stable. The U.S. military operated Creek Sand spy flights from Nouakchott, Mauritania, until 2008, when a military coup forced Washington to suspend relations and end the surveillance, according to former U.S. officials and diplomatic cables. In Ouagadougou, both sides have worked hard to keep the partnership quiet. In a July 2009 meeting, Yero Boly, the defense minister of Burkina Faso, told a U.S. Embassy official that he was pleased with the results. But he confessed he was nervous that the unmarked American planes might draw “undue attention” at the airport in the heart of the capital and suggested that they move to a more secluded hangar. “According to Boly, the present location of the aircraft was in retrospect not an ideal choice in that it put the U.S. aircraft in a section of the airfield that already had too much traffic,” according to a diplomatic cable summarizing the meeting. “He also commented that U.S. personnel were extremely discreet.” U.S. officials raised the possibility of basing the planes about 220 miles to the west, in the city of Bobo Dioulasso, according to the cable. Boly said that the Americans could use that airport on a “short term or emergency basis” but that a U.S. presence there “would likely draw greater attention.” In an interview with The Post, Djibril Bassole, the foreign minister of Burkina Faso, praised security relations between his country and the United States, saying they were crucial to containing al-Qaeda forces in the region. “We need to fight and protect our borders,” he said. “Once they infiltrate your country, it’s very, very difficult to get them out.” Bassole declined, however, to answer questions about the activities of U.S. Special Operations forces in his country. “I cannot provide details, but it has been very, very helpful,” he said. “This cooperation should be very, very discreet. We should not show to al-Qaeda that we are now working with the Americans.” Discretion is not always strictly observed. In interviews last month, residents of Ouagadougou said American service members and contractors stand out, even in plainclothes, and are appreciated for the steady business they bring to bars and a pizzeria in the city center. … Find this story at 14 June 2012 By Craig Whitlock, Thursday, June 14, 4:02 AM © The Washington Post Company