STUTTGART, Germany – Scanning their sectors from positions in the building ruins, the Senegalese soldiers received the signal from their unit leader to continue their advance to the objective. Weeks of training were now put to the test to navigate through this urban terrain to avoid detection as this special operations unit left their cover and concealment to another position for the final attack – a direct attack to overpower with stealth a confirmed terrorist cell which was holding several hostages. The West African leader gave signals and some of the commandos began moving. They were suddenly interrupted by the piercing bark of a French speaking instructor who was watching the sequence of events.
The Marine advisor from U.S. Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command had seen a critical error. He had to correct it immediately. The Malian commandos integrated with the Senegalese unit listened attentively. Mistakes could cost lives.
Conducted throughout the Trans-Saharan region of northern and western Africa – a geographical area slightly larger than the Continental United States – Flintlock 10 was a Special Operations Command Africa exercise designed to assemble and further develop counter-terrorism capabilities of select African Partner Nation and U.S. special operations forces. The overarching objective of the U.S. Africa Command-sponsored exercise is to develop military interoperability and enhance Partner Nation capabilities to better address and act upon trans-border concerns in the Maghreb and Sahel regions of Africa.
“While Flintlock 10 is now over and we begin to plan for the next exercise, it is only one of the many enduring activities planned and conducted under the auspices of the State Department led Trans-Sahara Counter Terrorism Partnership, or TSCTP,” said U.S. Army Col. Kurt S. Crytzer, commander of Joint Special Operations Task Force – Trans Sahara, SOCAFRICA’s command and control element for all Department of Defense activities in the region.
“The TSCTP evolved from the creation of the Pan Sahel Initiative in 2004 as a response to the increasing concerns of governments in the region to combat the trafficking of drugs, weapons and humans through the vast, desolate and sparsely populated areas in the region. The frequent and on-going kidnappings of hostages for ransom adversely impact the overall security environment and chances for economic development of these countries which are some of the poorest countries in the world.”
Crytzer said TSCTP is an interagency program capitalizing on the capacities of the State Department, the U.S. Agency for International Development and the Department of Defense as a holistic and long-term approach.
“Achieving peace, stability and prosperity in the region begins with ensuring that security forces are well trained and equipped to stop trafficking and deny sanctuary to terrorist cells,” he said.
Throughout the year, SOCAFRICA and JSOTF-TS plan and conduct more than 20 military training engagements throughout the region. Each one concentrates on further developing the counter terrorism capacities of designated units of the 10 African Partner Nations within the TSCTP.
Flintlock 10 relied on Marine Special Operation Teams to raise the objective bar by further developing counter-terrorism capacities of units in Senegal and Mali, two countries pivotal to security in the region. The rigorous initial assessment and training performed by the MARSOC teams covered the entire spectrum of crucial combat skills necessary to establish and hone critical counter-terrorism capacities to include individual and crew-served marksmanship, combat medical training, demolitions, urban movement and immediate action drills, close quarters battle skills, vehicle interdiction, and airborne operations. The training engagement’s final exercise was designed to implement all these skills in a scenario conducted in foul weather and over rigorous terrain for an advanced counter-terrorism training mission.
Four weeks is seemingly a short time to accomplish all this but the small and effective MARSOC teams from Kilo Company, 3rd Marine Special Operations Battalion, accomplished the daunting mission. Multi-tasking among all members of the team was essential.
As the team chief was going over the day’s events and assigning duties to each team member, huddled every evening for the daily synchronization meeting, the Marine Special Operations Company operations chief commented that “If you get there and things aren’t right, you have to make it right.”
He explained each team is responsible for the full spectrum of planning, coordination and execution of these missions.
“The team members are singularly responsible for all the coordination that is usually handled by a headquarters staff in a conventional force,” he said.
From Camp Lejeune, N.C., to northern Senegal and southern Mauritania, the MARSOC teams were entirely responsible for their own mission success -beginning with coordination meetings with U.S. Embassy officials and operational and tactical officers in the country, to planning and coordinating every phase of the mission to include training objectives, deployment, logistical support, communications systems, force protection, actually conducting the training, and finally to recovery and redeployment.
Team member’s language proficiencies, keenness in cultural nuances, savvy in interagency relationships and aptitude in working with European and African Partner Nations proved to be fundamental and decisive factors for a successful mission.
“It is an important factor that MARSOC is not new to the region,” said U.S. Marine Maj. Michael J. Butler, company commander for the two teams operating in Senegal and Mauritania. “These are cultures where long-term relationships help build trust and confidence, a significant platform in our shared quest to develop advanced counter terrorism capabilities.”
Butler explained that his team members are seasoned combat veterans and understand the aspects of asymmetrical warfare.
“Although enemy tactics may change, the response has to remain synchronized, swift and well executed,” he added.
The Senegalese and Malian special forces counter-terrorism units silently and carefully maneuvered to come into view of the objective, an abandoned two-story building with a tower providing the “enemy” a commanding view of the area. The African sun overhead was scorching. Using hand signals, the lieutenant sent two members of the reconnaissance element to establish an observation post well camouflaged in the thick brush a few hundred meters from the objective. The right time for this “kill” was still not at hand. As taught by the Marine Special Operations Team during Close Quarters Battle tactics, patience and discipline would soon pay off.
“Terrorism is something that plagues many parts of the world and Africa is not immune,” said U.S. Marine Lt. Col. Sean Conley, MARSOC liaison to SOCAFRICA. “We are not here to eradicate terrorism for Africans, but here to work with Africans as they attempt to deal with their own issues of violent extremism and the pillars which allow them to thrive. It is with our persistent engagements that we will in time truly make a difference.”