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U.S. reducing military role in Africa just as terror threat mounts

Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso — In the vast choking dustlands of West Africa's Sahel region, countries like Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger are fighting ISIS and al Qaeda on multiple fronts. Every year the U.S. military hosts its "Flintlock" counter-terrorism training exercises with regional forces, to help them win the battles. But CBS News correspondent Debora Patta reports that now, just as the fight is heating up, the U.S. is shrinking its presence in the region.

This year the U.S. training drills were held in Burkina Faso, where there have been more than 230 terrorist attacks in just over three years — and it's getting worse. Burkina Faso has become an epicenter for violent extremists, bolstered by trained jihadists returning from Iraq and Syria. This year's Flintlock training came at a crucial time.

Major General Marcus Hicks told CBS News the focus on ISIS in Syria and Iraq has created an opportunity for other terror groups.

"The spectacular rise of ISIS has garnered so much international attention that al Qaeda has been able to take advantage of the attention being paid to the Middle East, while they quietly build infrastructure and support here in Africa," he told Patta. "That concerns many of us, because I think they (al Qaeda) have a more sophisticated and deliberate long term strategy."

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U.S. Special Forces take part in the 2019 "Flintlock" anti-terrorism training exercises with West African soldiers in Burkina Faso. CBS News

Capt. Tim, one of the U.S. trainers, whose full identity couldn't be revealed for safety reasons, told Patta there is "a stream of trained fighters who are coming from that region, they need someplace to go."

With that backdrop, this year's Flintlock training — exercises which have been going for 15 years — took on a renewed sense of urgency. But to the alarm of many West African governments, while violence is surging in the region the U.S. is reducing its footprint in Africa. The Trump administration has already trimmed the U.S. troop presence in Africa, under the auspices of the U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) by 10 percent. Another cut of a similar size is in the works and expected by summer 2020.

The decision has been met with grim resignation by African troops in the region.

"We will just continue fighting with the small means we have," Nigerien commander Rachid Naonja told Patta.

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That fight hasn't always ended well. U.S. soldiers trained their African counterparts this year in how to combat an ambush that bears a striking similarity to the 2017 Tonga Tonga massacre by ISIS militants in Niger in which four American soldiers were killed alongside partnered Nigerien forces.

"If we can try and eliminate the threat here, now, while it's small, then it won't spread to Europe, it won't spread to the United States eventually," Capt. Tim told CBS News.

Publicly, U.S. and West African soldiers here are putting on a brave face over the U.S. draw-down, but privately some questioned why the U.S. was pulling back just as the fight was getting tougher.