Several people toil away – sweating in the process – next to a hut and a fake body in the middle of the Ivorian bush. A Toyota Hilux truck is parked nearby with its doors open. The group of students includes a policeman from Chad, a military officer from Burkina Faso and another from Senegal as well as an army major from Ghana.
Equipped with gloves, bags and markers, they try to gather as much evidence as possible. On the ground is a Kalashnikovs imitation, a computer, mobile phones, USB sticks and material for making an improvised explosive device. “A portion of the equipment comes from Gao and was salvaged during Operation Barkhane. The goal is to reproduce real-world situations,” said one of the French trainers, a lieutenant colonel who declined to be named.
The academy is setting its sights beyond the region, opening its training programmes to Central and East African countries like Kenya and Uganda.
For the 10 plus students taking part in this sensitive site exploitation (SSE) training programme, the time has come to put what they learned over the past week to the test. They have up to 45 minutes to gather all the evidence they can – in this case, evidence left behind by jihadist groups which they can later use to incriminate the militants in a court of law.
The instructors seem pleased with the performance of the students who are equally enthusiastic. One of the said: “The training has been really helpful and enlightening. Soon we’ll be able to apply these techniques in our home country and pass them on to colleagues.”
€65m price tag
The International Counter-Terrorism Academy (AILCT), based near the coastal town of Jacqueville, some 50km from Abidjan, has been holding training programmes every week since early this year.
Already up and running despite still being under construction, this one-of-a-kind centre in Africa was created to provide counter-terrorism training to defence and security forces on the continent.
The ambitious project was launched by French President Emmanuel Macron and Ivorian President Alassane Ouattara in October 2017, on the sidelines of the African Union-EU Summit in Abidjan.
A French diplomatic source said: “The idea, which came from France, was to meet the military training needs of Ivorians.” Paris views the centre as a tool that will help African states ensure “their own security” and, over time, allow France to reduce its involvement in security challenges there.
Ivorian Prime Minister Patrick Achi and French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian officially inaugurated the AILCT on 10 June during a special visit to Abidjan for the occasion. The opening is a significant milestone for an academy that almost never saw the light of day, owing to a lack of financing.
Construction officially broke ground in November 2018, with bulldozers galore and Le Drian on site to mark the project’s launch, accompanied by Côte d’Ivoire’s then defence minister, Hamed Bakayoko.
The coastal site had been fully cleared but construction of the facilities was slow. “The project was halted and almost scrapped entirely,” said one of the site managers. With the help of an initial €18m injection from France (out of an estimated total budget of €65m), the AILCT gradually took shape. The EU is expected to provide a second instalment of funds in 2022.
At the end of April, dozens of workers were busy getting everything ready (or nearly so) for the inauguration. Several white buildings were being completed around the parade grounds. On completion, the site will have a 100-seat auditorium, more than 15 classrooms, a multi-purpose room for distance learning, a library and an infirmary.
Also included is a mess hall with a capacity of 200 people and several dormitories accommodating up to 80 people. In the meantime, students, whose training fees are fully covered by the AILCT, are put up in nearby hotels.
A huge training ground
The academy holds several training programmes in collaboration with the French and Ivorian ministries of defence, justice and the interior. It seeks to train various counter-terrorism actors – special forces units, judges, forensic police and so on – in the field’s myriad aspects, to strengthen cooperation at all levels.
“We also aim to create a network of actors with ties to one another. To be effective, it’s extremely important that such actors know each other and work together,” one of the staff members said. The centre will also house a strategic research institute focused on furthering research in the counter-terrorism field and advocating an approach that isn’t solely security oriented.
The education and training of special forces units form the crux of the academy’s programmes. Whether affiliated with the army, the police or the gendarmerie, any security forces that fight terrorism can be trained at the AILCT, where seasoned instructors teach students technical expertise and operational modes of action.
The academy has various facilities, spread over a huge area several dozen hectares in size, for its special forces training programmes. In addition to the bush camp, there is a life-size replica of a Sahelian village – featuring houses, alleyways, a market and a granary – where students can experience simulated operations, arrests and visits from high-profile figures.
A bit further out, a ‘city environment’ containing a hotel and a helipad has been set up. For snipers, the premises also offer a shooting range. On the morning of my visit, the sound of bullets rang out as members of an Ivorian elite police unit, called Force de Recherche et d’Assistance de Police (FRAP), practised. “With a wide range of training capabilities, our centre will eventually be one of only a few in the world,” a trainer said.
On top of FRAP officers, several Ivorian special forces units have already trained at the academy, particularly those deployed in the country’s north, at the border with Burkina Faso and Mali. In recent months, the growing number of attacks carried out by jihadist groups in the region has sparked serious concerns among authorities and their French partners. Military posts have been targeted in a number of fatal incidents, including a base in Kafolo that was attacked twice, once in June 2020 and again in March 2021.
As jihadist groups continue to expand their reach in the Sahel and appear increasingly determined to go after coastal countries, AILCT officials believe that the most ‘pressing and immediate’ priority going forward is to train forces from the G5 Sahel and Gulf of Guinea countries.
The academy is setting its sights beyond the region, however. For instance, in line with its goal of becoming Africa’s counter-terrorism hub, it opened its training programmes to Central and East African countries like Kenya and Uganda.
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