By Krista Larson
MAO, Chad — Soldiers from Nigeria, Chad and two other countries are given their final exam: Free several actors portraying Western hostages from a mud-brick compound in this searing desert.
As top U.S. and African military brass watch from plastic chairs atop a sandy hill, the forces storm the building in a matter of minutes and the sound of gunfire erupts across the desert. Soon those playing the hostages are spirited away in a Toyota Hilux.
It's the culmination of the Flintlock exercise in Chad, a three-week U.S.-sponsored program designed to boost counter-terrorism efforts in this part of sub-Saharan Africa now being destabilized by Nigeria's Islamic extremists.
"We find this year's exercise both unique and relevant because as you know ... we are not far from the immediate threat of Boko Haram," U.S. Gen. David M. Rodriguez, army commander of U.S. Africa Command, told reporters.
The U.S. military and its Western partners have been conducting this training annually for nearly a decade, long before Boko Haram began exporting its attacks to Nigeria's neighbors Niger, Chad and Cameroon.
The deepening threat posed by Boko Haram though is clearly on the minds of many Flintlock participants. On Saturday, Boko Haram declared its allegiance to the Islamic State, the Middle East extremist group known for beheadings and burning one victim alive inside a cage.
And it's not just the African soldiers getting counter-terrorism training who are concerned about Boko Haram: When the sound of gunfire broke out during a training exercise in Agadez, Niger, civilians began screaming "Boko Haram! Boko Haram!" and fleeing in fear, military officials recounted.
Boko Haram has fought a nearly six-year insurgency against the Nigerian government, yet only recently began lashing out against neighboring countries. The attacks inside Niger, Cameroon and Chad come as those nations agreed to aid the Nigerian military in its fight against the extremists, whose stated goal is to establish an Islamic caliphate in northern Nigeria.
This year's program has brought together some 1,100 participants from more than 20 countries, including counter-terrorism forces not only from the U.S. but from other Western countries.
Flintlock has covered weapons and tactical training along with hostage scenarios. Another major focus was increasing communications between the countries under threat so they can more easily share information in real time.
"If we don't hunt Boko Haram, they will certainly come to us," said Col. Mahamane Laminou Sani, Niger's director of military training. "It's not just a threat to one country — it's a regional and international threat."
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