Canadian special forces from Petawawa headed to Africa next month for counter-terrorism exercise

As many as 100 soldiers, most of them special forces from Petawawa, will be heading to Senegal to conduct counter-terrorism training for African commandos.

The training comes in the aftermath of the killings of six Canadians in Burkina Faso and as western nations try to shore up African militaries to battle Islamic extremists.

Maj. Steve Hawken, a spokesman for the Canadian Special Operations Forces Command, said the military personnel are taking part in Exercise Flintlock, an annual “counter-terrorism capacity building” event that provides troops from African nations with a variety of skills.

Those range from shooting to communications, mission planning and to first aid, and providing medical aid and support to civilian populations.

More than 1,700 military personnel from a variety of western and African nations are expected to participate in the U.S.-led Exercise Flintlock.

Canada’s participation was set up before the Burkina Faso attack, but military officers have noted that the exercise is taking on greater importance as al-Qaida and other extremist groups try to expand their influence in Africa.

Twenty-eight people died and 54 were injured when gunmen linked to al-Qaida seized hostages at a hotel and attacked a nearby café in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso’s capital city, on Jan. 15.

Among the dead at the hotel were six Quebecers, including a family of four.

Special forces from Algeria, Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa, Canada, Tunisia, Italy, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, United Kingdom, and the United States have taken part in previous Flintlock exercises. It is unclear at this point which countries will be attending this year.

Hawken said members of the RCAF, Canadian Forces medical staff, and special forces will be taking part. They will be working with troops from Niger, he added.

Flintlock is scheduled to start Feb. 8 and run until near the end of that month.

Last year Canadian special forces involved in Flintlock training were pulled out of a town in Niger after a battle broke out between government forces there and Boko Haram, an Islamist extremist group.

The Canadians were training with Niger soldiers on the outskirts of the town of Diffa when members of the jihadist group launched attacks in the centre of the municipality. The Canadians were not involved in combat.

Canada’s involvement in Exercise Flintlock has continued to grow over the years. It first contributed 14 soldiers from the Canadian Special Operations Regiment, based in Petawawa, to Flintlock in 2011. Those troops trained members of Mali’s military in Senegal that year.

The Flintlock exercises are co-ordinated by the U.S. Africa Command.

A small number of troops from that command supported Burkina Faso’s military in dealing with the recent al-Qaida attack in Ouagadougou. U.S. troops were primarily advising and providing information to the response forces from Burkina Faso as well as to the French military as they dealt with the siege at the hotel, according to an Africa Command spokesman.

Burkina Faso soldiers and French special forces ended the attack after storming the luxury Spendid Hotel. They killed the gunmen and freed at least 126 hostages.

Al-Qaida’s North Africa affiliate, known as AQIM, claimed responsibility for the attack.

AQIM traces its roots to Islamic insurgents fighting the Algerian government. The insurgents have since become associated with al-Qaida and have branched out to conduct attacks in other countries in the region, as well as kidnapping westerners.

Canadian diplomats Robert Fowler and Louis Guay were held by AQIM after they were kidnapped in December 2008. They were released 130 days later amid claims by government officials in Mali that four AQIM detainees were set free in return.

AQIM helps finance its operations through kidnappings and weapons and drug smuggling.


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