As extremist violence in West Africa’s Sahel region spreads south toward coastal states, the United States military has launched its annual military training exercise aimed at helping armies contain the jihadi threat.

Soldiers from several African countries are being trained in counter-insurgency tactics as part of the annual U.S.-led exercise known as Flintlock, that began this week.

Some 1,300 military personnel from 29 countries are training in Ghana and Ivory Coast, amid surging jihadi violence linked to al-Qaida and the Islamic State group that’s killed thousands, displaced millions and plunged countries into crises.

While most of the extremist activity is concentrated in West Africa’s inland Sahel region in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger, the violence is rapidly spreading to coastal states like Ghana, which is experiencing an upsurge in attacks by unidentified groups, which could have links to jihadis. Northern Ghana had just one violent incident connected to an unidentified armed group in 2021 but that figure rose dramatically to 19 in 2022, according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project.

This year’s U.S. Flintlock, a two-week event, is taking place amid growing anti-French sentiment in West Africa. Mali and Burkina Faso have ended their military cooperation with France, complaining that the French military presence over several years has done little to stem the growth of Jihadi violence. The military juntas ruling Mali and Burkina Faso are now getting military support from Russia, and Mali is also working with the private mercenary outfit, the Wagner Group.

The U.S. says it wants to help African countries stem the extremist threat before it spreads further across the the region.

“If the instability gets too broad or too bad then it opens the aperture for other malign actors to try and influence and try and corrupt the messaging to gain access to some of these governments,” said U.S. Col. Rob Zyla, deputy commander for Special Operations Command Africa.

While the U.S. isn’t expanding the number of its soldiers in West Africa, U.S special operations forces will continue to conduct joint trainings with partners based on their needs and requests, he said.

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