U.S. Increases Antiterrorism Exercises With African Militaries

After a series of terrorist attacks on hotels and other tourist sites that raised concerns all across Africa, the United States has increased training exercises with militaries here, focusing on how to defend civilian targets on a continent that has become a significant battleground in the war against militant Islam.

In Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, United States Army troops simulated an elaborate hostage rescue with West African forces this month. The combined forces stormed a building, shot mock militants and secured the hostages.

In Kenya, American trainers funded by the State Department have been working with police commandos on how to respond to terrorist attacks like the Westgate shopping mall raid in 2013, when fighters with the Shabab, the local affiliate of Al Qaeda, killed 67 people and wounded 175 more.

And in Gabon next month, paratroopers from the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division – after crossing the Atlantic from their Fort Bragg, N.C., headquarters – are scheduled to jump out of a plane and straight into a joint exercise, part of an effort to train Central African militaries in elaborate raids, strikes and rescue missions.

The training effort between the American military and its African partners is a far cry from the days when the Pentagon viewed the continent as a place to avoid, fearing open-ended United Nations peacekeeping missions.

“In the past, Africa was seen through the peacekeeping lens,” said Jennifer Cooke, director of the Africa program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

But now, she said, “the U.S. looks at Africa differently.”

“Some of the threats, whether it’s Al Shabab, ISIL, Boko Haram or AQIM, pose a more direct and sophisticated threat to African states, to European allies, and potentially to the United States,” she added.

Those four militant Islamist extremist groups – the Shabab in East Africa, the Islamic State affiliate in Libya, Boko Haram in Central and West Africa, and Al Qaeda in the Maghreb region of West Africa – are widely believed to be the terrorist organizations that pose the most direct threat to civilians across the continent.

At an African Land Forces Summit meeting here last week, Gen. Mark A. Milley, the Army chief of staff, urged his African counterparts to draw on their own experiences battling colonial European powers to fight the four terrorist groups.

“Many of you in this room are descendants of fighters who practiced guerrilla warfare against the French, the British, the colonial forces of Europe,” General Milley told senior military officials from 37 African countries. “Embedded in your armies is the knowledge of how to fight guerrilla warfare.”

But defending “soft targets” – military jargon for hotels, restaurants, movie theaters, shopping malls and other places where unarmed civilians congregate – is difficult for sophisticated militaries, let alone the continent’s fledging security forces.

American law restricts the Pentagon’s direct work with African police forces – that is done through the State Department – so the American military often finds itself struggling to make sure that its training is going to the people most likely to be charged with carrying out missions like rescuing hostages.

“It’s going to take time,” General Milley said during his speech at the Arusha meeting, “but we’re going to do this selectively, without abusing people.”

In the conference hallways and around dinner tables, much of the talk was of the most recent big attack – at Grand-Bassam in Ivory Coast, a country that is distant from the regional base of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, usually operating in the deserts of northern Mali. But on a quiet Sunday in March, six gunmen opened fire at the beach resort, killing 16 people.

“Their response time was fast – the Ivorian military got there in less than 20 minutes,” one West African general was overheard telling his dining companions, as the group dissected the response to the attacks.

The Grand-Bassam attack followed an attack on the Hotel Splendid and the Cappuccino Cafe in Ouagadougou, in January, and one on the Radisson Blu hotel in Bamako, Mali, in November. In all, dozens have been killed and many more wounded. And that toll does not include attacks by Boko Haram in the markets and towns of northern Nigeria.

Since the recent spate of attacks, African security forces have been asking the American military for help in learning how to defend these targets.

“They’re asking for how to do better intelligence surveillance,” said Maj. Gen. Darryl A. Williams, the head of Army forces assigned to Africa Command, which hosted the conference and flew the African officials to Arusha. “They’re asking for logistics help. Because these threats are everywhere.”

American trainers are showing the African security forces how to conduct cellphone tracking and how to use human intelligence to forecast trouble. Using experience gained in Afghanistan and Iraq, the American advisers are also teaching their African counterparts how to try to establish relationships in outlying communities.

In Burkina Faso, the original purpose of the joint exercise between the Army and about 18 other countries in the region was supposed to be how to support peacekeeping efforts and increase the capability of African partners – the standard fare for African and American joint training events.

About 200 soldiers from West Africa and the United States showed up for the usual exercises, pretending that they were part of a United Nations peacekeeping operation in Mali.

But Burkina Faso’s military, still reeling from the Hotel Splendid attack in January, asked for something more.

“The Burkina Faso armed forces came to us and said there were a number of different types of scenarios they wanted to train on,” said Col. Thomas Gukeisen, a brigade combat team commander with the Third Infantry Division.

The West Africans asked for help on how to recover isolated soldiers behind enemy lines, conduct a medical evacuation and carry out a hostage rescue.

Source: DEHAI-Eritrea OnLine,