MODERATOR: Good afternoon to everyone from the U.S. Department of State’s Africa Regional Media Hub. I would like to welcome our participants dialing in from across the continent and thank all of you for joining this discussion. Today we are very pleased to be joined by Commander of Special Operations Command Africa Rear Admiral Jamie Sands. Rear Admiral Sands will discuss the security situation across Africa, give expert opinion about the threat of violent extremism, and highlight the Special Operations Exercise Flintlock, currently taking place in Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire. He joins us from Accra, Ghana.
We will begin today’s call with opening remarks from Rear Admiral Sands, then we will turn to your questions.
As a reminder, today’s call is on the record. And with that, I will turn it over to commander of Special Operations Command Africa, Rear Admiral Jamie Sands.
REAR ADMIRAL SANDS: Thank you for taking the time to speak with me today. As introduced, I’m Rear Admiral Jamie Sands, the commander of Special Operations Command Africa. I’d like to start by providing some context on what SOCAFRICA Africa is doing, specifically with Exercise Flintlock and our other efforts in Northwest Africa.
Flintlock is U.S. Africa Command’s premier and largest annual special operations exercise, which aims to strengthen key partner nation forces throughout Africa alongside the U.S. and international special operations force communities. Flintlock 2023 kicked off on March 1st with a week of academic training before transitioning to the command posts and tactical training exercises on March 7th. Training will end with a capstone on March 14th, followed by closing ceremonies on March 15th.
Flintlock has been hosted in a number of countries since 2005. This year we were honored by our cohosts, Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire, who have welcomed approximately 1,300 personnel from 29 nations. Both of these countries have proven to be great partners, and it has been exciting to grow the relationship with the Ghanian and Cote d’Ivoire militaries and law enforcement agencies.
We’re proud of the progress made toward expanding the scale and scope of the exercise. This iteration includes mentorship, where each African partner is paired with a NATO partner who guides the tactical training for three special operations task groups at three locations across Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire, as well as mentoring African partners through operational planning at the joint multinational headquarters at the British High Commission here in Accra.
Additionally, this year is the first time we have a site dedicated to maritime operations, providing better training – excuse me, providing training to better suit the requests and requirements of our African partners as they face threats along the coast. Flintlock brings relevant and sustainable value to our African partners as they continue to face challenges with illegal maritime activities that threaten the security and economic prosperity of West Africa.
On the public and civil affairs side, we are emphasizing the importance of an honest and accurate account of military and law enforcement activities in order to build and sustain trust with the citizens we serve.
Lastly, it’s important to highlight our sustained effort to enhance the realism of Flintlock through a focus of rule of law initiatives. Our planners and mentors took a multifaceted approach to create a realistic legal framework, working alongside law enforcement agencies and the civilian justice system. Understanding how intelligence, evidence collection, and (inaudible) procedures enable us to better incorporate law enforcement and military units ensures those taken into custody are properly tried in the justice system and further reinforces the rule of law.
Flintlock provides a critical training opportunity for special operations forces from the U.S., Africa, and international community. Together, we work to exchange best practices to address the security challenges in the Sahel and in coastal West Africa. A safer and more secure Africa will result in a more prosperous global society and security environment, and I’m standing by for questions.
MODERATOR: Thank you, Rear Admiral Sands. We will now begin the question and answer portion of today’s briefing. For those asking questions live, please click the raise hand button. Alternatively, you can type the question directly into the Q&A tab. Please type in your name, location, and affiliation along with your question. We ask that you limit yourself to one question related to the topic of today’s briefing: security situation across Africa, the threat of violent extremism on the continent, and the Special Operations Exercise Flintlock currently taking place in Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire.
We – our first question was submitted in advance. It was from Mr. Murtala Issah from Ghana Broadcasting Corporation. He asks, “How different is the current training from previous trainings, and what is the objective or objectives of this exercise?”
REAR ADMIRAL SANDS: Thank you for the question. To answer the first part of that, how is this exercise different from previous versions, I would say the operations this year will focus on multinational staff headquarters using the special operations training groups based in Accra, Ghana, along with other locations. The headquarters operations will test and strengthen our participants’ ability to collectively address regional security challenges through comprehensive scenarios involving command and control of simulated participants at various outstations. Concurrently, some Western and African partners will train together remotely with the African partner hosting. And I would emphasize this focus on command and control is a really significant addition and expansion of Flintlock.
Second part I would like to emphasize this year is we’re really focused on incorporating a full legal framework into our training. The rule of law initiatives included a legal framework working group which drafted Flintlock’s notional, operational, and legal authorities; law of war, detainee treatment, and coordinated sensitive site exploitation training; and incorporated the host nations’ civil law enforcement and prosecutal [sic] teams into our C2 organizations and operational planning teams.
So a real expansion of focus on command and control, not just tactical operations, and then a deliberate and thorough incorporation of rule of law and – really which is not – it is more of an expansion of both of those things from previous exercises, so a real positive growth this year.
MODERATOR: Great, thank you. Next I would like to open the line for Pearl Matibe from defenceWeb.
QUESTION: Thank you so much, Admiral, for the opening remarks at the top. So Admiral, not all of our audiences, right, are familiar with military speak, if you will. Could you maybe speak to a couple of things that might make it easier for them to understand the impact of Flintlock on African audiences? You mentioned quite rightly the 1,900 participants. Of these 1,900, how many were from Cote d’Ivoire, how many were from Ghana, so that those populations understand what benefit it is to them?
And then also you mentioned NATO pairing. Are you able to share which country was paired with Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana, or could you speak to that a little bit more?
And could you explain terms I might understand but I’d like you to articulate to our audiences? Special operations – what does that mean? Command and control – what does that mean in layman’s terms? Thank you so much.
REAR ADMIRAL SANDS: Thank you very much. It’s really an excellent question. Just to clarify on the numbers of participants, it’s 1,300, 1-3-0-0, 1,300 participants. I’m pulling up just to make sure I give the accurate reflection of exactly how many from each country, especially Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire, that I’ll – so I’ll give you those numbers, and then we’ll also talk about how many or what type and who exactly is working with Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire from our European allies.
I think I’d like to start if I could, though, with your excellent question about what’s special operations and what is C2, so for – in terms that folks not familiar with the military can understand. So special operations is really a general term that is applied to military operations that are done by typically small units that involve more specialized equipment, more specialized and a higher level of training, and more advanced techniques that we would apply to go against more difficult problem sets or specific military challenges. And so that’s kind of what special operations does.
We typically enable and are enabled by conventional forces, so think regular armies or navies, the Marine Corps, and we work hand in hand with the – what we call the joint force in the United States and really abroad. That means the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, other – the Air Force – all working together to solve common challenges.
Let me go back you on now – in Ghana, Ghanaians, we have approximately 250 Ghanaians participating in the exercise, actual soldiers, and then in Cote d’Ivoire we have about 165, roughly. Our partners, the Dutch, are – have the lead in a partnership with Ghana, and also are really driving our efforts in leading our integration with Cote d’Ivoire.
MODERATOR: Thank you.
REAR ADMIRAL SANDS: I’m sorry —
MODERATOR: Oh, sorry, yeah.
REAR ADMIRAL SANDS: And the last part of her question, the C2.
MODERATOR: Oh, sorry.
REAR ADMIRAL SANDS: Yeah, sorry about that. So C2 is – that’s a military acronym. It just means command and control. So a good way to describe it is an air traffic controller tower where you’re controlling the movement of aircraft landing and taking off and synchronizing it; that’s a good example of command and control, and during military operations where senior commanders and staffs will do that for the forces in the field. And so that could be a crisis where we have to insert some form of a vehicle to come take out a wounded person or where we’re going to put another asset in. So essentially, it’s the synchronization of tactical operations. And thank you for the excellent question.
MODERATOR: Sorry about that. Thank you very much. We have a question in the chat that came in from Sebastien Nemeth from Radio France International, and he asks: “What current threats are you trying to tackle or to prepare African partners against by organizing the Flintlock operation with Ghana and Ivory Coast? Do you suggest terrorism, piracy?” So if you could answer. Thank you.
REAR ADMIRAL SANDS: Thank you for that question. We’re really focused on the threats posed to our African partners in the west, and I’d like to focus especially on two specific threats. It’s really the threat of al-Qaida’s continued expansion through the Sahel, and the concern is that al-Qaida will continue to grow and expand through the Sahel and threaten the coastal West Africa countries, our partners here. And so that’s a primary focus area or threat that we’re trying to address.
The second is operations and threats coming from the Gulf of Guinea – everything from illegal, unregulated fishing to more common threats of piracy and a lack of maritime security in the Gulf of Guinea. And so what Flintlock does is we work to build interoperability with our African partners. We listen to our partners and what they’re concerned about, and that’s how we actually frame the threats that we try and tackle and train to in Flintlock.
MODERATOR: Great, thank you very much. There is a question that came in advance from Patrick Markey of Agence France Presse in Nigeria, and it’s somewhat similar to what Ruud Elmendorp from De Telegraaf, Nairobi asked. He asks – actually, he just brought it – “How do you assess the current threat to Gulf of Guinea coastal nations for militant groups operating in Burkina Faso? And how has that threat expanded with the loss of control of parts of Burkina Faso in the last months?” And somewhat similar, Ruud asks: “What lessons were learned in relation to the rising extremism in the Sahel?” So we’re looking at sort of an extremism issue in two different parts. If you could answer that, please. Thank you.
REAR ADMIRAL SANDS: No, absolutely. I think, to try and be concise, I am concerned about what we see as a continued expansion of violent extremist organizations in the Sahel. Most concerning is the continued expansion of al-Qaida through the Sahel as they move really from north to south and threaten countries on – in the east and west as well.
We also are concerned about what we see as a continued activity from ISIS in the eastern side of the Sahel. And so I think what we have to – in the Sahel right now is we have multiple violent extremist organizations that threaten the safety and security and prosperity of that region. And so as the – the questions are, as you highlighted, related, and I think they get right to the problem that we’re trying to address.
This is compounded, I think, to an extent by the organization Wagner, which is a Russian paramilitary organization. Wagner makes countries less stable and less secure. They’re a predatory and opportunistic organization that runs counter to a safe, stable, and secure Africa. And so we see them maneuvering in the space, and the chaos caused by these VEOs to the north.
MODERATOR: Thank you. Next we’d like a live question from Mr. Simon Ateba.
QUESTION: Yes, thank you for taking my question. This is Simon Ateba, Today News Africa in Washington. I don’t know if you answered this question at the top. Why were those two countries, Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire, selected? And these exercises, do they have anything to do with China or Russia in Africa? Thank you.
REAR ADMIRAL SANDS: Thank you, Simon. We actually coordinate partner participation and actually the exercise location with U.S. State Department and the host nations. The ultimate decision on where we execute Flintlock is really a policy decision based on a variety of factors. Obviously, we’re focused and we have – we continue to focus Flintlock in coastal West Africa, and really the reason we continue to focus in coastal West Africa is to continue to build interoperability with our African partners and to listen to our partners, their concerns, and to help them better prepare to address the threats that they face.
MODERATOR: Thank you. Our next question is in the chat from Katarina Höije from The Independent in Cote d’Ivoire, and she asks: “What role does a country like Niger play security-wise considering the move where the training is held from the Sahel to coastal countries? What does the U.S.-Niger military collaboration look like today and in the long term?”
REAR ADMIRAL SANDS: Thank you for that question. We have – the U.S. and Nigerien special operations forces have really began partnering back in 2013 following a Status of Forces Agreement. What we’ve seen is groups like the Nigerien special operations forces really have proven effective when properly supported by their own governments in the counter-VEO fight. I’m encouraged by what I see from Nigerien special operations and the Government of Niger. They are focused on the threat. They have an effective force. They continue to build that force, to train that force, and they’re exceptional partners. We have good interoperability with Nigerien SOF, and we are also seeing Niger really evolve into a security exporter in the region, whether that’s providing training, especially when it comes to providing training to some of their other African partners.
MODERATOR: Thank you. Next is – there are two questions that are, again, somewhat related. Gabe Joselow from NBC News in the UK asked: “What is your assessment of Russia’s growing military presence in Central and West Africa, and does the presence affect current or future U.S. military operations?” And Anne Soy from BBC Nairobi also pursued that, asking about your prognosis of the extremism situation in the Sahel, especially given the departure of – it says “U.S. and allied troops from Mali and more recently Burkina Faso. How is the presence of the Wagner Group impacting anti-extremist operations and coordination in the region?”
REAR ADMIRAL SANDS: Thank you for those questions. Wagner and the presence of this – of this opportunistic business, really coordinating activities with Russia, is a serious concern. As I said once before – I want to repeat myself just to make sure the position is clear – we see Wagner and their operations as making these countries less stable and less secure. They are taking advantage of a lack of security in order to really gain efforts and to raise money for their organization that negatively impacts the societies and the citizens that they interact with. Their presence and their activities run counter to a safe, stable, and secure Africa.
There’s a second part I —
MODERATOR: Oh, I’m sorry. Go ahead.
REAR ADMIRAL SANDS: Yeah, I’ll go to address the second part of the question. Sorry about that. There’s a question about the concern over the expansion of violent extremist organizations. And what – again, we see al-Qaida expanding in the Sahel. Islamic State West Africa is consolidating after displacing Boko Haram in the vicinity of the Lake Chad Basin, and other violent extremist and criminal groups threaten stability across the continent. As I mentioned, Wagner is opportunistic and maneuvering through this space and in their own activities making the area less secure. So I think it’s a combination now of threats that our partners in the Sahel are facing that has us very concerned about the way ahead.
MODERATOR: Thank you. Just a super short follow-up from Mr. Nemeth. He asked – “Does the rear admiral think African partners are ready to tackle the threats he mentioned, and what improvements are needed?” This was a follow-up to his question about the training itself, the Flintlock training.
REAR ADMIRAL SANDS: The answer is absolutely. We continue to be really impressed and proud to work with our African partners. They have a real capability, and maybe most of all what we’re not seeing is – we’re seeing these countries – they’re not asking for the United States or European nations to come in and solve their problems. They’re asking us to help them. They’re in the lead. They have will. They know what threat they’re facing and they’re committed to addressing it. So absolutely they have the capability, and we continue to work to build interoperability with them, to listen to them, and to support them in their efforts to increase security in the area.
We also continue to conduct exercises outside of Flintlock which we call Joint Combined Exercises for training, where we exchange knowledge, tactics, and procedures as they continue to advance their own capability.
MODERATOR: Thank you. We have a question in the chat from Christina Peters of the German Press Agency DPA in Dakar. She asked: “How endangered are the states in coastal West Africa by the expansion of violent extremism you talked about? How resilient would you consider their skills of preventing expansion?”
REAR ADMIRAL SANDS: Now, that’s a great question and it really gets to the root of why Flintlock and why are we doing these types of exercises. Why are we building interoperability between NATO Allies and African partners? Why are we focused in this region? It really is to prepare for the potential of VEO expansion into coastal West Africa. These partners in coastal West Africa, our partners in coastal West Africa, are resilient. They’re capable and they’re absolutely aware of the threat. And so I’m confident in their ability to stem the threat and be prepared to address it as it comes perhaps from the north.
MODERATOR: Thank you. Our next question, we’ll go live to Nick Turse of The Intercept.
QUESTION: Admiral Sands, thanks for taking questions today. Last year you told me that SOCAFRICA training always focuses on the importance of democracy and civilian oversight, but former Flintlock attendees have conducted at least five coups since 2015. Did you take any specific steps to ensure that Flintlock 2023 attendees don’t do the same? And if so, what were these?
REAR ADMIRAL SANDS: Yes, Nick – again, thanks for the question and hello. This is a concern, and really during any – and a consideration with any partner in any training or engagement. Flintlock, as I’ve said, really focuses on respecting the rule of law, respecting and learning the law of armed conflict, and on civil control over the military. As we work with our partners, we emphasize the importance of our shared values. This really has been consistent and we continue to focus on this and really increase our focus on this.
Specifically as you asked, Nick, what – what have we done now, how is it different this year, I would say that while we always focus on the rule of law, we’ve really developed a much more thorough plan and integration for effects on that. So we’re looking not just at our coordination with our partners on rule of law but also our coordination with our partners on integration with the police forces, on integration with a whole-of-government approach to tackling some of these challenges.
But I think that we remain, obviously, concerned. We remain focused and committed to partners with shared values to the United States and our allies.
MODERATOR: Thank you. We have time for one last question. I would like to go to Kemi Osukoya from the African Bazaar Magazine. Kemi, are you with us? Okay, there seems to be a problem with that line. Can we go to Pearl Matibe from defenceWeb? Thank you. Pearl, are you there?
QUESTION: Thank you. Yeah, sorry, the mute was a little delayed there. Thank you so much for taking my question again here.
So Admiral, realizing of course that security in both North and West Africa is a cross-border regional challenge for you, I’m sure, and for your African partners, I wonder: Could you speak to what impact you’re seeing, or assessing rather, from Middle Eastern actors who have influence over the extremist situation proliferating in countries in West and North Africa? Could you speak to that, and are there any elements of capacitating that were dealt with in Flintlock in general, or just maybe just speak to that situation?
REAR ADMIRAL SANDS: Thanks, Pearl. That’s a really interesting question. We really don’t – now, as I said, one of the VEO organizations that we see in the Sahel, expanding in the Sahel, is a offshoot of al-Qaida. And so al-Qaida is a centrally controlled organization, so we can assume that they’re getting direction and perhaps resources from other areas on the planet. But I don’t – we’re really not seeing much in the way of direct coordination between the other organizations or terrorist organizations in the Middle East and the groups operating in the Sahel. So I think it’s – it is likely that there is some communication and coordination, but we’re not really seeing that direct hand from the Middle East in the activities in West Africa.
MODERATOR: Great, thank you very much. That’s all the time we have. Rear Admiral Sands, did you have any final words for journalists?
REAR ADMIRAL SANDS: I guess to close I really am grateful for the time you’re taking to ask questions and to spend time with me here and to ideally better understand the why behind what we’re doing. And again, I’m really proud to be here, proud to be working with our African partners, our European allies, to build interoperability, to listen to our partners, and to go together to address shared threats. Thank you.
MODERATOR: Thank you. That concludes today’s briefing. I would like to thank Commander of Special Operations Command Africa Read Admiral Jamie Sands for joining us and thank all the journalists for participating. If you have any questions about today’s briefing, you may contact the Africa Regional Media Hub at AFMediaHub@state.gov. Thank you.
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