ST.-LOUIS, Senegal — On a hazy afternoon last week, about two dozen Senegalese commandos dressed in dark green camouflage uniforms landed their black Zodiac boats on a sandy beach and clambered ashore, their M-16 rifles at the ready.
Within minutes, they were walking stealthily in small groups through low scrub brush to sneak up on their target several hundred yards away: the village lair of an Algerian terrorist financier they had been hunting for days. Moments later, shots rang out and a hooded, handcuffed man was hustled from his hide-out to the awaiting boats.
In truth, the raid was simulated: The shots were blanks, the terrorist an American airman playing a bad guy. But the threat recreated in this training exercise at an abandoned beach resort here has become increasingly and unsettlingly real, Senegalese officials say.
Trying to stay a step ahead of terrorist and illicit smuggling networks that are pushing deeper into West Africa, Senegal created a new riverine commando squad last year to help patrol the Senegal River that delineates a 500-mile border with Mauritania to the north.
For the past two weeks, Dutch marines and American Green Berets have been training the handpicked Senegalese naval commandos in skills such as marksmanship, beach landings and counterterrorism operations.
“Whoever controls the river, controls this zone,” said Col. Henri Diouf, the Senegalese Army commander overseeing a large northern portion of his country. Colonel Diouf played down any immediate extremist threat in his territory, but he conceded that the surge of terrorist strikes in the region had surprised many security officials.
The training comes as Dakar, Senegal’s capital 120 miles south, is on edge, fearing it may be next after a recent string of regional Qaeda attacks terrorized luxury hotels in the capitals of Mali and Burkina Faso. And it signals a growing competition for recruits, attention and savagery on the continent between Al Qaeda and the Islamic State.
Just a few years ago, Senegal, where more than 90 percent of the population is Muslim, never would have imagined itself at risk from a terrorist attack, but that has changed. In recent months, Senegalese authorities have arrested four imams and other people suspected of having radical Islamic ideologies or close ties to Boko Haram, the Nigeria-based group that has pledged loyalty to the Islamic State.
Random police checks in the streets of Dakar have popped up, and Senegalese security forces are paying closer attention to the jihadist groups’ recruiting techniques and appeals, especially the Islamic State’s online propaganda. “It’s important for all of us to understand how to combat this threat,” said Lt. Col. Moussa Mboup, a Senegalese Army operations officer who had training in the United States and France.
Here in the country’s northwest, St.-Louis is the kind of place that could draw terrorists’ attention. With its fading colonial architecture and horse-drawn carts, West Africa’s first French settlement retains much of its old European charm. The arches of the bridge leading to the old town center — on an island in the mouth of the Senegal River — were designed in the late 19th century by Gustave Eiffel.
Today, the city of 175,000 people is no longer a thriving colonial capital, but it is a Unesco
Heritage site that is considered culturally significant and hosts an internationally renowned jazz festival every May, drawing tourists from Africa and Europe. St.-Louis also spills into a bustling, raucous fishing village, where scores of colorfully painted wooden boats, called pirogues, bring in a daily catch that is an economic lifeline.
In other words, it is just the kind of soft target frequented by foreigners, albeit somewhat off the beaten path, that extremists could strike someday, Senegalese and other Western officials said.
As part of the Pentagon’s Flintlock 2016 drills, an annual exercise in northwestern Africa, Senegal and Mauritania asked military planners this year to include riverine training for their forces. Mauritanian commandos are working with British trainers up river at Rosso on the Mauritanian side.
The exercise pairs Western trainers with African partners in different outposts scattered around Senegal and Mauritania. In Senegal, for instance, Estonian alpine experts are training Senegalese special forces; Italian commandos are working with troops from Chad; and Austrian special forces are also with Senegalese soldiers.
Dutch marines, who have been training with Senegalese naval forces since 2007, were a natural fit for the new riverine mission. The recent beach landing was the first phase in training that over the next two weeks will build up to a two-day simulated mission with a night landing — as the commandos would do in a real operation to preserve the element of surprise and allow more time to surveil the target.
For this initial phase, the Senegalese commandos used American satellite imagery to pinpoint the terrorist hide-out. They studied photographs of the terrorist leader to ensure they captured the right person.
Most important was the lesson that seizing the target was just half the mission. Returning him to base for interrogation, along with laptops, thumb drives, documents or other potentially valuable intelligence, was critical. “Home for tea and medals, as we call it,” said the Dutch marine commander, a 38-year veteran, who under the rules of the exercise could not be identified by name.
At the end of the drill, Colonel Diouf, the Senegalese zone commander, said the exercise showed how little separates fact and fiction.
“The threat is very near,” he said.