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America's 'war on terror' gains a new ally: tiny Senegal

On May 2, the government of the small African country signed a Defense Cooperation Agreement with the United States, the first such pact in a decade with an African nation.

by William M. Arkin
Jun 18 2016, 2:25pm

A Belgian special forces soldier trains soldiers from Niger during Flintlock 2016, a US-led international training exercise with African militaries in Thies, Senegal, February 11, 2016. (Sylvain Cherkaoui/Reuters)

The United States' so-called "war on terror" has reached Senegal, a small West African nation and former French colony that's being drawn increasingly close to the US in a military and intelligence alliance. Actual terrorism, in fact, has not hit Senegal. Through a unique defense agreement with the US and several US government agencies, a country perhaps best known for being one of the most stable democracies in West Africa is choosing the American way to national security.

On May 2, the government of the small African country signed a Defense Cooperation Agreement with the United States, the first such pact in a decade with an African nation. Officially, the US government says that the agreement sets "conditions for access and use of facilities." In reality, it's also a way to export to this majority-Muslim nation the methods and terrorism-fighting ways of the US security establishment.

The agreement officially stems from the use of two bases in Senegal as a logistical hub for the US military response to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2014.

"During the Ebola crisis both governments recognized that as our security relationship has grown, we needed a stronger legal framework to work together," said US ambassador James P. Zumwalt.

But the nation of 14 million perched on the Atlantic is also just a few hours by air from the Saharan battlefields where a US-led alliance is fighting jihadists. The purpose of the defense agreement may be to turn Senegal into something like Jordan, or one of the Persian Gulf mini-states like Qatar, where the US anchors its military and intelligence in the area.

Nothing symbolizes the dual character of this new alliance — half military cooperation, half vehicle for exporting the American approach to national security — than the 33-nation special operations exercise known as Flintlock, a yearly occurrence that was hosted by Senegal in January, and this year was the largest ever of its kind. This year's three-week-long training involved 2,200 Senegalese soldiers, 10 percent of the country's entire armed forces. At the opening ceremony, the US ambassador said that the Western special operations forces "stand with the Senegalese as the face of security and stability in the region."

A Senegalese soldier puts on ear protection ahead of a mock car bomb explosion during the U.S.-led "Flintlock" training exercises for African militaries, in Thies, Senegal, February 18, 2016. Photo by Emma Fargo/Reuters

Yet, despite the activities of al-Qaeda in the Lands of the Islamic Maghreb — the local al-Qaeda affiliate — in neighboring Mali, and despite the growth of other jihadist groups in neighbor nations including Mauritania, Senegal has largely been spared from the effects of international terrorism.

For more than three decades, the Senegalese government faced an armed separatist group, the Movement of Democratic Forces of Casamance or MFDC, which has fought for decentralized control for the religiously and ethically distinct people of Senegal's southwestern region. The MFDC declared a ceasefire two years ago, yet US intelligence now is helping monitor the movement's leadership.

According to the documents reviewed by VICE News, US Marine Corps intelligence, which has prime responsibility for the coastal nation, recently issued a classified report that establishes the MFDC's strength at 3,500 to 5,000 active fighters. But of most importance to the United States was the fact that US intelligence concluded that Iran was continuing to supply weapons and support to the MFDC.

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The government in Dakar had already alleged Iranian involvement and severed diplomatic ties with Tehran in 2011 to express its displeasure, only to restore those relations in 2013. Last year, Senegal decided to send troops to participate in the Saudi Arabian-led military campaign in Yemen against Shia Houthis, who are backed by Iran.

According to a senior US military strategist who spoke to VICE News on condition of anonymity, US Africa Command or AFRICOM — which is responsible for all military operations on the continent — wants Senegal to serve as a "lily-pad" nation to fight regional threats. Djibouti, on the other side of Africa, already plays this role in the fight against al-Qaeda in Yemen and al-Shabaab in Somalia and East Africa; US aircraft, drones and special operations forces routinely depart the Djibouti airport on missions covering a nine-nation area of responsibility.

But lily-pad nations are, as the notion implies, small. Djibouti has 875,000 inhabitants on a territory that's merely the size of the state of New Jersey. And when the American bureaucracy arrives en masse —with all branches of the armed forces, separate special operations and regional commands, multiple entities of the Department of Homeland Security, and law enforcement from the Drug Enforcement Administration to the FBI, not counting multiple intelligence entities and various private contractors — it risks overwhelming local institutions with protocol demands and requests for information.

US Army soldiers interact with role players during Exercise Western Accord 14, in June 2014 in Senegal. (U.S. Army Africa photo by Sgt. William Gore)

The end result, with the influx of an American army of bureaucrats and operators far beyond the normal complement assigned to a US embassy, is that the host nation ends up working on what is important to the United States, which means terrorism, trafficking, and piracy. Senegal has now joined multinational and US-led anti-piracy and counter-trafficking operations, and is being pressured by US intelligence, according to sources in the military and confidential documents, to see broader foreign policy implications in its approach to common crime.

As an example, cigarette and drug smuggling through the country, US intelligence says, includes activity by the Turkey-based Kurdistan Workers Party or PKK, which the US considers a terrorist organization. That makes it part of a counter-terrorism campaign. And Lebanese, Vietnamese, and Chinese immigrant communities, many of whose members are big players in Senegalese commerce and trade, are being implicated in product piracy and human smuggling, based on US intelligence. Chinese firms involved in building telecommunications infrastructure in much of West Africa are also an American intelligence target.

According to sources inside the US military, the growing extent of US military and intelligence involvement shows the pressures that are exerted on a small nation to point it in a certain direction.

From the beginning of the so-called "war on terror," a part of the Afghanistan-centered Operation Enduring Freedom has been focused on North Africa and the Sahel, under the name of OEF-Trans Sahara. Senegal has been a steady partner country in this effort. The Flintlock exercise has been hosted by Senegal three times since 9/11, and numerous US special operations forces have come to the West African country to familiarize themselves with the terrain and local partners.

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According to documents obtained for this story, the Army, National Guard and the Air Force have all sent special operators for consecutive training in Senegal. A newly formed Special Operations Detachment - Africa, of the Texas Army National Guard, is training for future operations in the country. The Vermont National Guard is also analyzing intelligence collected in Senegal "for force protection" purposes, that is, to look inside Senegalese threats to US forces.

The capital Dakar regularly hosts the Special-Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force Crisis Response - Africa, which is the primary unit responsible for quick reaction in sub-Saharan Africa and is usually based in Europe. This year, the task force trained for the 10th time with Senegal's own Navy commandos, spending two weeks in the south of the country focusing on how to fight trafficking — of drugs, weapons, people, diamonds, ivory, even cigarettes.

The intelligence cooperation goes deeper. Last October, a Marine special operations team visited the country to set up a relationship with Senegalese intelligence agencies. US naval intelligence personnel have also trained Senegalese secret services and law enforcement on counter-trafficking at sea. Last year, the US also donated two patrol ships to the Senegalese Navy. And Senegal is getting a new naval operations building, courtesy of US military engineers who turned a dirt-floor warehouse in Dakar into a state-of-the-art data center to be part of a larger maritime surveillance network.

The US and Senegal have also established the first-ever Combined/Joint Intelligence Fusion Cell in Africa, a hub where the United States and the host nation can formally share intelligence reports. Civilian agencies are involved in the military and intelligence exchanges, too. The DEA Office of Financial Operations has conducted training for Senegalese officials on how to counter money flows related to drug trafficking.

Related: Senegal Tries to Prevent Terror Attack by Rounding Up 900 People for Interrogations

At the closing ceremony for this year's Flintlock, US ambassador Zumwalt congratulated all the special operators working side-by-side across Senegal "to enhance cooperation and to counter terrorism and violent extremist ideologies." The unsaid meaning of the speech was clear: Senegal has fully embraced the American military and intelligence apparatus.

While the Flintlock soldiers were running around the country, Senegalese authorities rounded up some 900 citizens and detained 500 — in response, the government said, to terrorist attacks in nearby Mali and Burkina Faso. The government in Dakar now says that the potential spread of Islamist insurgency into the country demands heightened security measures.

Another risk is turning issues like crime or refugees into something that fits within the catchall label of "terrorism." Even the political opposition may find itself facing a state surveillance apparatus beefed up in the name of national security and turned against legitimate actors.

After the rounding up of dissidents in January and just as the US agreement was being signed, authorities cancelled the country's annual Jazz Festival, citing security concerns. In response, singer Youssou N'dour, arguably the most famous Senegalese in the world, questioned the cancellation and said doing so "posed more threats" than it solved.

Though he was not addressing the US-Senegal alliance, N'dour points to a bigger question for Senegal: whether choosing the national security course means short-changing other priorities, a significant issue in a country where about half of the population lives in poverty and gross national income is just $1,050 a year, according to World Bank statistics.

But a line from one of his songs could, after all, help explain the rationale behind tiny Senegal's choice to hitch its star to the controversial war on terror waged by the world's biggest power: "You have to swim with the sharks in the sea," N'dour sings in Cruel Crazy Beautiful World.