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The US military’s Sahel exercise is fixing its gaze on ISIS and Boko Haram

The 2018 iteration of U.S. Special Operations Command Africa’s exercise Flintlock will focus on real-world threats to the Sahel from groups linked to al-Qaeda and Islamic State, emphasizing operational activity rather than tactical exercises.

Flintlock 18 will kick off later this month in Niger, with additional training locations in Burkina Faso and Senegal. The U.S. will be joined by 11 other Western nations (Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Spain and the United Kingdom) and eight African nations: Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria and Senegal.

“This year we have elected to focus on threats to the greater Sahel region and we have focused the exercise as more operational activity than in years past,” Major General J. Marcus Hicks, Commander of Special Operations Command Africa, told reporters on Thursday.

“What is really exciting and different about this year’s Flintlock is that we have operationalized the training exercise to focus on real-world threats, and that we have shifted our focus of training from tactical proficiency of small units – although there will be some of that – to focus on command-and-control of joint forces.”

The training audience for this year are the members of the G5 Sahel – Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger – and the multinational joint task force around Lake Chad that is focused on Boko Haram and ISIS’s West Africa affiliate.

Exercise scenarios will be “based on real world threats from the violent extremist organizations currently threatening our partner nations in the Sahel,” Hicks said.

This will be the first year that Flintlock’s training audience will actually exercise command-and-control over tactical units in the scenarios.

The Sahel is facing increasing threats from groups aligned with al-Qaeda and ISIS, particularly in central Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger. The exercise will allow those countries to “deal more practically with those threats,” according to Hicks.

“By enabling our partners to command and control their tactical units more effectively and by sharing the lessons the U.S. and Western partners have learned through operations in South Asia we hope to better enable our partners to deal with the dynamically changing situation on the ground,” he added.

Niger will host the exercise and provide protection and security, along with troops that will train with the U.S. and other Western partners.

“Niger is a central player in most all of the violent extremist threats in northern Africa, so they are a natural partner. They are a very good partner, a very willing partner, and capable as well,” Hicks said.

Nigerien forces will train in the joint multinational headquarters, the command-and-control training venue.

“We are setting conditions this year for having African training cadre as part of Flintlock 19,” Hicks said.

Exercise Flintlock will be held from April 9-20.

Threats to the Sahel

Hicks said training for tactical units in the G5 Sahel will be fielded immediately after the exercise concludes. The U.S. has pledged €60 million to the counter-terrorism joint task force for the region, and the European Union recently doubled its contribution to €100 million.

On January 27, 14 Malian soldiers were killed and 18 wounded in an attack on their camp in the Timbuktu region. The attack, likely the work of al-Qaeda, came despite a decision by Prime Minister Soumeylou Boubeye Maiga to deploy around 1,000 soldiers to fight extremists in the center of the country.

Minusma, the United Nations mission in Mali, is the world’s most dangerous active deployment, with more than 140 peacekeepers killed since its launch in April 2013.

A November report on the first G5 Sahel force mission said that it experienced “logistical problems” but they are not “insurmountable.”

The force is tasked with fighting terrorism and combatting human trafficking in the Sahel. Its primary objective is to re-establish authority in the “tri-border” region where Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger converge. Thousands of civilians have died in fighting in the region, and tens of thousands have fled their homes amid increasing terrorist attacks and suicide bombings.

The French military said on Thursday that 30 militants were killed in an April 1 clash between French and Malian troops near the border with Niger, a zone the French say is used as a haven by Islamic State in the Greater Sahara. An attack on French soldiers last month was claimed by the Group to Support Islam and Muslims, a coalition affiliated with al-Qaeda and led by Tuareg former rebel Iyad Ag Ghaly.

Al-Qaeda inspired and affiliated groups from Mali have spread into northern Burkina Faso and northwestern Niger, Hicks said.

A Nigerien soldier and four U.S. Army special forces members were killed there in October, ambushed by ISIS-affiliated fighters while on patrol in the southwest part of the country. An investigation into the incident called on the Defense Department to cut the number of ground missions in West Africa.

Boko Haram

Boko Haram was suspected of carrying out an attack on northeastern Nigeria on Thursday, killing 15 people and wounding three others. If confirmed, it would be the group’s third attack this month. Five Cameroonian soldiers were killed Monday night in the village of Sagme, close to the border with Nigeria, AFP reported. A day earlier, Boko Haram killed at least 20 people and wounded dozens more in a series of coordinated attacks on a military camp and villages around Maiduguri in Nigeria.

Factionalization within Boko Haram has caused negotiations between the group and Nigerian officials to stall. A faction of Boko Haram that pledged allegiance to ISIS and now calls itself the West Africa province carried out an attack on a Nigerian army barracks in late December. In a statement published in January, the group said it killed nine soldiers and took military equipment following an assault on the barracks in Kanamma.

The ISIS-affiliated Boko Haram faction is particularly active on Nigeria’s borders with Chad and Niger, but Hicks noted on Thursday that the Boko Haram faction operating in Lake Chad is the deadliest terrorist organization in the world.

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