Counterterrorism training underway to curb Al Qaeda threat in Africa.

A Malian soldier stood with US military personnel during an Operation Flintlock ceremony May 3. African, European, and North American participants from more than a dozen nations work within AFRICOM to combat the spread of terrorism.

Annual West African counter terrorism exercise, Operation Flintlock  is underway.  It is  being  coordinated by America, Dutch and Spanish military personnel.

In the bare and unremarkable desert town of Thiès, a platoon of commandos from Mali and Senegal are scaling a building’s edifice, one handful of rope at a time. This is practice.

Their American, Dutch, and Spanish handlers call it Operation Flintlock – an annual, West Africa-wide counterterrorism exercise to prep local militaries.

According to the script, a carload of European sightseers on their way, perhaps, to a waterbuck-filled nature reserve, will be kidnapped by desert bandits, ransomed to Al Qaeda in the Maghreb, and whisked to Senegal’s northeastern frontier. And that’s where a bit of rope-climbing expertise could save the day, as Senegal’s finest shimmy down from hovering helicopters to stage a rescue.

“This is designed as a rehearsal for a multinational coordination center or a mechanism to counter terrorism,” says Lt. Col. Chris Call, deputy commander of the Joint Special Operations Task Force-Trans-Sahara, and operations commander for Operation Flintlock. “This is necessary against a regional transnational threat, which in this region [is] a violent Salafist jihadist movement.”

“The challenge [for the partner nations] here is how do they control their territory in countries that own just vast swaths of territory in some of the most inhospitable remote locations in the world,” says Call, speaking by phone from Flintlock’s multinational coordination center near Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. “Our focus is on basic tactical military techniques … and helping to build capacity in our partner nations. Success for us is putting us out of a job.”

At one time, a military exercise like Operation Flintlock – which is now in its fifth year – would have set African opinion-page columns aflame and set a fair number of African politicians pounding on tables with their shoes. Some African nations worried that the newly announced but vaguely defined Africa Command (AFRICOM) of the US Army would herald a new colonial presence in Africa, complete with permanent military bases and political interference.

But today, AFRICOM’s military exercises often pass with little notice, and increasingly with the support of African leaders. In part, this is because African leaders now see a common threat: armed violent groups such as Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, which have carried out a series of murders and kidnappings from Mauritania to Algeria to Niger and threaten to topple any government that dares confront them.

For Senegal, for now, this threat is still hypothetical. Unlike Senegal’s neighbors in the Maghreb – where Al Qaeda has been abducting tourists and aid workers, ransoming them off and profiting handsomely – the 50-year-old democracy here has never known Islamic extremism, only its home-grown Sufi mysticism, a permissive faith.

But for Senegalese brass patrolling the vast and remote flatlands, the threat could emerge at any moment. More than 500,000 tourists vacation here each year, touring ancient slave dungeons near Dakar or the hinterland’s pristine riverbanks. Their souvenir-shopping and spa-surfing activities contribute 6 percent of the country’s gross domestic product.

“We need to consider that tomorrow, that menace [in Mali and Mauritania] will be here,” says Col. Ousmane Sarr of the Senegalese Army’s public relations department. “Our economy counts so heavily on tourism that the state must ensure that the country remains secure.”

Yet the US military wants Senegal to do more than lock down holiday spots from a few carjacking terrorists. Come 2011, the US hopes to run the entirety of Operation Flintlock from Senegal, a sign that the country can be the regional leader in parrying the Sahel’s terrorism endemic.

[Correction: The original version misstated what operations the US hopes to run from Senegal.]

“I’ve worked in more than 24 countries, and Senegal’s [military] is one of the most professional,” says a US military official in Senegal, who asked not to be identified. “Senegal is an example to the subregion in its military competence, in its civilian control of the military, in its professionalism, and we’d like to learn from, replicate, and share those strengths across borders.”

A major joint military exercise with countries around the volatile Sahara desert region is beginning as part of a US programme of counter-terrorism.  The three-week Operation Flintlock aims to improve the ability of the region’s armed forces to work together to bring security to the area.

It serves as a base for the group al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and has seen increased terror attacks.  Drug smuggling is also growing, moving cocaine from South America to Europe.

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