OUALLAM, Niger (Reuters) - Kicking up clouds of pink Saharan dust, U.S. military trainers impersonated militants, waved flags saying “death to outsiders” and threw smoke grenades toward approaching Nigerien commandos this week, as a surveillance drone hovered overhead.
The joint military exercises between U.S.-led Western forces and several West African nations, dubbed “Flintlock”, have been going on since 2005. This year, however, they have focused 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 over the years evolved,” 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 that 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 U.N., Western and local forces and civilian targets across West Africa’s Sahel region, including a raid in western Niger last October that killed four U.S. Green Berets.
This year’s 14th instalment of Flintlock brought together about 1,900 special forces troops from 12 Western and eight African countries this month 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 the western town of Ouallam, where Nigerien commandos in blue helmets and loose fitting uniforms braved the scorching midday sun to simulate raids on a jihadist camp.
“It has to be synchronized as they (the militants) go across borders very 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 the militants have regrouped, launching attacks in Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso and beyond.
Niger’s Defence Minister Kalla Moutari said at Friday’s closing ceremony that the officers had shown “their capacity to ... lead aerial and land operations”.
Critics of Western nations’ policy in the region say they have overemphasized the military aspect of the threat at the expense of root causes that are swelling the militants’ ranks, including government rights abuses and inter-communal conflicts that lead some to align themselves with the jihadists.
Additional reporting by Tim Cocks in Dakar, Editing by Tim Cocks, William Maclean