STUTTGART, Germany — U.S. special operations forces kicked off three weeks of counterterrorism drills Monday in a series of western African states — including Niger and Chad — despite recent strikes by the insurgent group Boko Haram.
“We haven’t canceled anything and our troops are fully prepared to handle anything,” said Bardha Azari, a spokeswoman for Special Operations Command Africa.
The U.S. military on Monday commenced its annual Operation Flintlock, U.S. Africa Command’s premier special operations exercise on the continent. The war games, which are intended to help a range of African militaries bolster their counterterrorism skills, come at a time of crises for several countries in the region.
In the past year, the Nigeria-based Boko Haram has steadily increased the intensity of its assaults, both within northern Nigeria and now stretching into border areas with neighboring states, such as Chad and Niger. This year, Chad is serving as the main host for the event, which includes stations in several other countries, including Niger, Nigeria, Cameroon and Tunisia. The exercise runs through March 9.
Last week, Boko Haram launched strikes inside Chad, marking possibly the first time Chad has been a direct target for the Islamic militants, whose aim is to overthrow Nigeria’s secular government and install a strict form of Sharia law.
Niger also has been targeted by militants in recent weeks. The government in Niger’s Diffa region has gone so far as to declare a state of emergency there.
For AFRICOM, exercises such as Flintlock are a key part of a strategy that aims to strengthen the capabilities of local forces to deal with regional threats such as Boko Haram. Chad, Niger and Cameroon are among the countries that have pledged to increase their operations against Boko Haram as part of a regional response.
As Boko Haram’s attacks have increased, refugees have been flooding into neighboring states. The continuing violence and a resulting refugee crisis — about 1 million Nigerians have been displaced by Boko Haram — have heightened concerns about the future stability of both Nigeria and impoverished neighboring states.
Last April, Boko Haram came to the world’s attention after kidnapping 200 school girls, which prompted a viral grass roots push for action in response, through the “Bring Back our Girls” social media campaign. That effort also led the U.S. to send in military advisers and surveillance drones to assist in an international manhunt for the missing girls.
However, Boko Haram has steadily increased its attacks and gained in strength. Estimates vary, but some experts believe the group could occupy has much as 20 percent of the country.