Inside a huge U.S. military exercise in Africa to counter terrorism and Russia and China's growing influence

U.S. military, African soldiers train amid growing ISIS threat

Tamale, Ghana — On a dusty airport tarmac in the northern Ghanaian city of Tamale, military special operatives from across Africa move stealthily. Shots ring out as they converge on the airport and apprehend armed militants holding it hostage. 

It's not a real attack, but just one of the exercises of "Flintlock," the U.S. military's premier counterterrorism training event in Africa, which is now in its 20th year.

Special ops teams from the U.S. military's Africa Command, along with NATO allies, are conducting drills alongside soldiers from countries including Ghana, Ivory Coast, Chad, Mauritania, Nigeria, Libya and Morocco.

In the exercise CBS News witnessed, the elite forces were rescuing hostages from a simulated attack on an airport. It's a very real scenario in the vast North African region known as the Sahel, which is considered the epicenter of the global fight against ISIS and al Qaeda franchises.

A map shows the Sahel region stretching across the northern African continent. Getty/iStockphoto

The Sahel stretches from Mauritania in the west through Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger, all the way to Eritrea and Djibouti on Africa's east coast, and it is home to the fastest growing and most deadly terror groups in the world.

Ghana is one of the few countries in the region that has managed to dodge the rapid rise of violent extremism — blocking any potential incursions before they reach its borders.

Gen. Frank Tei of the Ghana Armed Forces told CBS News that was vital, because "once you allow terrorist activities in a particular country to fester and blossom, then that place can become a base from which a lot of other terrorist activities can spread across the globe."

That's exactly what the U.S. fears and is trying to help prevent.

The deputy AFRICOM commander, Lt. Gen. John Brennan, told CBS News that the Flintlock exercise is not only about training African forces to defend themselves and combat terrorism, however.

"We offer things that are meaningful in the long term — sharing democratic values, instilling rule of law," he said.

But that hasn't worked out so well over the past decade. There have been 11 coups in the Sahel alone over that period, and at least 14 leaders of those armed government overthrows were trained at Flintlock.

Brennan told CBS News the military tracks these leaders, and while there are strict rules of engagement with any country in which the government has been toppled by a military junta, "the hope is that you keep contact with the military partners and then you pull them away from military-led governments, which never last."

So how can the U.S. ensure the skills taught at events like Flintlock are not later weaponized and used to subvert democracy?  

Brennan is quick to point out that executing a coup is a political maneuver, not a military one. 

"We teach them how to protect their forces in combat and then conduct successful counterterrorism operations. That has nothing to do with overthrowing a government. It's just some of the people we've trained are military and they're involved in some of the coups," he said. "But history has shown … democracy ends up prevailing in a lot of countries."

Flintlock has expanded to include maritime training — including rappelling onto a moving warship hijacked by armed militants. American forces, along with Italian and Dutch soldiers, put African troops through their paces on a frigate off the Ghanaian coast. 

Soldiers rappel onto the deck of a moving warship during the annual U.S.-led Flintlock training exercises for African forces, hosted this year by Ghana, in late May 2024. CBS News

This aspect of the exercises is increasingly important, given that the Sahel region runs all the way to the Red Sea, where the Iran-backed Houthi rebels have been launching attacks targeting international shipping and U.S. naval vessels.

The annual Flintlock training operation — hosted this year by Ghana — could not have come at a more crucial time for the U.S. military, as American influence is arguably in deep decline across the vast African continent.

The U.S. is up against stiff competition. China offers Africa's national leaders trade agreements and Russia offers military aid, and all with very few strings attached. Washington, meanwhile, has been booted off one key front line in the fight against terrorism, after the more than 1,000 troops AFRICOM had stationed in Niger were ordered to leave the country by September following a coup there last year.

People, some carrying Russian flags, demonstrate in Niger's capital Niamey to show their support for the military rulers who seized power in a coup, on Aug. 3, 2023. Djibo Issifou/picture alliance via Getty Images

The U.S. has two military bases in Niger, including a drone command center in the city of Agadez that cost more than $110 million to set up.

Russia quickly stepped in to exploit the power vacuum created by the coup. Mercenaries from the former Wagner Group, now called Africa Corps and run by the Russian government, arrived in Niger in April.

In a scenario that was not long ago unimaginable, the Russian and American forces now occupy opp­osite sides of the same sprawling air base.

That has sent alarm bells ringing in Washington, and U.S. Ambassador to Ghana Virginia Palmer stressed to CBS News that African nations should understand that Russia's offer of security forces does not come completely without strings attached.

"It's important that our African partners understand that what the Russians are offering is, maybe regime protection — it's certainly not national security," Palmer said.

She said African countries do pay for the services offered by Moscow, and at a cost that "is extraordinarily high."­­

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Niger is rich in uranium, which can be used to make nuclear weapons. What Russia provides is military muscle in exchange for mineral wealth, but unlike the U.S., the deal comes with no potentially tricky human rights questions being asked.

"But time will tell that that decision is probably not a good one," Brennan said. "So, you don't feed your kids ice cream for dinner every night because they want it, right? You feed them vegetables, you feed them spinach, things that are good for them … instant gratification is probably not a recipe for success."

U.S. law restricts the provision of military aid to armed forces believed to be guilty of human rights abuses, but many leaders on the continent accuse Washington of having double standards — saying the U.S. withholds aid from some African nations while giving Israel billions of dollars despite global condemnation of its actions in the war in Gaza.

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It's a charge that Brennan disputes.

"I don't think there's a double standard," he told CBS News. "I can tell you our values and the people we do partner with — even after coups — we're still able to influence them."

African countries argue that it isn't just training they need, but resources and modern military equipment if they hope to counter rising extremism.

Brennan stressed that the U.S. carries with it the weight of the entire NATO alliance, unlike its competitors, but he conceded that Washington must "be able to resource our partners appropriately, and really expand the relationship with them ... to help make Africa prosperous, free and a partner of choice."

With Flintlock, the U.S. promises long-term investment in the African continent. But that long-view security strategy is competing for African partnerships amid a fast-growing terror threat, on a battlefield crowded with malign actors.


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