Nine Questions about the Trans Sahara Counter Terrorism Partnership You Were Too Embarrassed to Ask


The past three years have seen drastic change sweep across the Sahel and Maghreb. The Arab Awakening in 2011 and the subsequent collapse of the Ben Ali, Mubarak, and Qadhafi regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, respectively, left a security vacuum across a region whose police states had provided a bulwark against the spread of terrorism and violent extremism. The Tuareg uprising in Mali and the subsequent coup that disrupted the country’s 20-year-old democracy in 2012 created a permissive environment for the jihadist occupation of northern Mali. Exacerbated by the government’s heavy-handed tactics, the bubbling Boko Haram insurgency in northern Nigeria surged in 2012, with militants attacking police stations and army barracks, as well as soft targets like schools, mosques, and churches.

As the terrorist threat continues to evolve in North and West Africa, the Trans Sahara Counter Terrorism Partnership (TSCTP) has been, and continues to be one of the United States’ primary tools of engagement in these regions. However, because TSCTP is a rather opaque program, its scope, and indeed, its limitations are not very well understood. Last week, I published The Trans Sahara Counter Terrorism Partnership: Building Partner Capacity to Counter Terrorism and Violent Extremism—a study that is the outcome of extensive interviews across the interagency and fieldwork in the Sahel and Maghreb. This study offers clarity and insight on TSCTP, dissecting the “anatomy” of the program—interagency stakeholders, partner nation counterparts, categories of TSCTP engagement—and derives planning and implementation challenges from the strategic to the tactical level, as well as offers recommendations to strengthen the program.

In order to entice you to read said paper, I’ve compiled answers to the nine questions about TSCTP you were too embarrassed to ask, a play on a series of articles by former Washington Post columnist (and friend of War on the Rocks) Max Fisher.

1.  What is the Trans Sahara Counter Terrorism Partnership?

The Trans Sahara Counter Terrorism Partnership is the U.S. government’s multi-year, interagency program to counter violent extremism and terrorism across ten countries in the Sahel and Maghreb: Algeria, Burkina Faso, Chad, Mauritania, Mali, Morocco, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, and Tunisia. In order to understand the program outside of traditional agency-specific stovepipes and illuminate areas in which the roles and missions of interagency stakeholders overlap, the study derived six broad functional categories of TSCTP engagement: military capacity-building, law enforcement anti-terrorism capacity-building, justice sector counterterrorism capacity-building, public diplomacy and information operations, community engagement, and vocational training.

2.  Which Violent Extremist Organizations (VEOs) does a program like TSCTP seek to counter?

The VEOs that operate in TSCTP countries are al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, Ansar al-Dine, Boko Haram, Ansaru, Ansar al-Sharia, and the al-Mulathamun Battalion. Of these groups, AQIM poses the greatest threat to regional and U.S. interests. That said, beyond the Sahel and Maghreb, these VEOs pose only a limited threat to U.S. global interests, and the region’s mostly Muslim population generally rejects the violent extremist ideology espoused by VEOs.

3.  Why was TSCTP established?

After 9/11, the United States became concerned that the region’s weak states could become a safe haven for terrorist groups linked with al-Qaeda to launch attacks against U.S. interests. Between 2002 and 2004, the United States trained and equipped company-sized partner nation, rapid reaction counterterrorism forces in Mali, Chad, Mauritania, and Niger under the Pan-Sahel Initiative (PSI). The U.S. government recognized that a more holistic approach to the region would allow development assistance and public diplomacy to become part of an overall counterterrorism strategy, and PSI was expanded in 2004. The new concept, then called the Trans Sahara Counter Terrorism Initiative, was approved in January 2005, and subsequently became a program of record called the Trans Sahara Counter Terrorism Partnership.

4.  Which parts of the U.S. government are involved in TSCTP and what roles do they play?

U.S. government stakeholders in TSCTP include the State Department, Department of Defense (DoD), the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), and the Department of Justice (DoJ).

At the program planning level, the State Department, the Bureau of African Affairs, Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, Bureau of Counterterrorism, Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, and the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs play a role in TSCTP. At the implementation level, at the direction of the ambassador, the country team, comprised of State Department and personnel from other U.S. government agencies, is responsible for coordinating and executing TSCTP at each embassy. Although this differs from mission to mission, the members of the country team who are generally involved in the implementation of TSCTP are the ambassador and deputy chief of mission, political officer, public affairs officer, USAID, defense attaché (DATT), Office of Security Cooperation (OSC), regional security officer, a Department of Justice resident legal advisor, an FBI legal attaché, and a representative from the State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs. At the U.S. Embassy in Algeria, there is also a regional counterterrorism coordinator from the State Department’s Bureau of Counterterrorism who supports ambassadors and country teams in the coordination and implementation of TSCTP programming across the region, and helps embassies utilize Regional Strategic Initiative funding for regional training and workshops.

Aside from the DATT and the OSC on the country team, there is no permanent, dedicated DoD presence on the continent for TSCTP. TSCTP’s security cooperation activities are coordinated through the Office of the Secretary of Defense (Office of African Affairs), U.S. Africa Command, U.S. Special Operations Command, U.S. Special Operations Command, Africa, and Joint Special Operations Task Force-Trans Sahara. Depending on the country, temporary duty personnel may rotate in-country for periods as short as one month or as long as six months, including a Special Operations Forces liaison element to train partner nation counterterrorism forces, a military information support team which serves in an information operations capacity, and a civil military support element, which serves in a civic or humanitarian assistance capacity.

Within USAID, TSCTP activities are coordinated through the bureau for Africa, the bureau for the Middle East, the regional USAID West Africa mission in Accra, Ghana and its satellite office in Dakar, Senegal, and bilateral USAID missions in Mali, Morocco, Nigeria, and Senegal. Since Burkina Faso, Chad, Mauritania, Niger, and Tunisia do not have bilateral USAID missions, they are considered limited-presence countries. As a result, programs in these countries are managed through the regional offices in Accra and Dakar.

5.  Who are the partner nation counterparts for TSCTP?

Depending on the functional area of engagement, U.S. government stakeholders have a range of partner nation counterparts for TSCTP. Partner nation counterparts in the military and law enforcement spheres include special forces, general purpose forces, gendarmerie, national and municipal police, customs and border control, and airport security. Within the justice sector, U.S. government stakeholders engage justice ministries, judges, prosecutors, and the corrections system, and financial intelligence units. Local non-governmental organizations and law enforcement are counterparts for community engagement and government ministries in general, and key leaders, youth, and civil society are partner nation counterparts for vocational training.

6.  How much money goes in to TSCTP?

As a whole, TSCTP receives between $90 million and $160 million per year, of which approximately $50-55 million is dedicated State and USAID funding from the Economic Support Fund; Development Assistance; International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement; Nonproliferation, Anti-terrorism, Demining and Related Programs; Anti Terrorism Assistance; and Peacekeeping Operations. The remainder of the program’s funding comes from globally competitive foreign assistance accounts that support and complement TSCTP objectives, including the following funding streams: the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications, Regional Strategic Initiative, Counterterrorism Finance, section 1206 Global Train and Equip), the former section 1207 (Security and Stabilization Assistance), and section 1208 (Support to Foreign Forces), Combatant Commander Initiative Fund, Counternarcotics Program, Developing Country Combined Exercise Program, and the Combating Terrorism Fellowship Program.

7.  Was the leader of Mali’s coup trained through TSCTP?

In Mali, U.S. military engagement under TSCTP was primarily focused on building the capacity of elite units, such as the Echelon Tactique Inter Arme and the 33rd Parachute Commando Regiment, to counter AQIM. While Captain Amadou Sanogo (now General Sanogo) was not part of these units that were trained as part of TSCTP, he did participate in several iterations of International Military Education and Training prior to deposing Mali’s democratically elected government in March 2012. This training included basic infantry officer training at Fort Benning, English-language training through the Defense Language Institute at Lackland Air Force Base, an intelligence course at Fort Huachuca, and study at the Marine Corps Base Quantico.

8.  Are the U.S. military’s air bases in the Sahel part of TSCTP?

The U.S. military has a joint special operations air detachment in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso and an unmanned aerial vehicle base in Niamey, Niger. Since TSCTP is a capacity-building program that works “by, with, and through” partner nation counterparts to counter terrorism and violent extremism in the region, I would not classify these facilities as being part of the program. Nonetheless, the aircraft based at these facilities conduct surveillance and gather intelligence that helps achieve the program’s objectives.

9.  Has TSCTP been successful?

While it is difficult to parse whether the impact of TSCTP is the result of causation or merely correlation, the program has had some notable successes from the standpoint of U.S. government stakeholders. For example, Mauritania has demonstrated its ability to “find, fix, and finish” VEOs by employing the counterterrorism capabilities that TSCTP engagement has helped them build, such as intercepting vehicle-borne explosives in Nema and Nouakchott in 2010 and 2011, and using its ISR capability to direct its ground troops to confront AQIM elements. In addition, while many African countries were troop contributors to the African-led international support mission to Mali, Chad’s U.S.-trained special anti-terrorism group was the only African force that took part in offensive operations to clear terrorist-occupied northern Mali in early 2013. Finally, in response to the influx of Tuareg returnees from Libya, the U.S. integrated at risk male Tuareg youth into ongoing vocational training and youth engagement programs in Niger.


Lesley Anne Warner is an Africa analyst at the CNA Corporation and the author of “The Trans Sahara Counter Terrorism Partnership: Building Partner Capacity to Counter Terrorism and Violent Extremism.” The views expressed here are her own, and are based on a study conducted while she was on assignment at the Center for Complex Operations at National Defense University. She blogs at Lesley on Africa and you can follow her on twitter @lesley_warner.


Photo credit: The U.S. Army