The Toronto Star
Sunday, August 8, 2004
Page: F2
Section: Business
Byline: Levon Sevunts
Source: Special to the Star

This city’s trendy Le Carnivore restaurant might seem a strange place to run into U.S Marines decked out in full desert camouflage gear.

An island of prosperity in the slums of N’Djamena, one of Africa’s poorest capitals, Le Carnivore usually attracts wealthy local businessmen and humanitarian workers.

So the sight of four Marines tucking into Le Carnivore’s famous steaks caused a bit of a stir here last month.

Cameroonian prostitutes and a few Western journalists exchanged puzzled looks, hoping the Americans might linger long enough for a close encounter.

But they left as soon as their appetites had been sated.

Fancy restaurants apart, sightings of American soldiers are becoming increasingly common in the dusty wind-swept towns of sub-Saharan Africa.

Terrorism experts and Western diplomats in the region say that, as radical Islamic groups are squeezed out of their traditional areas of operation in northern Africa, they are gradually moving south of the Sahara.

To counteract what the United States sees as a nascent threat, Marines are helping to train and equip security forces in four sub-Saharan countries under the Pan Sahel Initiative, a U.S. State Department program to guard porous borders against terrorists and arms trafficking.

The program began last November in Mali before moving on to Chad, with Niger and Mauritania next on the list.

This area – “Sahel” is Arabic for “shore,” referring to the arid lands abutting the Sahara desert and extending to the rain forests near the West African coast – is expected to be one of the next major battlegrounds in the fight against terrorism.

And it falls to people like Cpl. Lameen Witter, 24, to make sure that when the terrorist threat materializes, there will be units in the ragtag armies of sub-Saharan Africa ready to deal with it.

Soft-spoken and thoughtful, Witter, a 24-year-old native of Brooklyn, N.Y., doesn’t fit the “Semper Fi” stereotype.

Before he and 25 comrades could begin holding boot camp sessions at military camps outside N’Djamena, the Marines had to supply their 170 Chadian charges with everything from boots and uniforms to light armoured vehicles and communications equipment.

But the Chadian government did provide the soldiers’ rifles.

“What really proved a challenge,” said Witter, “was the language barrier.”

Initially, the Marines were given only two French interpreters. But many of the local soldiers speak Arabic and/or tribal dialects and don’t understand French. The language problem was finally resolved after the Chadian government provided new interpreters.

Many of the local soldiers are also observant Muslims and the Marines had to tailor the boot camp regimen to mesh with prayer schedules.

For six weeks, the Marines taught basic infantry drills, communications, squad tactics, first aid and marksmanship.

“You could see in the beginning that they weren’t very good shots,” said Witter. “They’ve improved a great deal.”

For two weeks, the Marines and their trainees lived side-by-side in the savannah, leading to a final exercise in which each of three platoons simulated an assault on a terror group.

The Americans learned to adjust to the savannah and even to a desert diet.

“We had several dishes prepared from goat and camel meat,” said Witter. “We watched them lead a camel to slaughter and cook it. I’m a big fan of camel meat now.”

The Marines also came to learn a bit about local customs.

Lt. Marcus Cornelius, leader of the 3rd Platoon, was presented with a small rabbit – a sign of strength and fertility, his Chadian colleagues explained.

And the Chadians learned something of American customs.

“We had Frisbees,” Witter explained. “I don’t think they had ever seen Frisbees. And by the end of the training, the Chadian soldiers were hooked on Frisbees.

“The training provided an excellent opportunity to bond.”

Most encouraging, he added, was that the Chadian soldiers expressed support for the war on terror.

“And that was coming from enlisted men, not from officers – and in broken English. It’s good to know that.”

The soldiers Witter and his comrades trained might be called upon to prove their sincerity soon.

Last year, a splinter group of the Algerian terrorist organization GIA (Armed Islamic Group) was the target of a pan-Saharan manhunt after it kidnapped a large group of European tourists in southern Algeria.

Six months later, after releasing the hostages for ransom, the terrorists, calling themselves GSPC (Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat), made their way east across the desert through Mali and Niger, following ancient Touareg trading routes.

In March, they were intercepted by Chadian security forces near the northwestern border with Niger. Forty-three militants and three Chadian soldiers were reported killed in three days of clashes.

“They (the GSPC) were almost wiped out,” said a knowledgeable Western diplomat. But recent reports indicate a Chadian rebel group continues to harbour remnants of the GSPC.

The Chadian group, MDJT (Movement for Democracy and Justice in Chad), is under heavy pressure to hand over GSPC survivors to Algerian authorities, said the diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Libya, which once supported and financed the MDJT, has threatened to bomb the rebel positions.

Now, however, rooting them out could fall to the American-trained local soldiers.

As for the Marines, their next stop was Niger. But when we spoke, they were in a holding pattern – waiting to get a lift from a Chadian Air Force Hercules C-130 that had been grounded for repairs.

Le Carnivore’s steaks, it appears, still beckoned.

Levon Sevunts is a Canadian freelance journalist travelling in Africa.