US steps up terror drills with African countries

Defending civilian targets a key focus of joint training efforts as militant attacks escalate

ARUSHA (Tanzania) • After a series of terrorist attacks on hotels and other tourist sites that have raised concerns across Africa, the United States has increased training exercises with local militaries, focusing on how to defend civilian targets on a continent that has become a significant battleground in the war against militant Islam.

In Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, US Army troops simulated an elaborate hostage rescue with West African forces this month. In Kenya, American trainers funded by the State Department have been working with police commandos on how to respond to terrorist attacks like the Westgate mall raid in 2013, when fighters with Al-Shabab killed 67 people.

In Gabon next month, paratroopers from the US Army's 82nd Airborne Division are set to jump out of a plane and straight into a joint exercise - part of an effort to train Central African militaries in elaborate raids, strikes and rescue missions.

These training efforts are a far cry from the days when the Pentagon viewed Africa as a place to avoid, fearing open-ended United Nations peacekeeping missions.

Ms Jennifer Cooke, director of the Africa programme at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, said "the US looks at Africa differently" now. "Some of the threats... pose a more direct and sophisticated threat to African states, to European allies, and potentially to the US," she added.


Many of you in this room are descendants of fighters who practised guerilla warfare against... the colonial forces of Europe. Embedded in your armies is the knowledge of how to fight guerilla warfare.

GENERAL MARK MILLEY, on how African forces can tackle terrorist groups.

Al-Shabab in East Africa, the Libyan affiliate of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, Boko Haram in Central and West Africa, and Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb region of West Africa are widely believed to be the terrorist organisations that pose the most direct threat to civilians.

At a recent African Land Forces Summit meeting here, US Army Chief of Staff Mark Milley urged his African counterparts to draw on their own experiences battling colonial powers to fight the four terrorist groups. "Many of you in this room are descendants of fighters who practised guerilla warfare against... the colonial forces of Europe," he told senior military officials from 37 African countries. "Embedded in your armies is the knowledge of how to fight guerilla warfare."

But defending "soft targets" - military jargon for hotels, restaurants, malls and other places where unarmed civilians congregate - is difficult even for sophisticated militaries, let alone the continent's fledgling security forces.

US law restricts the Pentagon's direct work with African police forces - that is done through the State Department - so the American military often finds itself struggling to make sure that training is going to the people most likely to be charged with missions such as rescuing hostages. "It's going to take time," General Milley said during his speech, "but we're going to do this selectively, without abusing people."

Since a recent spate of attacks, African security forces have been asking the US military for help in learning how to defend soft targets. "They're asking for how to do better intelligence surveillance," said Major-General Darryl Williams, the head of army forces assigned to Africa. "They're asking for logistics help. Because these threats are everywhere."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 28, 2016, with the headline 'US steps up terror drills with African countries'. Print Edition | Subscribe