Kicking up clouds of Saharan dust, US military trainers impersonated militants, waved flags saying “death to outsiders” and threw smoke grenades toward approaching Nigerien commandos, as a surveillance drone hovered overhead.
The joint military exercises between US-led Western forces and several West African nations, dubbed “Flintlock”, have been going since 2005. This year they focus more closely on the evolving threat posed by Islamist militants, whose mounting numbers and capabilities require an ever more sophisticated response, military commanders told Reuters.
“Flintlock has evolved over the years,” Major General J. Marcus Hicks, who leads some 1,000 American Special Operations forces across about a dozen African countries, told Reuters.
“What’s different this year is we have intentionally focused on the developing threat situation in the Sahel and the ongoing challenges in the Lake Chad region,” he said.
Jihadist groups linked to al Qaeda and Islamic State are launching increasingly brazen attacks on UN, Western and local forces as well as civilian targets across West Africa’s Sahel region, including a raid in western Niger last October that killed four US Green Berets.
This year’s 14th instalment of Flintlock brought together about 1,900 Special Forces troops from 12 Western and eight African countries in Niger, whose porous borderlands with Mali and Burkina Faso along Africa’s vast Sahel have seen the biggest surge in attacks.
Similar exercises were conducted in Burkina Faso and Senegal.
“The Sahel is not an easy place,” Colonel Kassim Moussa of Chad’s Special Forces said at a military base in Ouallam, where Nigerien commandos in blue helmets and loose fitting uniforms braved midday sun to simulate raids on a jihadist camp.
“It has to be synchronised as they (the militants) go across borders easily, very fluidly, so getting our partners to work together is a big driver,” trainer Colonel Craig Miller said at the exercise.
The militant threat has ballooned this decade with the emergence of Boko Haram’s insurgency in northern Nigeria and the Lake Chad region and the jihadist 2012 takeover of north Mali.
A French intervention in northern Mali in early 2013 helped beat back that threat, but militants regrouped, launching attacks in Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso and beyond.
Niger’s Defence Minister Kalla Moutari said at Friday’s closing ceremony officers had shown “their capacity to lead aerial and land operations”.
Critics of Western nations’ policy in the region have over-emphasised the military aspect of the threat at the expense of root causes swelling militants’ ranks, including government rights abuses and inter-communal conflicts leading some to align themselves with the jihadists.