Written by Lara Seligman
Tensions with Iran almost scuttled a major international training exercise in the Sahel.
NOUAKCHOTT, MAURITANIA—Every February, hundreds of special operations forces from around the world gather in West Africa for Flintlock, a unique U.S.-led exercise that provides critical training for regional militaries struggling to counter growing terrorist activity in the Sahel.
This year, the threat is more urgent than ever. Despite the presence of 4,500 French troops and a 13,000-strong U.N. peacekeeping force, violent extremist attacks in the region have skyrocketed in the last 18 months. The Sahel saw the most rapid increase of such events of any African region in 2019, with roughly 2,600 fatalities from 800 attacks—a number which has nearly doubled every year since 2015. Burkina Faso bore the brunt of the new violence, primarily from groups linked to al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, as the locus of terrorist activity shifted from Mali across the border.
But even as terrorist activity explodes in the Sahel, the United States is considering withdrawing some or all of its roughly 5,000 troops across the continent—including approximately 1,000 in West Africa—in order to move resources toward preparing for a potential future conflict with China or Russia, a concept the Pentagon calls “great power competition.”
While the U.S. military no longer accompanies West African forces on combat missions—a practice that was largely halted after a fatal ambush in Niger killed four U.S. service members in October 2017—the United States plays a key role in facilitating French and other Western military operations here, providing air refueling, transportation, and drone surveillance. The so-called G5 Sahel Joint Force, a framework of about 5,000 troops from five countries in the region—Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger—was created in 2017 with French and international backing to address the growing terrorism threat. But French officials say the U.S. military’s support to their operations here is irreplaceable.
At the same time, tensions with Iran have put unforeseen strain on U.S. military resources in the Sahel. Due to the increased demand in the Middle East, only one U.S. Air Force C-130 airlift plane could be spared for Flintlock this year, U.S officials said—and it broke down on the second day of the two-week exercise, leaving reporters as well as U.S. and foreign officers stranded for four days in Senegal.
In fact, if the Moroccans had not offered additional C-130s to support the exercise, Flintlock might not have happened at all, U.S. officials said.
Critics, including influential lawmakers such as Republican Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, have spoken out against the potential drawdown, warning that such a move would further degrade the security situation in this region of West Africa, where deep religious and ethnic divisions, climate change, poverty, and vast ungoverned spaces provide an ideal breeding ground for extremism. Prompted in part by talk of a potential U.S. withdrawal, French President Emmanuel Macron convened a G5 Sahel summit in January to discuss the fight against armed groups and reiterate French commitment to the mission.
As violent activity increases, U.S. and foreign officials in the region are concerned that the Sahel may become the next major front in the global war on terrorism. As the Islamic State struggles for relevance in the Middle East, particularly after the killing of its leader, Abu Bakr al–Baghdadi, in a U.S. raid last year, the group has increasingly leaned on its African affiliates for new recruits, said Brig. Gen. Dagvin Anderson, commander of U.S. Special Operations Command Africa, during an interview here ahead of the exercise.
Due to long–standing ethnic and tribal ties, leaders from al Qaeda and the Islamic State cooperate here in ways they do not anywhere else in the world, enabling more sophisticated attacks.
“When you put all that together, these random acts of terrorism, you start seeing a more complex and nuanced campaign,” said Anderson. “I’m concerned about what al-Qaeda will be able to develop into and that’s something that is troubling.”
For Flintlock, which has occurred each year since 2005, the United States is largely responsible for transporting foreign soldiers in and out of the host country, including arranging visas and other logistics requirements. U.S. special-operations forces also serve in advisory roles, overseeing training and liaising between the different units.
“No single country can fight violent extremism alone,” said U.S. Army Capt. Nate, from the 3rd Special Forces Group, who oversees the U.S. team at the Thiès, Senegal, outpost for Flintlock. The United States, with its large defense budget and experience in counterterrorism operations, is “uniquely suited” to facilitate a large-scale exercise such as Flintlock, he noted. Like others interviewed for this story, Capt. Nate requested reporters publish only his rank and first name.
The U.S. military does not need a large footprint to have an outsize impact in the Sahel, officials here said—but it needs to be here in some form. Defense Secretary Mark Esper has indicated the United States will not completely withdraw from Africa, but he is still reviewing U.S. military presence on the continent as part of an ongoing review of troop deployments worldwide.
“One of the low-cost things the United States can provide is that convening power,” said Anderson. “We can provide and exercise a framework for other countries to come into, without having to be the sole provider of security.”
Many of the Western special-operations forces on the ground for Flintlock have long–standing relationships with their counterparts in the Sahel, including participating in bilateral training exercises. But the Americans bring expertise and resources to the fight, foreign officers here said. Capt. Tom, a British Army officer, and Capt. Samuel, from the Nigerian Special Forces, agreed that while a U.S. military drawdown in Africa would not scuttle the U.K.-Nigeria military relationship, which stretches back to 2008, such a move would “degrade the standard of training.”
One important outcome of the annual exercise, officials hope, is that regional militaries learn how to combine forces to better combat terrorist activity. Throughout the exercise, which took place at four hubs in Mauritania and Senegal, more advanced forces were paired with West African units—for example, the Dutch and the Senegalese—for basic combat training, ranging from simple firearm handling to more complex close-quarters battles.
Flintlock this year will culminate in a fictitious scenario in which all the participants must work together to analyze intelligence from a variety of sources, ultimately leading to a major urban counterterrorism mission, explained U.S. Army Capt. Brett, from the 3rd Special Forces Group, who oversees the U.S. team at Nouakchott for the exercise.
Flintlock allows all the partners to identify and manage challenges that crop up related to logistics, communications, or capabilities, a skill that will be critical as the different nations in the region counter the growing threat from violent extremists, Capt. Brett said.
“They are going to have to work through these exact same friction points” in real–life operations, he said.
The Mali playbook
This year, the security situation in Burkina Faso, one of the poorest countries in the world, is particularly grim. Lt. Daouba Ilboudo, who commands a Burkinabé unit of 34 soldiers, said through a translator at the Thiès outpost that his men face attacks as often as once a week.
The militants have developed a sophisticated campaign in Burkina Faso, drawn from the well-documented Mali plays, over the last eight months. In July 2019, they began a more forceful push into the country from Mali, targeting infrastructure and economic centers, such as crops and bridges, and isolating local populations. Next, they targeted military bases, forcing security forces to flee, and executed local leaders, including the mayor of Djibo, who was killed while traveling along the highway to the capital, Ouagadougou. In November, the militants began moving south, attacking major urban areas.
Once the militants established control over the local populations, they gained access to local resources, such as gold mines, and criminal networks, allowing them to expand their influence over key economic corridors. The strategy also enabled them to tax local civilians, much as the Islamic State did in Iraq and Syria when it took over vast swaths of those countries in 2014.
“If you start giving them a regular source of funding, you start getting the ingredients for something that could get much worse,” said Anderson.“It is incumbent upon the international community to keep them off balance.”
In Mali, extremists continue to mount devastating attacks. There, al Qaeda deliberately stays below the radar, marrying into local tribes and becoming part of the community in order to penetrate the population and avoid the attention of the West. Northern Mali, in particular, has been a hotbed for violent extremist activity since the area fell to a mixture of jihadist groups and Tuareg rebels in 2012. The Malian army has been unable to regain control of the area, even with French intervention.
“For the moment, every time we have an attack, our team always wins,” said one Malian special forces officer, who was in Nouakchott for training with the Czech special forces during Flintlock, speaking through a translator. “But we don’t know the enemy during the day.”
In neighboring Mauritania, the host of Flintlock this year, the military has been able to keep violent extremists at bay. After a precursor to al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb conducted a major attack in northern Mauritania in 2005, killing 17 soldiers and catching the government off guard, the military redoubled its counterterrorism efforts, said Maj. Sidi Mohamed Hedeid, spokesperson for the Mauritanian Army.
Since the first attack, Mauritania has significantly built up its security forces, training to understand the militants’ tactics and buying more advanced aircraft and other equipment. The military also works hard to maintain control over even the most remote parts of the country, conducting frequent ground and air patrols and tightening the borders.
Meanwhile, the Mauritanian government is also trying to counter violent extremism at its roots, creating deradicalization programs and building trust with local populations by providing basic services. The country last year elected a new president, Mohamed Ould Ghazouani, the former chief of staff of Mauritania’s military and son of a respected Islamic spiritual leader, who officials here hope can root out corruption and implement key social and political reforms.
U.S. and Mauritanian officials here said they hope the Islamic nation, which is set next week to take over G5 Sahel leadership, can serve as a security model for the other nations in the Sahel working to counter the growing threat.
“In the other four countries of the G5 Sahel, there are attacks almost daily,” said Hedeid, noting that there have been no successful attacks in Mauritania since 2011. “It is proof that our strategy is the best.”
Great power competition
Providing counterterrorism assistance to nations in the Sahel has other benefits for the United States as it tries to counter Russian and Chinese influence. U.S. officials here noted that both countries are investing in the region, militarily and economically.
Both Moscow and Beijing have offered military equipment and training to the besieged state forces in the Sahel, particularly since the United States began signaling it may pull support. Russia in particular often misrepresents its own counterterrorism expertise, said Anderson.
“They are more than happy to tell the partners in Africa that they were the ones that tipped the tables in Syria, that they were involved in killing al-Baghdadi,” Anderson said. “They bring a corrosive effect.”
French officials also suspect Moscow is conducting a disinformation campaign, spreading conspiracy theories on social media that the French government is in league with terrorists.
China is also investing economically in the region. In Senegal, Beijing has been paying local farmers a premium to buy the bulk of their harvest, potentially leading to food shortages. Meanwhile in Mauritania, China is building ports and other infrastructure, as well as investing in local fisheries, an effort U.S. officials suspect has led to overfishing.
Providing counterterrorism assistance is just another way the United States can counter Chinese and Russian influence in the Sahel, said Anderson.
“What are the security concerns of these nations? For most of them, it is violent extremism,” said Anderson. “Being able to engage with counterterrorism efforts with counterterrorism training, equipment, education … allows us to be that preferred partner.”
“In Africa, [counterterrorism] is great power competition.”