“TRAINING for terrorism is like having car insurance, you hope you have it, but never have to use it.” So says the FBI attaché to Senegal, shortly before blowing up a car. The dusty black Suburban SUV was in good condition: one officer looked sadly at the tyres, musing that they could still be useful. But by then the Feds had already filled its boot with 15kg of American military-grade explosive and topped the tank with petrol.
The explosives section of the Senegalese military-training camp is in a thorny valley tucked between low hills. Hawks swoop overhead and land on endless baobab trees. The parched terrain is strictly no-entry to humans, though herds of long-horned cattle and spry ruminants still roam there. As a former high-level American defence attaché suggests: “It’s best not to kick anything on the range.”
America, Senegal and Mauritania are co-hosting Flintlock, a month-long counterterrorism training exercise to which 30 militaries from the continent and beyond are invited. This year, the exercise includes the first-ever attempt to incorporate law enforcement agencies into the drills.
Senegalese police, gendarmes, lawyers and judges listen as FBI bomb experts and Anti-Terrorism Assistance (ATA) trainers explain post-blast procedure. The Americans insist that the hours and days after an attack are a priceless window for finding the evidence that prosecutors and intelligence analysts depend on, and that the smallest clues can be strewn for kilometres. They cite examples from the Oklahoma City and Boston bombings; the simulation involving the SUV is built from experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Victor Lloyd, the regional FBI attaché, says that lack of communication between intelligence bureaus allowed America to be attacked in 2001, and that exercises like these are about helping partners avoid that failure. Since then, the FBI has expanded its African footprint. In a real attack, as in Burkina Faso in January, American investigators are only a phone-call away.
Back in the camp, an FBI bomb technician in a Wisconsin T-shirt explains the thermal, pressure and fragmentation effects of an explosion, using a large, ripe watermelon with a blasting cap detonator at its core as an example. On his count the fruit disappears, demonstrating all three explosive effects at once as chunks of shell rain to the ground and the trainees’ new sunglasses are misted by a sweet burst of fresh watermelon juice a few seconds later. “That’s why we don’t handle blasting caps,” the grinning instructor says.
Simulating a spontaneous, accidental car explosion on schedule takes more planning. From a kilometer away, the SUV is barely visible in the rippling heat. After more than an hour, the count finally starts. The Suburban shatters, throwing the roof high into the air, and the bang arrives a full three seconds later. Identity cards and maps, hidden in the pockets of the mannequin terrorists inside the car, are designed to lead the participants to the next stage of the challenge. Thanks to God, the Senegalese say, this has never happened for real on their soil. But over the next hours and days, their agents will comb the ruins as if it had.