Source: The Gazette Montreal/The Ottawa Citizen
Logo courtesy shadowspear.com
Canadian special forces troops from Petawawa, Ont., have been sent to Africa to provide training to Mali’s military, which is in the midst of a war against al-Qaida insurgents.
The members of the Canadian Special Operations Regiment (CSOR) are not involved in any fighting, nor do they accompany Malian troops into battle.
But the Canadians are providing training in basic soldiering, including communications, planning, first aid and providing medical aid and support to civilian populations.
Defence analysts say such training is needed, as Mali and other countries in the region try to counter the growing threat from al-Qaida and armed gangs.
al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, operates from bases in northern Mali and is believed to be behind the recent kidnappings of five European tourists and the murder of a sixth.
« This is exactly the place we should be in terms of trying to develop a counter-terrorism capacity in the Sahel and in North Africa, » said Brig.-Gen. Denis Thompson, head of the Ottawa-based Canadian Special Operations Forces Command. « This is a natural fit for us. »
Other western nations are providing training to militaries in other countries in the region as part of the international effort to combat AQIM.
The Canadian Special Operations Regiment sent one small team this summer to northern Mali to provide instruction for that country’s special forces. Another team is currently in the capital city of Bamako providing counter-terrorism skills training and officer training.
The teams number fewer than 15 soldiers.
AQIM traces its roots to Islamic insurgents fighting the Algerian government. The insurgents have since become associated with al-Qaida and have branched out to conduct attacks in other countries in the region, as well as kidnapping westerners.
Canadian diplomats Robert Fowler and Louis Guay were held by AQIM after being kidnapped in December 2008. They were released 130 days later amid claims by government officials in Mali that four AQIM detainees were set free in return.
AQIM helps finance its operations through kidnappings and weapons and drug smuggling.
The recent kidnappings have significantly hurt Mali’s tourism trade, particularly at Timbuktu, once a popular travel destination for adventurers. Mali’s government recently chartered a plane to take about 20 tourists out of Timbuktu, while various governments are warning their citizens to stay out of the region.
Mali has also sent its soldiers to join French commandos in the hunt for two French men who are among those kidnapped.
Earlier this year, the Mauritanian army announced it had killed three AQIM insurgents who had planned to assassinate Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz.
In early January, AQIM was in the news after two French men were executed during an attempted rescue mission by troops from France and Niger. They had been kidnapped by gunmen in Niamey, Niger.
Fowler has said Canadians should be concerned about AQIM. It is the largest of the al-Qaida « franchises, » he notes, and could directly affect Canada’s business and foreign development interests in the region.
During his captivity, Fowler said AQIM made it clear to him that not only did they despise what they called the « infidel occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan, » but that they had the same view of the United Nations and aid workers in the region.
All such individuals, according to them, are legitimate targets, Fowler was told.
In 2008, AQIM in Algeria used a car bomb in an attack on a bus carrying employees of the Quebec engineering company SNC Lavalin. Twelve of the firm’s Algerian employees were killed and 15 wounded.
One of AQIM’s most significant attacks involved the 2007 bombing of the United Nations office in Algiers, which killed 17 staff and at least 14 other people.
The deployment of Canadian special ops to Mali is expected to be an ongoing mission, with small teams moving in and out of the country whenever it is determined that Malian forces need such training, Thompson said.
It is similar to another training regime the regiment has undertaken in Jamaica, where it instructs that country’s counter-terrorism troops, he added.
In 2009, the Citizen reported that CSOR helped train the Jamaican counter-terrorism team that stormed a hijacked CanJet airliner in Montego Bay and captured a mentally troubled gunman without firing a shot. The hijacker had earlier allowed 159 Canadian passengers and two crew members to leave the chartered aircraft. Members of the Canadian Special Operations Regiment did not take part in the raid.
CSOR was created in 2006 to help support the Ottawa-based counter-terrorism unit, Joint Task Force Two, as well as to conduct its own missions. Its soldiers have undertaken operations in Afghanistan, but the details of those missions are secret.
CSOR trained Malian special forces earlier this year. In February and March, about 15 CSOR members took part in Exercise Flintlock in Senegal. That U.S.-led training event saw CSOR members paired with Malian troops, instructing them in small-unit tactics and other military skills.
In addition, the exercise focused on improving the sharing of information and increasing co-ordination between the various countries.
Other countries involved in Flintlock included Spain, France, The Netherlands and Germany, Burkina Faso, Chad, Mauritania, Nigeria and Senegal.
Canadian special forces will also take part in the Flintlock exercise to be held in 2012, this time in Mali, Thompson said.