Editor’s Note: Arwa Damon is traveling with Chadian troops who have been pursuing jihadis into Nigeria. It’s the first time CNN crews have seen the battle with Boko Haram up close.
U.S. and European Special Forces on a annual month-long training mission with African nations
Chad, hosting the operation this year, already has forces fighting Boko Haram
The back of the C-130 opens to a blast of suffocating heat. Down the plane’s ramp and past the glare of the narrow asphalt runway is an endless horizon of sand.
A line of pick-up trucks and forklifts await, ready to offload crates of coveted supplies, crucial to turning this remote corner of the Chadian Sahel into a working military camp, a temporary home to some of the world’s most elite forces.
Exercise Flintlock’s Mao training site is a jumbled collage of camouflage, various dark olive green and white tents, and some of the African nations’ makeshift colorful encampments set in the middle of this austere landscape.
For the last decade, this annual exercise has involved U.S. and European Special Forces on a month-long training mission with African nations.
Around camp some units claim their corner with flags over their military-issue tents, others like host nation Chad opt to set up in the open, the only shade under prickly acacia trees. The Belgians have set up a makeshift gym, complete with a pull-up bar and slack line. The British organize the camp’s nightly soccer matches, a veritable mini-world cup on a sandy pitch. The Nigerians take it seriously, but the Danes are the team to beat. The Italians have brought a stovetop to heat their espresso and cook their pasta, but many here live on American MREs (field rations) and instant coffee.
Tactical exercises take up most days, each African nation paired with a Western counterpart.
Chadian troops are trained by the U.S., Italy, and Belgium. One of the many tactics they are learning is how to defend against an ambush while on vehicle patrol. Chad, hosting Flintlock this year, already has forces fighting Boko Haram in a number of Lake Chad basin countries.
“Use the vehicle for cover!” a U.S. operative advises demonstrating a quick dismount and the proper security procedures, which we cannot disclose, to best return fire.
“Right now in Chad we can’t say that we have terrorists within our own boundaries. But when it comes to the neighboring countries, Nigeria, Cameroon, Niger, Libya, all these countries have a terrorism problem,” says General Abdul Rahman Mery, Special Forces Commander, shortly after arriving on site to visit his troops in training. “So it is because of this we are readying out troops to be able to prevent and defend as we are already doing in Nigeria, Cameroon, Niger and Mali.”
No specific formula
In a forested area away from the shooting ranges, Nigerian Navy Special Forces are instructed by the British on how to extract a wounded soldier while under fire. This unit is battling Boko Haram in its stronghold of Borno State, and has already lost men in the fight.
Meanwhile, Tunisians, whose concerns include the overall instability and growing presence of ISIS in neighboring Libya, practice target shooting on the camp’s range under the guidance of the Germans.
The Mauritanians, seemingly unfazed by the heat of the mid-day, run and practice tactical patrol maneuvers with the Spanish contingent, before dancing with their trainers and by-standers. They have already battled al Qaeda in the Islamic Magreb in Mali and want to focus on border security.
There are certain basic principles that apply to counter terrorism, lessons to be learned from past experiences, but there is no specific formula, says one U.S. Special Forces Operative. “There is no way that you can template and say that these particular methods we use are always going to work in every insurgency, every counter-terrorism operation, every humanitarian operation. You can’t take the same approach.”
But what is vital is being on the ground to try to gain a better understanding of the threat and the cultural dynamics of the nations where it exists.
“Everyone is trying to do their part,” says a Belgian Special Forces operative. “There is not really a sense of national security anymore, it’s more of a risk society in a sense in that what happens far away is eventually our concern.”
Since its inception, Flintlock was not designed to combat a specific enemy. But this year’s exercise against the backdrop of a growing terrorist threat posed by al Qaeda across North Africa and the Sahel, Boko Haram in the Lake Chad Basin, coupled with ISIS trying to gain a strong foothold on the continent, makes this Flintlock even more vital when it comes to combating global terror. Europe has already felt the direct impact of ISIS and other extremist-influenced groups and individuals, while the U.S. is on alert for potential lone wolf or extremist-inspired attacks on its own soil.
“No one can do it alone,” says Col. George Thiebes, Special Operations Commander, Command Forward West Africa. “The relationships we build, the interoperability, the collaborative and the cooperative nature helps us become stronger too so we can address threats at a regional level before they become broader than that.”