While patrolling a mock village to train in fighting extremists, a Ghanaian soldier wondered how he would cope if one day the drill became real. The 24-year-old special forces officer, who has never experienced war, is part of a select group of African soldiers being trained by Western armies to combat surging jihadi violence across the Sahel, a vast expanse below the Sahara desert, that is now spreading south into coastal states.
Huddled in a circle after the reconnaissance exercise at the training site in Ivory Coast, the officer said he has watched neighboring countries be overrun by jihadis for nearly 10 years. The soldier, whose identity is kept anonymous according to security regulations, is among less than 200 troops from four West African nations being led in exercises as part of the annual U.S. military-led counterterrorism training known as Flintlock.
This year’s exercises take place as France announces it will be pulling its troops from Mali, where thousands of its soldiers have been fighting Islamic extremists since 2013 when they pushed al-Qaida linked fighters from strongholds in the north. Despite their presence, attacks have increased and spread within Mali and into neighboring Burkina Faso and Niger, killing thousands and displacing some 2.5 million people.
Extremists have made their way to the coastlines before. In 2016 extremists attacked the resort area of Grand Bassam in Ivory Coast, killing at least 19 people. After targeted anti-terrorism measures, the country did not see attacks for some years. But Ivory Coast and Benin have recorded 25 attacks since 2020. There is also now a reported presence of al-Qaida and Islamic State group-linked cells in northern Ghana which has seen violence surge near its border since August — 19 attacks compared to almost none the two years before — according to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project.
“As these insurgencies continue to spread, the more difficult it becomes to contain them and the less likely it is that the conflict will end in the foreseeable future,” said Heni Nsaibia, senior researcher at the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project.
Sahel experts say some coastal militaries, like Ghana and Ivory Coast, are somewhat better equipped and capable at stemming the jihadi threat, but many still lack basic skills and have never faced battle. During the first week of Flintlock held at Ivory Coast’s International Counter Terrorism Academy, a new $65 million complex partly funded by France to train soldiers across the continent, Western trainers said a lot of people didn’t know how to check a pulse or use a tourniquet.
The international community has spent years trying to shore up ill-equipped and undertrained regional militaries to fend for themselves, but it’s been challenging. The region has been overrun by coups, including in Mali and Burkina Faso, both of which were spearheaded by soldiers who participated in some international training opportunities.
Both countries, which have been hardest hit by jihadi violence, were barred from attending Flintlock this year since the U.S. is unable to provide military support to countries overthrown by coups. “It’s a bit of a tragedy because it’s really like they’re shooting themselves in the foot when it comes to assistance from the United States,” said Rear Adm. Jamie Sands, Commander for Special Operations Command Africa.
African armies have said trainings like Flintlock are a good opportunity to learn from international and regional partners. This year however, the number of people attending was cut by a third and only four African nations participated — Ghana, Ivory Coast, Cameroon and Niger. Senegal pulled out of hosting it due to the coronavirus pandemic, forcing some countries to cancel.
As France pulls out of Mali, it’s unclear if other countries will fill the gap. The United States said it will not increase its military footprint but will likely be in the region for a long time. The U.S. is particularly concerned about al-Qaida’s approach of trying to integrate into society.
Conflict analysts now say the biggest concern is whether coastal states will learn from the mistakes of their Sahelian neighbors. Armed forces in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger have been accused by rights groups of extrajudicial killings and abusing civilians in the context of counterterrorism, which has fueled jihadi recruitment.
“The one thing coastal state forces and governments don’t want is to lose trust and legitimacy in areas where jihadists are known to be building convenient local ties,” said Rida Lyammouri, senior fellow at the Policy Center for the New South, a Moroccan based organization focused on economics and policy.
France said it will also shift how it provides support by deploying smaller units for shorter periods upon request in order to change local perceptions, Col. Pascal Ianni, spokesperson for the French Armed Forces told AP.
“What we learned from Afghanistan, Iraq (and) now Mali is that when a foreign army has been deployed in a country for a long time the local population finally thinks that this army is an occupation army,” he said.
Ghana’s information minister Kojo Oppong Nkrumah, said in recent years it has enhanced intelligence sharing and deployed troops to strategic locations to better understand and prevent jihadi threats. But the main strategy to preventing jihadi spread is not necessarily military.
“We believe that there’s the need to ensure that quality of lives in many parts of the country are adequately improved so that persons who have the view to breed extremist ideas don’t find fertile ground to plant those ideas,” he said.