In a nation that has been plagued by terror attacks in recent years, a major soccer game represents a prime target. US troops were on hand this week to help oversee a large-scale training exercise in Burkina Faso, where local forces were drilled on how to cope with an attack that could potentially target thousands of fans.
CNN was on the ground when the scenario played out on Wednesday with a simulation of an attack at a major downtown stadium complex in the country’s capital, Ouagadougou, where the game turned deadly after terrorists stormed the facility, firing their AK-47s into the crowd and shouting as players and spectators fled in panic.
Within minutes an elite team of police commandos backed by soldiers arrived on the scene in an armored vehicle, driving through the entrance, taking cover and engaging the terrorists in a lengthy firefight until the attackers were eliminated or captured.
Following the firefight a team of investigators arrived to gather evidence in order to help support law enforcement efforts to go after the terrorists.
The scenario was designed to present a major test for the Burkinabe units.
“It would be a challenge for us,” a US team leader for 3rd Special Forces Group, which was involved in advising Burkinabe forces participating in the exercise, said of the scenario.
The training is crucial for the Burkinabe security forces, as Ouagadougou has been rocked by several high-profile attacks in recent years, including on restaurants and embassies.
The number of attacks in more remote parts of the northwest African country have also increased as al Qaeda- and ISIS-linked groups have established a presence there, attacking remote gendarmerie outposts and expanding their reach from Mali and Niger in attempt to take advantage of what they see as a permissible environment.
Terror attacks increasing
The number of violent incidents in Burkina Faso linked to the local affiliates of al Qaeda and ISIS rose from 24 in 2017 to 136 in 2018, according to a report by the Africa Center for Strategic Studies.
“The al Qaeda-aligned JNIM and the ISIS (Greater Sahara) threats have continued to increase in size and capability,” Maj. Gen. Marcus Hicks, the head of US Special Operations Command Africa, told CNN on Monday.
“We see evidence of that in these rapidly increasing number of attacks here in Burkina Faso,” he added.
A US military official in Africa told CNN that the US military assesses that the local branch of al Qaeda, Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM), commands over 800 fighters while ISIS in the Greater Sahara has approximately 300 members.
Officials say the surge in terrorist activity caught the Burkinabe security forces somewhat unprepared and the decision by the government to not cede ground has led to a spike in casualties among Burkinabe units.
Despite the surge, the Trump administration last year announced plans to cut the number of US troops in Africa by around 10%.
One defense official told CNN that the planned reductions would eventually lower the number of US counterterrorism troops and their enablers who support operations by approximately 20%.
At the time of that announcement there were about 7,200 Department of Defense personnel assigned to US Africa Command.
Senior defense officials had previously told CNN that the bulk of those cuts would be to forces in northwest and West Africa, as the US felt the presence of some 3,500 French troops in the region lessened the risk of any US drawdown.
Hicks says the reductions have had “minimal” impact.
Despite the reductions, the US continues to maintain a military presence in Burkina Faso, including small numbers of Special Operations Forces involved in training local counterterrorism and logistics units.
To help Burkina Faso and other countries in the region combat the growing terror threat, several teams of US Special Forces arrived in the country this month to train and advise local forces.
The training, including Wednesday’s stadium attack scenario, was part of a multinational exercise named Flintlock that brought together 2,000 troops from elite units from a variety of African and Western nations.
The exercise took a variety of top-tier military units from various African countries and put them into complex counterterrorism scenarios with US and European advisers on hand to provide guidance.
Unlike previous iterations of the exercise, where US Special Forces would have accompanied local troops into the field, this year’s version focused less on the US providing tactical advice and more on helping local forces develop the ability to organize, command and control forces in multiple locations while exploiting intelligence obtained in the field to help launch follow-on operations.
The new style of advising was embraced by at least one of the US participants.
“It’s hard not to just be like, ‘Do it our way,’ ” the US Special Forces team leader told CNN at one of the remote outposts involved in the exercise.
“We learned a lot,” he added, saying, “We just don’t have to do tactical-level stuff, we can step back and do a headquarters thing. Really, the effect that we can have, I think, is way bigger than I think we can have just training squads.”
Col. Nathan Prussian, the commander of the Army’s 3rd Special Forces Group, praised the exercise and the participating African militaries, saying the joint training allowed them to effectively work together.
“It’s very useful to note that these are very professional, very capable militaries and that bringing them together to work together is really what we’re trying to accomplish with Flintlock, and from my view this is going very well,” Prussian told reporters on the sidelines of the exercise.
Overall the US advice and assistance seemed to have been welcomed by several of the African participants in the exercises who spoke with CNN.
“They are very helpful,” Capt. Amadou Koundy, a officer in Niger’s military, told CNN during an interview at a Burkinabe military camp.
He added that the US advisers were working in the headquarters of Niger’s Special Forces, sharing information, assisting with equipment and helping two battalions of Nigerien troops.
And while officials say Burkinabe forces have made dramatic improvements over the years and demonstrated a willingness to learn and confront the terrorist threat, multiple US and European advisers acknowledged that there are many challenges involved in training them.
The US Special Forces team leader told CNN that intelligence gathering and launching follow-on operations are still a challenge for the host nation’s forces.
Lt. Rodrigo Gaona, a Spanish officer with the Guardia Civil’s elite Rapid Action Group (GAR) who advised a Burkinabe police unit that participated in the stadium exercise, echoed that sentiment, adding that the local forces were also having a hard time effectively employing some of the newer skills and equipment they had acquired.
However, Gaona, who has attended the exercise four times, says he has seen major improvement over the years in various areas, including the development of Burkinabe sniper teams, employment of rudimentary drones and their practice of combat field medicine, a necessary skill set given the high rate of combat seen by their forces.
Drone operations are viewed as critical to helping monitor the vast ungoverned and sparsely populated expanses of the Sahel that allow terror groups to cross borders with relative impunity.
Hicks told CNN on Monday that the US was considering deploying surveillance drones to Burkina Faso in order to help the country better monitor threats.
He also said local forces not taking part in the exercises were benefiting from the efforts, as troops directly trained by the US in previous exercises were passing on knowledge to other units.
Officials also noted that coordinating the various elite units of the Burkinabe security forces with units from other countries in the region, including Mali and Niger, who also took part in the exercise presents a challenge.
The three nations, along with Mauritania and Chad, make up the G-5 Sahel, a multinational task force charged with combating transnational terrorists including the local ISIS and al Qaeda affiliates that regularly cross the border to carry out attacks.
US Special Forces also participated in a civil engagement exercise, assisting medical and civil affairs personnel working with local partners to help distribute some $15,000 of medicine and see hundreds of patients in a rural community in northeast Burkina Faso.
The US personnel were working with members of a nongovernmental organization and Burkinabe security personnel, part of a US effort to help Burkinabe forces win the support of the local populations.
A Burkinabe officer told CNN on Monday that terror groups had managed to recruit locals in the north of the country by exploiting the economic situation in the region, where many live in poverty.