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US trains Mali army to fight Al Qaeda

Annual military exercises designed to combat spread of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

Mali soldiers perform counterterrorism exercises to train them to combat Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. (Drew Hinshaw/GlobalPost)

KATI, Mali — Meet Cmdr. Alou Ongoiba’s special forces company of 40 men in mismatched uniforms and doo-rags sheared from actual rags — soldiers charged with scattering terrorists from the bleak Malian badlands that begin about 600 miles northeast of this practice battlefield.

On a Monday, in 105 degrees Fahrenheit, Ongoiba’s troops and their American trainers were supposed to be shinnying down from helicopters and ambushing a make-believe Al Qaeda bivouac.

“But a helicopter requires four or five hours of maintenance for every hour of use,” explained a U.S. military official, who insisted on anonymity, so no chopper. Instead, Ongoiba’s commandos spent their morning learning how to jumpstart a car. Tk-tk-tk-vroom.

Their Senegalese counterparts napped underneath some trucks.

This is Flintlock: The time each year since 2005 when U.S. and European military drill sergeants come to Mali, Niger, Senegal, Burkina Faso — all across Africa’s sandy top — to train in counterterrorism blitzes with African armies.

Well north of the military vehicles stalled in Kati, across the dunes of the Sahara desert, grows a threat that worries U.S. strategists: Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. The annual training by Western military units is designed to get African armies, like Mali’s, to neutralize the threat from Islamic radicals.

The world’s biggest name in terrorism has opened a highly profitable West African franchise kidnapping tourists and aid workers and raking in ransoms that experts worry will bankroll more terrorist activities.

In addition to abducting sightseers, the Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb regularly ambushes Algeria’s army and nearly blew up its president in 2007. They’re increasingly linked to West Africa’s booming cocaine trade and Tuareg rebels — anti-government operations sprawled across ancient caravan routes in the world’s largest desert.

“These deepest areas of the Sahara are providing safe havens,” Special African Operations Lt. Col. Chris Schmidt said, bringing back a buzzword from the early days of the war in Afghanistan. In some ways, the Sahara is Afghanistan — another craggy and history-steeped Islamic hinterland where militias rove a vast territory of unpatrolled, government-free barrens.