WASHINGTON -- U.S. Special Operations troops are forming elite counterterrorism units in four countries in North and West Africa that American officials say are pivotal in the widening war against al-Qaida's affiliates and associates on the continent, even as they acknowledge the difficulties of working with weak allies.
The secretive program, financed in part with millions of dollars in classified Pentagon spending and carried out by trainers, including members of the Army's Green Berets and Delta Force, was begun last year to instruct and equip hundreds of hand-picked commandos in Libya, Niger, Mauritania and Mali.
The goal over the next few years is to build homegrown African counterterrorism teams capable of combating fighters like those in Boko Haram, the Islamist extremist group that abducted nearly 300 Nigerian schoolgirls last month. U.S. military specialists are helping Nigerian officers in their efforts to rescue the girls.
"Training indigenous forces to go after threats in their own country is what we need to be doing," said Michael A. Sheehan, who advocated the counterterrorism program last year when he was the senior Pentagon official in charge of Special Operations policy. Mr. Sheehan now holds the distinguished chair at the Combating Terrorism Center at the U.S. Military Academy.
As the U.S. military seeks to extend its counterterrorism reach in Africa, President Barack Obama is expected to appear at West Point on Wednesday to emphasize a foreign policy that would avoid large land wars, like those in Afghanistan and Iraq, and instead stress the training of allied and partner nations to battle militants on their own soil.
Since the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, the United States has slowly built a multipronged counterterrorism strategy in Africa: It has carried out armed drone strikes in Somalia from its only permanent base on the continent, in Djibouti; backed African proxies and French commandos fighting Islamist extremists in Somalia and Mali; and increasingly trained African troops to combat insurgents.
Under the new Africa plan, the Pentagon is spending nearly $70 million on training, intelligence-gathering equipment and other support to build a counterterrorism battalion in Niger and a similar unit in nearby Mauritania that are in their "formative stages," a senior Defense Department official said.
In a cautionary note about operating in that part of Africa, troubled by a chronic shortage of resources and weak regional partners, the effort in Mali has yet to get off the ground as a new civilian government recovers from a military coup last year. In Libya, the most ambitious initial training ended ignominiously last August after a group of armed militia fighters overpowered a small Libyan guard force at a training base outside Tripoli and stole hundreds of U.S.-supplied automatic weapons, night-vision goggles, vehicles and other equipment.
As a result, the training was halted and the American instructors were sent home. Libyan and American officials have been searching for a more secure training site in Libya to restart the program. But last summer's debacle and the political upheaval in Libya since then have caused U.S. officials to rethink how they select local personnel.
"You have to make sure of who you're training," said Maj. Gen. Patrick Donahue II, the commander of U.S. Army soldiers operating in Africa. "It can't be the standard, 'Has this guy been a terrorist or some sort of criminal?' but also, 'What are his allegiances? Is he true to the country, or is he still bound to his militia?' "
In Libya, the Pentagon has allotted just over $16 million from a train-and-equip fund to develop two companies of elite troops and their support elements "to counter terrorist and extremist threats in Libya," according to budget documents. For the aborted training outside Tripoli, the Defense Department also tapped into a classified spending account called Section 1208, devised to aid foreign troops assisting U.S. forces conducting counterterrorism missions.
For Mauritania, about $29 million has been set aside for logistics and surveillance equipment in support of the specialized unit.
For Niger, where the United States launches unarmed surveillance drones to fly over Mali in support of French and U.N. troops, the Pentagon is spending nearly $15 million on the country's new counterterrorism unit. The funds are part of $39.5 million this year to train and equip the West African nation's army as it struggles to stem a flow of insurgents across Niger's lightly guarded borders with Mali, Nigeria and Libya.