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.
For Senegal, for now, this threat is still hypothetical. Unlike Senegal's neighbors in the Maghreb – where Al Qaeda has been abducting tourists and aid workers, ransoming them off and profiting handsomely – the 50-year-old democracy here has never known Islamic extremism, only its home-grown Sufi mysticism, a permissive faith.
But for Senegalese brass patrolling the vast and remote flatlands, the threat could emerge at any moment. More than 500,000 tourists vacation here each year, touring ancient slave dungeons near Dakar or the hinterland's pristine riverbanks. Their souvenir-shopping and spa-surfing activities contribute 6 percent of the country's gross domestic product.
"We need to consider that tomorrow, that menace [in Mali and Mauritania] will be here," says Col. Ousmane Sarr of the Senegalese Army's public relations department. "Our economy counts so heavily on tourism that the state must ensure that the country remains secure."
Yet the US military wants Senegal to do more than lock down holiday spots from a few carjacking terrorists. Come 2011, the US hopes to run the entirety of Operation Flintlock from Senegal, a sign that the country can be the regional leader in parrying the Sahel's terrorism endemic.
[Correction: The original version misstated what operations the US hopes to run from Senegal.]
"I've worked in more than 24 countries, and Senegal's [military] is one of the most professional," says a US military official in Senegal, who asked not to be identified. "Senegal is an example to the subregion in its military competence, in its civilian control of the military, in its professionalism, and we'd like to learn from, replicate, and share those strengths across borders."
Whether the ex-colony would agree to accommodate such an influx of American and European marines is a thornier question. The perception of military sovereignty remains a salient political issue here.
The president is currently embroiled in a public feud with France's defense ministry, which has yet to abandon its military bases in Senegal. American proposals to build a central antiterror base were widely rejected throughout the region.
But, Sarr says, "If the world wants to help us have this dimension as a leader, we'd like that. We have an excellent rapport with AFRICOM."