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Nigerien army Pvt. Namane Idi takes target practice with a .50-caliber machine gun while a Green Beret from the Alabama-based 20th Special Forces Group supervises. The Green Beret is part of Team Niger, participating in the Flintlock 05 exercise in which U.S. troops are training armies from northern Africa.

Nigerien army Pvt. Namane Idi takes target practice with a .50-caliber machine gun while a Green Beret from the Alabama-based 20th Special Forces Group supervises. The Green Beret is part of Team Niger, participating in the Flintlock 05 exercise in which U.S. troops are training armies from northern Africa. (Charlie Coon / S&S)

Nigerien army Pvt. Namane Idi takes target practice with a .50-caliber machine gun while a Green Beret from the Alabama-based 20th Special Forces Group supervises. The Green Beret is part of Team Niger, participating in the Flintlock 05 exercise in which U.S. troops are training armies from northern Africa.

Nigerien army Pvt. Namane Idi takes target practice with a .50-caliber machine gun while a Green Beret from the Alabama-based 20th Special Forces Group supervises. The Green Beret is part of Team Niger, participating in the Flintlock 05 exercise in which U.S. troops are training armies from northern Africa. (Charlie Coon / S&S)

Nigerien army Sgt. Mahamadou Rai Nassara, of the 424th Motorized Rifle Company, fires a .50-caliber machine gun Friday from the back of a truck during range practice in Tahoua, Niger.

Nigerien army Sgt. Mahamadou Rai Nassara, of the 424th Motorized Rifle Company, fires a .50-caliber machine gun Friday from the back of a truck during range practice in Tahoua, Niger. (Charlie Coon / S&S)

A Nigerien soldier fires a .50-caliber machine gun Friday from the back of a truck.

A Nigerien soldier fires a .50-caliber machine gun Friday from the back of a truck. (Charlie Coon / S&S)

Nigerien soldiers load 7.62 mm bullets into their magazines Friday before the live-fire exercise.

Nigerien soldiers load 7.62 mm bullets into their magazines Friday before the live-fire exercise. (Charlie Coon / S&S)

TAHOUA, Niger — They’d been training for it, and when the real thing came the soldiers attacked with deadliness.

Flanks of troops advanced left and right, raised rifles to shoulders, and pumped bullets into imagined enemies.

Shell casings flew out the sides of old AK-47s. Side by side, soldiers ripped away cartridges that once contained 30 bullets, clicked fresh cartridges into their weapons, and then killed some more.

They unleashed much lead on Friday, but that was not the point. Maybe there would have been dead enemies up ahead, but the red puffs of dirt that rose from the hillside — left, right and above the kill zone — showed that some were more interested in shooting than killing.

“Make the correction!” Christopher, the Green Beret team leader, ordered his troops. “Tell them to get behind their [expletive] sights!”

Lead doesn’t grow on trees, especially in Niger, one of the hottest, driest and poorest countries on earth. So American soldiers are training the Nigerien army to make the most of what it’s got.

The drill was part of Flintlock 05, an exercise coordinated by the U.S. European Command that currently has U.S. troops in Niger and four other northern African countries. The Americans are training African armies to secure their countries and kill “transnational” extremists, such as members of the Algeria’s Salafist Group for Call and Combat, who travel through and seek refuge in the Sahara desert.

After a week of drilling, on Friday the Nigeriens maneuvered and attacked targets using real bullets. They burned through tens of thousands of rounds in the morning, and when the first platoon finished its assault, they piled empty cartridges into the backs of white Toyota pickup trucks.

A lot of them lost their poise and fired in haste and Chris, a Green Beret staff sergeant, knew why.

“They’re so caught up in the moment,” Chris said. “They just need to slow down.”

“Slow down, take a breath, make it count,” added John, another staff sergeant.

At mid-morning, Lt. Col. Amadou Madougou Wonkoye, who commands about 1,000 troops in western Niger, and his aides arrived at the practice range.

Christopher, the team leader and a captain, whispered something to his men. He then barked, “Ah-tennn- hut!” His Green Berets snapped to attention, though one got the feeling they weren’t used to it while in the field. But Amadou rated the respect, the team leader decided, and the host nation rated the courtesy.

The Nigeriens attacked with the earplug-shaking big guns in the afternoon — .50-caliber crew-served machine guns, smaller machine guns called PKMs, and 40 mm flying grenades called M-203s, among others. The Nigeriens have their own guns, but they don’t own large quantities of ammo. The Americans brought that.

The U.S. soldiers, from the Stuttgart, Germany-based 1st Battalion, 10th Special Forces Group, and the Alabama-based 20th SFG, weren’t teaching anything new. Bullets should hit their marks, and sergeants should lead their men.

“That’s the model we’ve used since the Revolutionary War,” said Patrick, a Green Beret master sergeant. “It frees up the officers and the leadership to control the battle, and the [noncommissioned officers] can control the men.”

“I’m happy to shoot from it,” Sgt. Daritoune said through an interpreter, adding that his aim was “excellent.”

“You can bring a moving car, and I can shoot it. The passengers and the car would all be dead together.”

For Pvt. Mohamadou Abdoulaye, the bounty of ammunition was like a gift from God, he said.

“When I shoot, I feel myself like I am drumming to music,” Abdoulaye said. “I am so happy as a soldier to do it again.”

Between bursts from the .50-calibers, the Nigerien soldiers whooped and chattered in French and their native Hausa. During a prolonged burst they’d erupt: “Ahh-hoooooo!”

Their word for “Yee-haaaaaa!”


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