Military launches anti-terrorist units amid donor cutbacks

Mauritanian army leaders are cautioning donors that have cut military aid after a 6 August coup that the country’s military cannot fight suspected terrorists alone, and that northern communities may pay the price for lack of preparedness.



The Algeria-based extremist Islamist group, Al-Qaeda of the Islamic Maghreb, has claimed responsibility for a deadly 14 September military convoy attack outside the northern town of Tourine that killed 11 soldiers and their civilian guide. The same group claimed responsibility for deadly attacks on a police post and tourists in December 2007.



Army colonel Bah Ould El Bou, a military academy director in Atar, 445km northeast of the capital Nouakchott, told IRIN international military cooperation is needed to fight the emerging threat of Islamic terrorism. “Even the most powerful army in the world cannot face this phenomenon alone. We have seen the United States in Afghanistan, Iraq and even Kosovo. Mauritania is just like any country: it needs other countries’ help.”



The European Commission, African Union and US government have either suspended or are threatening cuts in development aid, including counter-terrorism training, after members of President Sidi Mohamed Ould Cheikh Abdallahi’s guard seized power in August.



Citizen concern



Residents in tourist-dependent Atar said the threat of terrorism weighs heavily. “I am waiting for the authorities to reassure its partners and citizens that the country is secure,” said tour operator Kadi Mehdi. “We have to stop terrorism suspects before they carry out their heinous crimes,” he added.



The first three flights from Paris to Atar in December have been cancelled because of lack of passengers.



But army officer Bah said things will change: “More and more residents are calling us to report suspicious behaviour. Even if most of the time it is false alerts, this proves a social order is being instilled and that people want to cooperate with us for their security.”



Even with cooperation, there is a lot of work to be done, he added: “The biggest difficulty for us is how vast our country is, and therefore being able to keep up this vigilance at all our borders.”



Deployment



Since October, three Mauritanian army units on the lookout for suspected terrorists have been deployed to the mostly uninhabited northern half of the desert country. The anti-terrorist brigades are spending three months at a time patrolling Mauritania’s border with Algeria, Mali and Morocco, according to Atar-based army officer Bah.



“Mauritania is reviewing its training and fighting tactics to confront this asymmetrical war [against terrorists],” said Bah, “Terrorist attackers work with small weapons to which we need to adapt,” Bah told IRIN.



US embassy officials in Nouakchott told IRIN it had trained 400 Mauritanian soldiers in counter-terrorism techniques including: long-range patrols, intercepting suspects in rural settings, intelligence gathering – including reconnaissance flights over suspected terrorist routes – carrying out ambushes, and capturing suspects.



On hold



A second group training was planned, but the US government pulled out its military trainers immediately after the coup, and has since suspended plans to build a counter-terrorism unit.



In April of this year, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime submitted to the government a national plan to fight organised crime in Mauritania. It identified surveillance problems, untrained security forces, lack of vehicles and outdated laws as some of the barriers to fighting organised crime, drug trafficking and terrorism financing.



But the plan, which was requesting almost US$15 million to improve border control, is on hold while coup leaders remain in power.



mr/pt/np