Guess Who’s Training to Hunt Terrorists Near Boko Haram Territory
U.S. commandos—with troops from 27 other countries
As militants in Libya and Nigeria aligned themselves with Islamic State, commandos from 28 countries finished up a huge training session—nicknamed Flintlock—in northwest Africa.
Since 2005, the Pentagon’s Special Operations Task Force in the region has organized the annual event. During the latest exercise in Chad, which ended March 9, American troops and their allies taught African soldiers skills to help them hunt down rebels and terrorists.
The exercise is one of the most visible symbols of America’s growing military presence in Africa. It’s also representative of how the United States now prefers to wage war—largely in the background while supporting smaller, regional armies.
And it’s no coincidence the U.S. held the exercise in Chad—near territory controlled by the Nigerian terror group Boko Haram. Chadian Brig. Gen. Zakaria Ngobongue described Flintlock as a “warm-up” for the multi-national campaign against the jihadi organization, according to a U.S. Africa Command news story.
“There is no doubt that this exercise takes place in the context of a regional environment facing major security issues, provoked by terrorist[s], in particular Boko Haram,” Ngobongue said.
More than 1,000 elite troops from Africa, Europe and North America took part in Flintlock during the past three weeks. With twice as many nations involved as there were a decade ago, the event was the biggest it has ever been.
Flintlock rotates between different countries in the volatile Sahel region—the semi-arid stretch of land that separates the Sahara desert from the more fertile regions of Sub-Saharan Africa.
Chadian troops established training sites near the towns of Mao, Faya and Moussoro in the country’s more arid, northern areas. And commandos trained at so-called “out stations” in Cameroon, Niger, Nigeria and Tunisia.
For five years, Boko Haram has waged a bloody campaign against civilians across northern Nigeria and Cameroon. On March 8, Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau pledged allegiance to the genocidal terror group Islamic State in an audio announcement.
Suffering from widespread corruption and poor morale, Nigeria’s troops have had an especially difficult time making any headway against the insurgents. Four months ago, Abuja abruptly cut short a separate American military aid program after an apparent row over human rights violations.
Chad has sent troops into Nigeria to fight Boko Haram—a move that hasn’t been popular with Nigerian politicians. But American commanders no doubt took the relative stability of the Chadian military into account when they decided where to hold the 2015 iteration of Flintlock.
“The capacity to execute real world operations while simultaneously training … demonstrates a level of proficiency exhibited only by an extremely professional, capable, and disciplined military,” U.S. Army Gen. David Rodriguez, head of the Pentagon’s headquarters for Africa, said during the event.
Washington and regional governments are worried that Islamic State might be setting up shop in the Libyan desert, too. Since the Western-backed overthrow of dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, violence has continued to wrack Libya and has threatened to spill over into Niger and Tunisia.
Another problem is that Libya’s borders are huge—and extraordinarily difficult to secure.
The Pentagon has sent drones and spy planes to keep an eye on the region. American MQ-1 Predators prowl the skies from bases in Niger’s capital Niamey.
The U.S. military’s Africa Command is expanding another airstrip at Agadez, closer to the Libyan frontier. On top of that, Washington is helping friendly air forces in the region get a number of small, manned aerial spies up and running.
The U.S. military is running at least “three named classified contingency operations” in or around Mauritania and Niger—along with Kenya further to the east—according to one 2014 contract for these tiny planes.
Washington has spent a significant amount of time and money on small transport aircraft for countries in the region.
The hope is that these cargo planes might make up for limited manpower, by rapidly moving soldiers and supplies around to otherwise inhospitable outposts. And to be sure, the U.S. and its allies demonstrated this focus on aerial snooping and moving troops around during Flintlock.
The U.S. along with Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Germany, Italy, The Netherlands, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom all sent flight crews to the exercise, according to an official Army press release.
These Western teams—including U.S. Air Force and Canadian C-130 transport planes—moved hundreds of troops and a total of 500,000 pounds of cargo on more than 100 individual flights to and from the out-stations. Commandos also trained with the limited facilities that exist at Agadez already.