British Troops In West Africa: Training Local Forces To Fight Terror

Growing concern about the rise of violent terrorist groups in west Africa has prompted British forces to step up its training and mentoring of regional partners.

It comes as UK troops prepare for a 250-strong deployment to Mali in the summer.

Forces News has been to Senegal to see British servicemen training African partners to fight on the frontline against terror.

Why are British troops in west Africa?

UK personnel in the region are primarily engaged in training rather than deploying themselves.

The aim is to help build 'an African solution to an African problem'.

When Forces News visited them, they were busy on a windswept training area with Cameroonian, Moroccan and Nigerian soldiers practising house clearance drills on Operation Mansio.

The British-led training exercise has been running since 2018.

Senegal, seen as one of Africa's most stable democracies, is playing host to the exercise this time.

The aim is to sharpen the skills of African Forces for the fight against the Al-Qaeda and so-called Islamic State (IS) cells across the Sahel.

The volatile region takes in North Nigeria, Chad, Niger, Northern Senegal, Burkina Faso, Mali and South Sudan.

Map Sahel region 020320 CREDIT BFBS.jpg
Terrorist groups are looking to grow their influence in Africa's Sahel region.

African nations and western partners are concerned the growing Jihadi threat could quickly spill over.

Lieutenant Unyime Collins, from the Nigerian Special Boat Service, said he believes it is better for African nations "to deal with the problem themselves" because they have better experience of the terrain.

He did, however, say they seek cooperation and better technology.

Capturing high-value terrorist targets on the frontline is familiar territory for Nigerian troops, but without effective command structures behind the scenes, it is hard to capitalise on these gains.

One of the key focuses of the Op Mansio training is building up of command and control capacity, as well as developing better cross border co-operation.

The UK says, the emphasis on training is born from past experience.

"We have learned a lot in the 15 to 20 years that we did in Iraq and Afghanistan, in terms of mentoring, coaching and assisting our partners," Colonel Matthew Botsford, BMATT Nigeria Commander said.

"This approach works well for the resource that we have at the moment, what Nigerians want - and that's part of the issue - and what they need."

The value of practising

The battlefield exercises on Op Mansio replicate frontline missions against Boko Haram – one of the militant groups affiliated to the IS.

The troops are engaged in battlefield exercises, with the aim of replicating front line missions against Boko Haram - the militant group affiliated to the Islamic State.

During a scenario seen by Forces News, Nigerian soldiers were tasked with capturing an extremist leader - a simulation they say directly relates to their own real-life experiences.

"Back in my country, Boko Haram [are] well known for improvised explosive devices," Captain Samuel Okenarhe, from 707 Special Forces Brigade Nigeria, said.

A key part of the training is in house-to-house fighting - skills known as Close Quarters Battle or 'CQB' - and combat first aid.

"They were telling us experiences of when they've taken casualties while clearing buildings, and they haven't known what to do," said Captain Will Docherty, 42 Commando Royal Marines.

"Friends of theirs have bled out and died because they don't know what to do.

"Just that basic lifesaver treatment and combat medic stuff, which we've been able to develop with them, will hopefully aid them when they're fighting up in the north," he added.

There has been positive feedback from some of the troops involved.

Adjutant Eyon, who serves in the Cameroonian Rapid Intervention Brigade, said: "The training went very well. We are learning new British techniques and now we will try and apply these ourselves."

Shooting range exercise in Senegal 020320 CREDIT BFBS.jpg
British troops in West Africa are currently engaged training local troops.

Should more British troops be sent to Africa?

Despite an increase in training and mentoring, the security situation in the Sahel is deteriorating quickly.

In the summer of 2020, the United Kingdom will send 250 troops to Mali as part of a United Nations peacekeeping force.

Countries such as France, who lead the 5,000-plus Operation Barkhane (also stationed in the Sahel), say more troops are needed, but the UK insists it is doing enough. 

"In response to the deteriorating situation, we are stepping to the fore, both to build up the capacity of our African partner nations, as well as putting UK personnel in the region to deter and defeat those threats," said Major John House, Commander of B Company, 1 SCOTS Specialised Infantry.

The British training effort is attached to a much larger US mission in Africa, as the Americans are concerned about the speed with which terrorist groups are gaining influence in the region.

"If one country does collapse, it could create a domino effect," Major Mike Giaquinto, Special Operations Command Africa, said.

"If we don't monitor and look at the threat here and keep violent extremist organisations from creating a safe haven in the region, then yes, they could potentially collaborate and build a larger entity and could attack US or European interests," he added.

The link between Sahel extremism and terrorism in the UK

"There's a very real link between those activities on the streets of the UK and western Europe, and those activities down here [in the Sahel]," Colonel Matthew Botsford said.

"Of course, through the use of drug trafficking, slavery, etc, that fund these issues, then we are best off treating these issues at source rather than at final destination."

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