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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.

By Drew HinshawCorrespondent, Scott BaldaufStaff Writer / May 13, 2010

A Malian soldier stood with US military personnel during an Operation Flintlock ceremony May 3. African, European, and North American participants from more than a dozen nations work within AFRICOM to combat the spread of terrorism.

Donald Sparks/U.S. Africa Command


Thiès, Senegal; and Johannesburg, South Africa

In the bare and unremarkable desert town of Thiès, a platoon of commandos from Mali and Senegal are scaling a building's edifice, one handful of rope at a time. This is practice.

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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.