By Emma Farge
THIES, Senegal (Reuters) - Ahead of a drill to teach West African police about forensics by blowing up a car filled with crash test dummies posing as suicide bombers, FBI agents met an unexpected question: why bother to investigate if the militants are already dead?
The query from a Senegalese officer demonstrates the steep learning curve for the region's security forces if they are to keep pace with increasingly brazen and sophisticated jihadists moving in from the north-central Sahara and possibly Libya.
Since Islamic State's entry into Libya last year, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has responded with a series of attacks to bolster its claim of primacy in the western Sahara.
Western governments worry the Islamic State presence in Africa may lead to ties with West Africa's Boko Haram, which pledged allegiance to the group last year, and could herald a drive south. Some al Qaeda-linked brigades also appear to be merging.
Reflecting the changing threat and after major attacks in the last four months in Mali and Burkina Faso in which at least 50 people, including many Westerners, were killed, this year's annual "Flintlock" counter-terrorism exercises have included police training for the first time.
Recent West African efforts have revealed blunders, security sources say.
So many people touched an assault rifle used by militants in the Bamako attack, for example, that it was impossible to take fingerprints.
In January, an AQIM death row fugitive who fled Mauritania via Senegal was able to travel 500 km (300 miles) before being stopped in Guinea, acquiring arms and accomplices on the way, thanks in part to bungled communication between Senegalese and Mauritanian officials, a Senegalese security source said.
U.S. experts say three main shortfalls need to be addressed: intelligence, cross-border cooperation and reaction times.
"In most African countries the capacity to respond to these sorts of incidents is middle-of-the-road at best," said a senior U.S. military officer, who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of his remarks.
"But they are very eager to learn."
Security experts report a growing sophistication since last year in the tactics and weaponry used by AQIM and associated groups, which they say may be born of competition with Islamic State.
An armored suicide truck, albeit a makeshift one, was used in an attack on a U.N. base in Kidal in northern Mali that killed seven peacekeepers this month.
Boko Haram suicide vests now often include hidden cell phones so they can be remotely detonated and increasingly resemble those used in the Middle East, weapons experts say.
Until last year, desert militants, aiming by moonlight, had fired rockets from far away and mostly missed their targets.
As the threat grows, there are signs the U.S. is increasing its commitments.
Already, there are up to 1,200 special operations forces on the continent, providing training, operating drones and, very rarely, intervening directly such as in the Ouagadougou siege.
Last week, the U.S. launched its second set of air strikes in Libya in three months in what risk management consultancy Signal Risk's director Ryan Cummings called a "point of departure" from a strategy previously characterized by a limited appetite for offensive roles in Africa.
Washington is proposing $200 million in new military spending for North and West Africa. Both the United States and France, which has 3,500 troops in the region, intend to boost support to regional security body Group of Five Sahel, diplomats and officials say.
Three sources familiar with the agreement told Reuters that the United States and Senegal had agreed a new accord granting rights to establish a base here in case of an emergency.
Intelligence sharing among the different countries of West Africa will be key, security officials said.
The United States plans to set up the first of many "intelligence fusion" centers at the headquarters for a regional anti-Boko Haram task force in Chad to allow countries to share sensitive information in a secure environment.
"If we continue to invest in the development of regional platforms, it will pay huge dividends over the next year, but it cannot be done without a comprehensive approach," said Commander for Special Operations Command Africa Brigadier General Donald Bolduc.
Overcoming suspicions between neighbors and historic rivals will be a challenge, however.
"The sharing of intelligence between neighbors is not where it should be and this is critically important," said a Western intelligence source at Flintlock.
(Writing by Emma Farge; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)