It's a sweltering morning in Chad's scrub-brush desert. A herd of goats grazes on tufts of green. Round huts bake in the strengthening sun.
Suddenly the goats scatter as gunfire fills the air. Chadian soldiers behind a row of machine guns unload on their target: a giant berm standing in for Al Qaeda. Villagers turn as a batallion of Chadian Army troops swoops in from the right. The thap-thap of their AK-47s joins the chorus as shots pound the dirt mound.
And 23 US Marines look on.
For six weeks they've been teaching 168 Chadian soldiers counterterrorism basics - surprise attacks, border patrolling, intelligence gathering, and more. This is the final exam.
"Lookin' good," says Maj. Paul Baker, the mission commander.
The training here in remote Chad is just one sign of how the US military is engaging Africa in the global terror war as never before. There are, for instance, joint US naval exercises with Nigeria this month. There are reported antiterror patrols along the Kenya-Somalia border. And there's the new expansion of the Chad program from a four-nation, $7 million project to a nine-country plan with an expected budget of up to $125 million. It aims to prevent terrorists from roaming in and around the Sahara desert.
We're "looking at Africa as a place of growth for the Marine Corps and the Department of Defense," says Major Baker, standing in his command post under a giant shade tree. There's growing evidence of terrorist activities on the continent. And there's a need to protect Africa's rapidly expanding oil industry. So the US military is paying attention.
The American presence is having a big impact around the region. Before the Marines arrived in Chad, the Chadians had nearly no real military experience. During their basic training each one shot just eight bullets - it's all the government could afford. Chad ranks 167th out of 177 nations on the 2004 United Nations Human Development Index. Per capita income is 73 cents a day.
The soldiers weren't much for marksmanship. "They couldn't hit a 15-foot berm from 20 meters away," marvels Baker. But in six weeks of US-sponsored training, they shot about 122,000 bullets. They've also gotten new US uniforms and 13 new Toyota pickups. It will all be used to patrol the vast open spaces in northern Chad. Back in March, Chadian troops - with help from a US surveillance plane - reportedly killed 42 Islamic fighters in the desert highlands of the north.
Troops in the nearby countries of Niger, Mauritania, and Mali have also received similar training and gear as the Chadians. And as part of the new Trans-Saharan Counter Terrorism Initiative, troops in Senegal, Nigeria, Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco will get US training and hardware, too - at a cost to the US of up to $125 million.
But why the American largesse?
All these nations are in and around the Sahara Desert and the Sahel, a band of land that's south of the big desert and that runs east to west Across Africa. These are vast, lawless lands where terrorists linked to Al Qaeda are known to operate - and where the region's large Muslim populations sometimes offer support or sympathy to extremists.
For instance, a man named Emad Abdelwahid Ahmen Alwan reportedly traveled across this part of Africa in 2002 recruiting and raising funds. He was a close associate of Osama bin Laden's deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and was eventually killed by the Algerian Army.
Also, an Algerian outfit called the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), which pledged allegiance to Al Qaeda, took 32 European hostages in 2003. It reportedly received $6 million in ransom from the German government. Then its leader, Amman Saifi, went on a weapons-buying spree before reportedly being captured by a Chadian rebel group.
All of this was enough to make the US military pay attention. The region may not be the next Afghanistan in terms of terror incubation, but with America's global counterterror efforts squeezing extremist groups, the Sahara and Sahel have become "a very appealing place for people to travel through, recruit, and find refuge," says Gen. Charles Wald, deputy head of the US European Command, which has responsibility for much of Africa.
Other US military and counterterror activities in Africa include: an FBI academy in Bostwana that addresses antiterrorism issues in its training of regional police officers; a military base in Djbouti with at least 2,000 US troops, from which the US launches antiterror missions in the volatile Horn of Africa region; a separate $100-million program to help five East African countries battle terrorism; and the upcoming joint naval exercise with Nigeria, Africa's biggest oil producer.
Indeed, the other major driver of US military interest in Africa is oil. The US now gets about 15 percent of its oil from Africa. In a decade that could rise to 25 percent. Oil-producing nations like Nigeria, Sao Tome and Principe, and Equatorial Guinea (home of a recent apparent attempted coup) are strategic hot-spots.
Despite Africa's growing importance, General Wald says there aren't plans to build US bases on the continent. Rather, "There are thousands of bases already built in Africa, and we'd like access to them," he says.
America's strategy in Africa is generally to maintain a low profile - providing assistance and training rather than big troop deployments.
Still, some see potential problems. In Nigeria, Muslim groups are already skeptical of the US. With greater American activity, there's a danger they'll "become more extreme," warns Anneli Botha, a senior terrorism researcher at the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria, South Africa.
Also, insecure regimes may use US hardware and training to "hassle political opponents," she warns, adding, "Democracy in Africa is a very nice concept, but it's not very secure." For instance, Chad's President Idriss Deby, considered an authoritarian leader and in power since 1990, is changing the Constitution to allow himself to run for a third term. Since 1998 he's been facing a rebellion in the north and could be tempted to use the newly trained troops to try to crush it, although his military leaders deny any plans to do so.
But in the Chadian sunshine, soldier Abakar Ibrahim clearly shows how US training has instilled pride and antiterror resolve. "We're sharpshooters now," he says, keeping his finger off the trigger of his AK-47, just as the marines taught him to do. "Terrorists are the enemy for all the world. We can help America fight them."