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Special operations in Africa task force changes commanders

Marine Corps Col. George Bristol, right, outgoing commander of Joint Special Operations Task Force-Trans Sahara, is presented with a shadow box with awards and insignias from his career as a retirement gift during a change of command ceremony on Kelley Barracks, in Stuttgart, Germany, on March 13, 2013.

STUTTGART, Germany — Marine Corps Col. George Bristol, a trained sniper and martial arts master who for the past year has overseen a U.S. special operations task force in Africa, had a message for his troops before heading off to retirement.

“An evil” has descended on Africa, Bristol said. “It is on us to stomp it out.”

For all the talk of the U.S. military’s pivot to the Pacific, it is Africa and the growing threat posed by Islamic militant groups there that now has the attention of the special operations community.

On Wednesday, Bristol relinquished command of Joint Special Operations Task Force-Trans Sahara, which is at the center of the military’s fight against extremist groups operating across the Sahel. Air Force Col. Kenneth G. Sipperly assumed command of the task force during a ceremony at Africa Command headquarters in Stuttgart.

“Africa is not the next ridgeline,” Bristol said in an interview before Wednesday’s ceremony. “It is where the enemy is going now. And we are going to do something about it.”

Rear Adm. Brian Losey, commander of Special Operations Command Africa, which oversees the Trans Sahara task force, credited Bristol with shepherding the understaffed task force through a tumultuous year, dealing with “a number of crises that didn’t quite hit the press,” suggesting not all were as high-profile as the situation in Mali that sparked a French intervention.

Over the past two years, AFRICOM has been steadily building up its forces to deal with emerging terror threats in the Horn of Africa, Libya, Algeria, Nigeria and Mali.

A Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force, tailored for crisis response missions, is slated to join the command, and, last week, AFRICOM commander Gen. Carter Ham said there also are plans to strategically position other operators at separate locations on the continent.

AFRICOM’s task force in the Sahara has two jobs, Bristol said: countering violent extremist groups and building the capabilities of regional militaries to provide for their own security.

“I think special operations is always a good answer,” Bristol said in the interview. “SOF provides a small footprint and a big bang for the buck. With a small number of people you can get a look at where a country is headed.”

At the ceremony, Sipperly said he would press forward with the task force’s efforts to build up the fighting capabilities of African militaries.

“We will not fail the customer,” Sipperly said.

Bristol, who was in Mauritania just a few days ago as AFRICOM wrapped up its annual Flintlock exercise with some 1,000 troops from 18 nations, said such training efforts are key to countering extremist groups.

African forces “will be on their way to Mali and other places,” Bristol said.

Bristol spent 18 of his 38 years in the Marines overseas, including more than 60 months in combat, with tours in Afghanistan, Iraq, Bosnia and Somalia. Perhaps best known within the Marine Corps for creating its martial arts training program, Bristol has spent much of his time working alongside special operators.

“It’s just starting and it is hard work,” Bristol said of the fight against extremists in Africa. “This time they think they can rest in ungoverned spaces. We can’t let them.”

vandiver.john@stripes.com

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