NAIROBI, Kenya — The leader of the military coup that toppled the democratic government of the West African nation of Mali this week underwent basic officer training in the United States, the Obama administration acknowledged Friday.
Capt. Amadou Sanoga, who is the apparent leader of the group of junior officers that toppled the government of President Amadou Toumani Toure, “participated in several U.S.-funded International Military Education and Training (IMET) programs in the United States, including basic officer training,” the U.S. military’s Africa Command said in an email to McClatchy Newspapers.
The State Department confirmed Sanoga’s U.S. connection in a separate email.
It was not immediately known which training courses Sanoga had participated in. The IMET programs can include a wide range of activities, including human rights training and study at one of the U.S. military’s war colleges.
Whether U.S. officials have been in touch with Sanoga, who declared himself the head of the National Committee for the Restoration of Democracy and the State, since the coup also was unknown. In an email, State Department African affairs spokeswoman Hilary Renner said only that U.S. diplomats in Mali’s capital, Bamako, are “seeking to contact the mutiny leaders to express the U.S. and international position that the civilian elected government must be fully restored without delay.”
Sanoga’s U.S. ties complicate what was already an inconvenient development in the regional counterterrorism strategy for the United States, which now will have to decide how to deal with a military junta that it has vowed to reject in a country that is a significant front in the war against terror.
“At this moment the United States is pausing any planned military equipment or training programs to the Malian military,” Renner wrote. “We remain committed to building the long-term counterterrorism capacities of our partners in the region, including Mali. The restoration of a strong constitutional process and good governance at all levels is a critical priority for counterterrorism efforts.”
The whereabouts of President Toure remain unknown, though Renner said “we have seen reports” that the president is safe. She urged the coup leaders to protect the “well-being” of all those they had detained.
Sanoga and his fellow officers have moved quickly to consolidate power. Unless they face a backlash among their military peers or a regional effort to unseat them, the international community might have no choice but to deal with the young new rulers, like it or not, analysts said.
“Mali is what many consider the poster child for democracy in West Africa. It is also an aid darling. What are all these donor countries going to do? It’s completely unclear,” said Benjamin Soares, a Mali expert at the African Studies Center in Leiden, the Netherlands.
“Of course, there is a long history of coups in the region. Western donors usually say they won’t deal with these governments, but they almost always eventually do so,” Soares said.
The U.S. military has supported the Mali military extensively over the past decade, and the country has become a significant partner in the U.S. efforts to curb North Africa’s shadowy al-Qaida affiliate, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM.
In addition to its involvement in the International Military Education and Training program, Mali has also participated in the Trans Sahara Counter Terrorism Partnership, which is intended to strengthen bilateral military ties with the U.S. and supports counterterrorism coordination across the region’s different militaries. Mali also recently hosted U.S. soldiers in a joint logistical exercise named Atlas Accord 12.
“We have regularly had small teams traveling in and out of Mali to conduct specific training that has been requested by the Malian government and military,” said Nicole Dalrymple, a spokeswoman for the Africa Command, known as Africom, in an emailed response to questions.
Renner said in her email that the U.S. government “provided almost $138 million dollars in foreign assistance for Mali.” Most of that money went to development assistance and global health programs. About $600,000 was allocated for military training. The overall allocation had been expected to rise this year to about $144 million, Renner said.
Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb started in Algeria to the north, but it has made steady inroads into the less-governed regions of the southern Sahara Desert and the Sahel — the swath across Africa directly south of the Sahara — as it faced increasing pressure at home. Northern Mali has proven a prime base for its southern operations, which include taking Westerners hostage for ransom.
If the U.S. suspension of its counterterrorism programs continues for a lengthy period of time, it risks a weakened effort to counter AQIM as the Malian military tries to push back a major revolt by nomadic Tuareg tribesmen who have seized much of the country’s north. Tuareg control of the north could also give AQIM a safe haven there.
But if the U.S. re-establishes its close military ties, it would be bolstering a regime it has vowed to reject in line with longstanding diplomatic precedent to discourage military coups. Mali had been a functioning democracy for 20 years and Toure was expected to step down without complaint with April 29 elections.
“We are hopeful that the mutiny leaders will see that it is in the country’s interest to end their mutiny so that elections can be held as scheduled,” the State Department’s Renner said.
The link between the Algeria-based al-Qaida affiliate and the rebel Tuaregs, many of whom served in the army of deposed Libyan ruler Moammar Gadhafi and moved into Mali after Gadhafi’s fall, are fluid and opaque, but they both take advantage of the weak controls regional governments exert over the inhospitable Sahara Desert.
Experts differ on how serious a threat AQIM poses to the Western interests in West Africa and beyond. Some even question the group’s commitment to the global jihad, since most of its activities have focused on continued attacks back home in Algeria while running lucrative criminal schemes through ransoms and illicit smuggling.
The group’s push southward from Algeria has alarmed some diplomats and terrorism experts, who fear the group could bring al-Qaida’s brand of militant anti-Western Islam deeper into Africa. Washington believes the group already has forged ties to the Nigerian Islamist movement Boko Haram, which was behind the suicide bombing last year of the United Nations headquarters in Abuja, the Nigerian capital.
Boswell is a McClatchy Newspapers special correspondent. His reporting is underwritten in part by a grant from Humanity United, a California-based foundation that focuses on human rights issues.