By Cooper Inveen
DABOYA, Ghana (Reuters) – The United States began its annual counter-terrorism training program for African forces in Ghana on Wednesday, aiming to strengthen border defences in the fight against Islamist insurgents who are spreading south into new territories.
The program, known as Flintlock, started at a military base in the dusty northern town of Daboya where U.S. and European trainers drilled soldiers from across Africa on first aid and firing drills in the baking heat.
“Flintlock intends to strengthen the ability of key partner nations in the region to counter violent extremist organizations, collaborate across borders, and provide security for their people,” U.S. Africa Command said in a statement.
The training comes at a critical time for West Africa, where groups linked to Islamic State and al Qaeda continue to carry out routine attacks on civilians and the military despite costly interventions from international forces.
What began as a Mali-based insurgency in 2012 has since ballooned into a regional network of competing Islamist groups that operate across large areas of landlocked Niger and Burkina Faso and which in recent years have spread into coastal countries including Benin, Togo and Ivory Coast.
The violence has killed thousands and displaced millions.
So far Ghana, whose rural north borders Burkina Faso, has been spared the violence, but security experts say organised crime is rife, and poor, remote communities could be vulnerable to recruitment, as they have been in neighbouring countries.
Daboya itself is less than 100 miles (160 km) from Burkina Faso.
“Partners should take advantage of this window, because counter-terrorism efforts in West Africa have been largely ineffective once the overt phase of the insurgency (e.g. local recruitment) is underway,” said Aneliese Bernard, director of Strategic Stabilization Advisors, a U.S.-based risk advisory group.
Efforts at cross border coordination in West Africa have been complicated by military coups in Mali, Burkina Faso and Guinea since 2020 that led to some temporary sanctions and border closures.
Frictions with juntas in Mali and Burkina Faso led France to withdraw thousands of troops from those countries over the past year, in what some analysts said could be a boost to Islamist groups.
(Writing and additional reporting by Edward McAllister, Editing by William Maclean)