Flintlock counterterrorism exercises end in Senegal
"Fire in the hole, fire in the hole," an American soldier shouted as a suicide car bomb blasted off. It's a controlled explosion but law enforcement personnel had to mine the scene after to pick out any relevant information.
The United States' Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) led the operations. Billy Alfano, one of the lead FBI trainers said the focus of Flintlock 2016 is on "counter terrorism investigations, post blast investigations, and how you exploit a crime scene to gather intelligence and leads."
"The information provides those officers in the field to actually assist in countering the threat,” Alfano added.
Amid rising collaborations between Islamist militant groups across North Africa and in the Sahel, many hope this US led counter-terrorism trainings will help boost preparedness on the African continent.
Some 1700 soldiers from more than 30 nations including 14 African countries took part in field and classroom exercises at various locations in Senegal and Mauritania.
With jihadists in Africa increasingly resorting to attacks on markets and security forces, the training excercises focused mainly on improving police and military preparedness, particularly for urban warfare.
"It is better that people are prepared, in case we are targeted like everyone else," a Senegalese police officer, who asked not to be named, said.
The officer is a member of an investigation unit based in Dakar. She took part in the post bomb investigation scenario for the first time in her career.
"At the moment terrorism is spreading across the world. Here, next to Senegal, at the border with Mali, we are seeing this phenomenon grow," she added
Not everyday police officers get to blow up a vehicle
Issa Diack, a Major in the Senegalese national police, said the real-life scenarios in the operations pushed the exercises to another level.
"We don't always have the opportunity to blow up a vehicle, so it's a sizable learning experience to see the life-size explosion of vehicle and to be able to look for evidence that will allow us to establish leads for the investigation," Diack said.
The operations in this year's Flintlock exercises took a global dimension but also put much emphasis on the African regions where terrorist activities are rife.
Learning from the US experience
The FBI trainers grouped police officers and gendarmerie custom officers from Mauritania and Senegal in a team and gave them tactical and operational trainings.
"Obviously terrorism doesn't recognize any borders and we see a lot of times where there's a nexus to multiple countries," Victor Lloyd, an FBI supervisory special agent said. Lloyd was flown in specifically to oversee this aspect of the training exercises.
"We want to be able to say, for instance, collect evidence here in Senegal that may be relevant to a case that we're working on in the United States or in France or anywhere else in the world," he added.
"One of the major failures and one of the reasons why 9/11 happened was because there was not a lot of cooperation and sharing of intelligence between intelligence and law-enforcement entities.
"So having learned that lesson, we wanted to make sure that we have other countries learn from us," Lloyd said.
This year's Flintlock exercises were held only weeks after an attack in Burkina Faso's capital Ouagadougou, which left 30 people dead.
It also follows another deadly attack at a hotel in Mali a few months ago. The Sahel based Islamist group, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, claimed responsibility for both attacks.
It is the third time since 2006 that Senegal is playing host to the US led training exercises.