US weighs sending drones, military advisers to Burkina Faso after terror uptick
Posted February 25, 2019 6:52 p.m. EST
CNN — The US is considering sending additional military advisers as well as intelligence and surveillance assets such as drones to Burkina Faso as it faces a growing terrorist threat.
"We are conducting an assessment," Maj. Gen. Marcus Hicks, the head of US Special Operations Command Africa, told CNN on Monday on the sidelines of a major military exercise in the country.
He said the assessment was part of the ongoing Flintlock military exercise, which involves some 2,000 troops from African and Western militaries, in the country.
Hicks said the assessment was looking at "providing (intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance) over Burkina Faso and conducting an assessment of where we might make modest investments with the Burkinabe military to improve their capability and capacity."
"Here shortly I think we may have some recommendations to coordinate with the country team and the ambassador here and with (US Africa Command) to decide where to make future investments in response to the security situation," Hicks added.
Hicks said he did not think this would involve using armed drones.
Appeal for support
The comments came after a Burkinabe military official appealed for additional US support.
"We need equipment, military intelligence equipment," Col. K. Coulibaly, a Burkinabe officer, told CNN, saying such equipment would make it easier to track terrorists who often cross back and forth over the country's borders with Mali and Niger.
"More advisers is good but what we want is more equipment," Coulibaly added.
Asked if the US would send additional forces to help the country fend off the increase in violence, Col. Nathan Prussian, commander of the Army's 3rd Special Forces Group, told CNN, "Frankly, I'm waiting for the review of the requirements to be done. I'd say that there are ways to increase what we're doing with them without increasing our footprint."
"If they do request a US presence, then the administration feels that that's something that's in line with our interest, then that could also be an outcome," he added.
"We are in the period of reviewing what it is that they would ask us to help them with and how we might meet those needs," he said, noting that other partner countries could also boost their assistance.
The US was granted the authority to fly armed drones over Niger in 2017.
"The al-Qaeda aligned JNIM and the ISIS (Greater Sahara) threats have continued to increase in size and capability. ... We see evidence of that in these rapidly increasing numbers of attacks here in Burkina Faso," Hicks told CNN on Monday.
"Those organizations have not been checked and their growth has not been reversed yet," he warned.
Burkina Faso beset by violence
The northwest African country of Burkina Faso has been beset by extremist violence in recent months as Islamist terror groups expand their reach.
The number of violent incidents in the country linked to the local affiliates of al Qaeda and ISIS rose from 24 in 2017 to 136 in 2018, according to a report by the Africa Center for Strategic Studies.
Amid this increased violence, the approximately 2,000 troops from more than 30 African and Western countries traveled to Burkina Faso to participate in the major military exercise aimed at boosting regional cooperation, security and interoperability.
Yet despite the increase in terrorist activity, the Trump administration last year announced plans to cut the number of US troops in Africa by around 10%. One defense official told CNN that the planned reductions would eventually lower the number of US counterterrorism troops and their enablers who support operations by approximately 20%.
At the time of that announcement there were about 7,200 Department of Defense personnel assigned to Africa Command.
Senior defense officials had previously told CNN that the bulk of those reductions would be to forces in northwest and West Africa, as the US felt the presence of some 3,500 French troops in the region reduces the risk of any US drawdown.
Hicks says the reductions have had "minimal" impact.
Despite the reductions, the US continues to maintain a military presence in Burkina Faso, including small numbers of Special Operations Forces involved in training local counterterrorism and logistics units.
And while the number of troops in the region may fall, the US has sought to step up its security assistance to Burkina Faso.
A defense official familiar with the figures tells CNN the assistance to the country grew from less than $5 million in fiscal year 2015 to about $30 million in fiscal year 2018. There are fewer than 50 US military personnel stationed in Burkina Faso
"We believe that Burkina Faso are in a tough fight and the fight is getting tougher," Andrew Young, the US ambassador to Burkina Faso, told CNN.
"There's new tools that are available for us to grow our deep security relationship," he said, pointing to the recently announced cooperation between the country's military and the Washington, DC, National Guard as part of the State Partnership Program.
"The US assistance has been growing in response to the rise in security challenges here," Young added.
The increase in assistance has been aimed at boosting Burkina Faso in its capacity as a member of the G-5 Sahel regional force, a group representing regional militaries seeking to combat transnational terrorism.