Military officers from the United States and nine African countries conducted a command post exercise in Dakar Friday, working together to respond to a mock terrorist attack. The exercise came as a real world terrorist threat forced the closure of U.S. and other diplomatic missions in Nigeria.
In a hotel conference room, officers from nine African countries sat around a table, with a map of West Africa in the middle. On the partition behind them, large satellite photos of the region were available for reference. Behind the partition, other African and American officers played the roles of the headquarters back home.
The African officers at the large table were learning how to work together to respond to a series of mock terrorist threats, that in this exercise were all happening at once - one cell apparently in Algeria and another on a boat somewhere off the coast of Senegal, while they were also dealing with a possible threat to a U.N. building in one of the countries.
Mauritanian Lieutenant Colonel Mohamed Ould Hmain Salem explained what was going on.
"The last message said that they had seen some gathering on the Mali and Tunisia border, and we had assumed that maybe they would be heading to the Algerian border in order to go to Tunisia. Now, with this message, we should revise our assumption,” he said. “Maybe there are two groups, or maybe the group that we are searching for here headed to the Malian territory."
The scenarios were false, but they came on the same day that the U.S. consulate in Lagos was closed, due to a terrorist threat, and other western countries also closed their missions just to be safe.
Still, for some of the African officers, like Senegalese Colonel Antoine Wardini, terrorism seems like a remote threat.
"I haven't seen terrorists, so far,” he said. “I have heard, and we learned in the newspapers, and we know why the Americans are shifting from place-to-place to help the African continent face and confront the enemy, the terrorists, if you want to say. I think, what I can say for the moment, this exercise we're conducting right now is just an exercise to make sure that we harmonize our procedures. In case something pops up somewhere, we know what to do and how to deal with it."
The most senior African officer who observed the exercise, Defense Chief of Staff General Alexander Ogomundi of Nigeria, said African nations must be ready to confront terrorists at any time.
"You don't know when the terrorists are going to strike,” he noted. “He has the initiative. He decides where to strike. He decides when and who, and what the target is. So, if you are prepared, then you are in a better position to respond."
The commander of U.S. Special Forces in Europe and most of Africa, Major General Thomas Csrnko, says events like the recent attack by insurgents on Mauritanian forces near the Algerian border are evidence that African nations need to improve their ability to control their territories.
"Can we improve and enhance their capability to protect themselves? I think the answer is 'yes.' Do we want to encourage them to have regional cooperation among nations, so that they can defeat an enemy like this? The answer is 'yes,'" he said.
It is General Csrnko's Special Forces that were doing the training in Dakar and around the region, during this installment of the bi-annual exercises, code named Flintlock.
The four-day command-post exercise capped two weeks of field training in five West African countries, in which U.S. forces provided training in a variety of skills, aimed at helping the African armies assert control over some large uncontrolled areas, especially along their borders.
The military activity is part of a broader U.S. effort to provide aid and training to African countries, designed in part to prevent them from becoming breeding grounds for terrorist organizations, that officials say seek uncontrolled territory to base their operations.