Counterterrorism training to curb Al Qaeda threat in Africa
US and European troops train local militaries in counterterrorism tactics in the face of threats from Al Qaeda and criminals in West Africa.
Thiès, Senegal; and Johannesburg, South Africa
Their American, Dutch, and Spanish handlers call it Operation Flintlock – an annual, West Africa-wide counterterrorism exercise to prep local militaries.
According to the script, a carload of European sightseers on their way, perhaps, to a waterbuck-filled nature reserve, will be kidnapped by desert bandits, ransomed to Al Qaeda in the Maghreb, and whisked to Senegal's northeastern frontier. And that's where a bit of rope-climbing expertise could save the day, as Senegal's finest shimmy down from hovering helicopters to stage a rescue.
"This is designed as a rehearsal for a multinational coordination center or a mechanism to counter terrorism," says Lt. Col. Chris Call, deputy commander of the Joint Special Operations Task Force-Trans-Sahara, and operations commander for Operation Flintlock. "This is necessary against a regional transnational threat, which in this region [is] a violent Salafist jihadist movement."
"The challenge [for the partner nations] here is how do they control their territory in countries that own just vast swaths of territory in some of the most inhospitable remote locations in the world," says Call, speaking by phone from Flintlock's multinational coordination center near Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. "Our focus is on basic tactical military techniques … and helping to build capacity in our partner nations. Success for us is putting us out of a job."
At one time, a military exercise like Operation Flintlock – which is now in its fifth year – would have set African opinion-page columns aflame and set a fair number of African politicians pounding on tables with their shoes. Some African nations worried that the newly announced but vaguely defined Africa Command (AFRICOM) of the US Army would herald a new colonial presence in Africa, complete with permanent military bases and political interference.
But today, AFRICOM's military exercises often pass with little notice, and increasingly with the support of African leaders. In part, this is because African leaders now see a common threat: armed violent groups such as Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, which have carried out a series of murders and kidnappings from Mauritania to Algeria to Niger and threaten to topple any government that dares confront them.