THIES, Senegal–Crouching in the sparse brush, maneuvering into formations through a divide, and then shooting at a target, about 10 soldiers from Burkina Faso are among a select group of African soldiers being trained to battle West Africa’s fast-growing extremist threat.
They are carrying out drills as part of the U.S. military-led annual counterterrorism exercise in West Africa, which this year takes place in the shadow of possible U.S. troop cuts in Africa although extremist attacks in the region have reached a worrying new level.
A Pentagon decision on the size of the U.S. force in Africa is pending as part of a global review with the aim of better countering Russia and China.
More than 1,500 service members from the armies of 34 African and partner training nations have assembled for the Flintlock exercises in Senegal and Mauritania, the two countries in West Africa’s sprawling Sahel region that so far have not been hit by violence from extremists linked to al Qaeda or the Islamic State group.
The U.S. Africa Command, which organizes the two weeks of training, defers questions about the possible troop cuts to the Pentagon. It has said European nations should step up to help France’s 5,000-strong force leading the counterterror fight in the Sahel, the region just below the Sahara Desert. French leaders have appealed to Washington to keep U.S. troops in place.
Senegalese Foreign Minister Amadou Ba during a visit this week by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made it clear the region is under threat.
“We hope they will continue to support in security areas. We hope they will continue to support us in training and intelligence,” he said of U.S. forces.
Extremists know no boundaries, Col. Magatte Ndiaye, a spokesman for Senegal’s armed forces, told The Associated Press. “We must have a synergy of international action to face this threat,” he said.
“We have trust in the Americans,” he added. “They are aware of the situation and I’m sure they’ll take a decision that makes good sense.”
Security in the Sahel region continues to deteriorate and requires international participation, said the commander of Special Operations Command Africa, U.S. Air Force Brig. Gen. Dagvin Anderson. “It’s not just a U.S. or Western effort. It takes partnerships across the international community, and it takes close partnership within the region in order to be effective,” he said.
Extremists don’t respect borders, so intelligence sharing is vital, he said. That involves building trust and relationships across borders: “Ultimately, that’s what leads to stability, and that stability is what we need.”
But a five-nation regional counterterrorism force, the G5 Sahel, has suffered from insufficient funding.
In Burkina Faso, which has seen a growing number of attacks as extremists move over the border from Mali and Niger, the military has been accused by human rights groups of abuses in counterterror efforts that risk alienating young people and sending them to join the extremists.
Burkina Faso’s military needs more training to fight against growing extremism, said Lt. David Ouedraogo, who leads the group of Burkinabe soldiers training as special forces. His forces will be deployed to hold the line against the extremists’ expansion southward toward the capital.
“We must always adapt and continue training,” he said as his team ran drills led by the Dutch. “The threat has changed … the attacks on positions, the attacks on military camps and on civilians. This is all a threat that has grown against our country.”
Once-peaceful Burkina Faso has seen a rising number of attacks since Islamic extremists became active in the country in 2015. Hundreds have been killed and more than a half-million people displaced in the past year alone.
“There’s less freedom to move … and it all affects the morale” of residents, he said. “It’s important … to find stability.”
Capt. Sam Okenarhe of Nigeria’s Brigade Strike Force faces a more entrenched threat from Boko Haram, whose insurgency has lasted more than a decade, and an offshoot called the Islamic State West Africa Province.
“We all know that terrorism is not something that our country faces alone, so definitely it’s very important that our Western partners have an intervention in it,” he said as his force received training from the U.K.’s Royal Marines.
There are signs, though, that U.S. military interest in the Sahel could be waning. Late last year the U.S. switched to a strategy of merely trying to contain extremist groups in the region instead of weakening them, according to a new report by the Pentagon inspector general.
However, the U.S. ambassador to Mauritania, Michael J. Dodman, countered the idea that the U.S. is pulling out.
“We have absolutely not abandoned the fight against terrorism in West Africa or in the Sahel, or frankly, anywhere in the world,” he said last week in a phone press conference.
“We continue to modify what we’re doing” said Dodman. “We try to stay on top of the situation and try to build up the capacities of the countries in the region, who are the ones who are really going to be the key to defeating the threat that comes from extremists.”