Flashpoints

Special operations forces kick off international exercise in the Sahel, the ‘tinderbox of terrorist activity’

Since violent extremist organizations utilize similar tactics and techniques, the ability to share intelligence among partner nations in Africa is absolutely critical, according to the commander of Special Operations Command Africa.

That’s why the U.S. and 30 other countries will have an opportunity to hone their intelligence-sharing skills at Flintlock, an annual military exercise that gets underway Feb. 17.

“In order to share intelligence, in order to have that you’ve got to build the trust,” Air Force Brig. Gen. Dagvin Anderson told reporters on Feb. 13. “To build the trust, you have to create a relationship. So I think that’s ultimately what Flintlock does: it brings people together in order to talk and communicate, to build that relationship that creates trust.”

Altogether, more than 1,600 troops are participating in the exercise from countries including Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Morocco, Niger, Japan, Canada, France, Germany, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, among others.

Flintlock comes at a time when the Pentagon is currently conducting a review examining whether there need to be troop adjustments across all of the geographic combatant commands. Although Secretary of Defense Mark Esper has said the Pentagon will not completely withdraw from the continent, he didn’t rule out a potential reduction of Department of Defense personnel in Africa.

According to the command, the exercise should promote partnerships between U.S., African, and international special operations forces and enhance their capabilities to conduct multinational operations. Likewise, it’s designed to beef up partner nations’ capacity to counter violent extremist organizations in the region.

“From a broad security standpoint, the Sahel is a tinderbox of terrorist activity and where violent extremist organizations look to use the space to recruit, adapt and evolve,” AFRICOM spokesman Air Force Col. Chris Karns told Military Times.

“While the future is uncertain, the need for partnerships and readiness in complex environments will remain a constant, especially in an era of great power competition,” Karns said.

Anderson also said the exercise will include a mock investigation to help participants learn how to develop intelligence, accompanied by exercises focusing on small unit tactics, close quarter battle drills, and other things.

“Not too often they get the ability to come together like this, and to share information, to share intelligence, understanding, training, techniques,” Anderson said about partner and allied nations. “Things that they’re using, and that may work for them that others may not be aware of, or to understand how the threat is evolving in their country so that others can learn.”

The exercise coincides with an upsurge in violence from extremist groups in West Africa. According to AFRICOM commander Army Gen. Stephen Townsend, violent extremist group activity in the region has increased 250 percent since 2018.

In particular, Anderson noted that the violence was moving south from Mali into Burkina Faso, who hosted Flintlock in 2019. The former French colony suffered more than 2,200 civilian deaths in 2019 — a steep increase from the nearly 300 civilian deaths in 2018, according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project.

Additionally, thousands of people in Burkina Faso have been displaced due to the violence. Most recent estimates from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs indicate that more than 500,000 people became displaced between January 2019 and January 2020 in Burkina Faso.

“The trend lines are only worsening,” Alexandra Lamarche, a senior advocate for West and Central Africa with Refugees International, told Military Times.

Meanwhile, an inspector general report released this month outlined that the U.S. military has modified its strategy in West Africa. Rather than focusing on degrading violent extremist organizations, the inspector general report said the U.S. military was focusing on containment.

Failure to contain the threat of these groups would mean they “have the potential to spread through the region and impact Western interests,” according to the report.

Karns expressed similar sentiments.

“If existing African and international efforts are unable to contain the spread of terrorist groups in the Sahel it certainly presents a looming security challenge beyond the continent,” Karns said. “This is why complementary international efforts and French leadership to the African-led fight is important in this region.”

Anderson acknowledged the shift in strategy as the U.S. has been carving out its role in West Africa. For example, he noted that the U.S. military has a small presence in West Africa that’s primarily comprised of special operations forces, while the French have more than 4,500 troops there.

As a result, Anderson said that the objective of the roughly 800 U.S. troops in West Africa is to work with international partners, and support the French forces who are more involved in counter-terrorism missions.

“They’re the ones that are going after al-Shabab and ISIS-Greater Sahara,” Anderson said about the French. “They’re the ones looking to degrade that threat and they’ve got the force in place to do that.”

Although the U.S. has a smaller presence than the French, Lamarche said the U.S. is viewed as a more neutral force than the French, meaning it’s contributions are vital in the region.

“It is incredibly important and I can’t stress that enough, because the U.S. benefits from local acceptance compared to France — France being the former colonial power,” Lamarche said.

There are approximately 6,000 Department of Defense personnel in Africa.

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