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A quiet battle against militants in ‘Horn’

The Joint Operations Center, tucked inside a former French Foreign Legion post, is the heart of the Bush administration’s quiet battle against Islamic militants operating in six nations in East Africa and Yemen.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Three high-definition television screens, a bank of green military radios and detailed maps line the walls. Laptop computers cover three rows of tables. And military officers like Lt. Cdr. Victor Cooper keep 24-hour vigil, tracking terrorists from afar.

The Joint Operations Center, tucked inside a former French Foreign Legion post, is the heart of the Bush administration’s quiet battle against Islamic militants operating in six nations in East Africa and Yemen.

From here, the U.S. military monitors Marine beach landings, Navy warships, Army infantry maneuvers and Air Force flights, keeping in close communication with Central Command headquarters in Qatar and troops in the field. And there are secret operations no one will talk about.

The goal: to detect, disrupt and defeat the bad guys.

On a recent day, U.S. soldiers trained with local troops in rural Ethiopia, civil affairs officers helped with rehab projects in Kenyan towns and Marines landed on a deserted beach in Djibouti.

Offshore, NATO ships coordinated their operations with the task force, searching ships in international waters for weapons and terrorists.

“We are the gathering point and dissemination point for all information,” Cooper, of Jackson, Miss., said, his calm, friendly demeanor a reflection of how U.S. forces fight terrorism here.

Sometimes his job gets boring, he complained, but then that’s the idea. A day without terrorist activity is a successful day, troops say.

The task force uses military training, humanitarian aid and intelligence operations to keep northeastern Africa and Yemen from becoming the next Afghanistan by strengthening local security forces and keeping terrorist groups from operating in the predominantly Muslim region, said Brig. Gen. Mastin Robeson, commander of the task force.

The 1,800 personnel at Camp Lemonier coordinate U.S. military operations in Kenya, Somalia, Sudan, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Yemen and Djibouti, a region largely ignored before the war on terrorism. The region is now one of the war’s main theaters.

“Here you have six countries that very positively desire to be partners in every way possible in the global war on terrorism,” Robeson said, leaving out Somalia, which doesn’t have a government.

“We are empowering host nations to retake neighborhoods that people are trying to take from them, so you have, in our opinion, sovereign governments here, who are being invaded, who have been invaded ... with sleeper cells that are just now coming to life,” he added in an interview at his air-conditioned office.

Djibouti, an arid nation the size of Massachusetts, has long been a strategic link between Africa and the Middle East, with trade ships sailing along the coast for centuries. The French carved the colony out of the Horn of Africa to control the point where the Red Sea opens into the Gulf of Aden, one of the busiest waterways in the world.

The French Foreign Legion still keeps a brigade in Djibouti, and French forces train in the desert year-round as French Mirage fighter jets scream overhead. U.S. forces arrived in June 2002 at Camp Lemonier — a vacant, former Legion post — and the task force began operations from the tented camp last December.

The Americans have built a permanent mess hall, gym and convenience store, but troops still live in dusty, crowded tents. The post employs hundreds of Djiboutian construction workers to rehabilitate the dilapidated French buildings in preparation for what military officials say will be a long stay.

Past attacks
The region has already suffered four terrorist attacks, all of them either claimed by, or attributed to, Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida terrorist network. In August 1998, car bombs destroyed the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania; in October 2000 suicide bombers attacked the USS Cole while it was refueling in Yemen; and in November 2002 attackers tried to shoot down an Israeli airliner minutes before a car bomb destroyed a hotel on Kenya’s coast.

Robeson said that his forces have disrupted several terrorist plots and that more than two dozen suspected terrorists have been detained in the region. He declined to provide details, citing diplomatic sensitivities and security reasons.

The task force works with local military commanders to develop strategies to help countries fight terrorists, concentrating on better border security, coastal security, intelligence collection, customs departments and counterterrorism forces.

In addition to support, medical and administrative staff from the Marines, Navy, Army and Air Force, Robeson has under his command a Marine helicopter detachment with four CH-53 Super Stallion helicopters, a U.S. Army infantry company, a U.S. Army Reserve civil affairs company, Navy cargo planes, military engineers and a special operations unit.

The helicopters deliver troops and equipment throughout the region. The infantrymen have spent months training with Ethiopian troops and hope to eventually conduct joint exercises and border patrol operations. The civil affairs unit repairs clinics and schools as well as provides medical and veterinarian assistance to Muslims in rural areas, where terrorists may be recruiting new members by spreading anti-American messages.

Responsibility for stopping ships possibly carrying al-Qaida members and weapons falls to a fleet of six to seven NATO ships, known as Combined Task Force-150. A French admiral is currently in command of the force, which boards several ships a week, said Lt. Cdr. Dean Matusek, a Navy liaison officer at Camp Lemonier.

In January, the French navy plans joint operations with the Kenyan navy to work on coastal patrol techniques. U.S. Marines also plan to land in Kenya next month for joint training with the Kenyan army.

When the task force identifies a suspected terrorist or detects a plot, local authorities are encouraged to take action first. But Robeson said his special operations troops are ready to act independently if necessary.

“If I know there is a terrorist out there, and we have the means to go get him and someone else isn’t, will we go get him? You bet we will,” Robeson said. He refused to say whether his forces have snatched any terror suspects.

Sharling intelligence
The task force also works with what military personnel call OGAs, or “other government agencies,” such as the CIA and FBI.

“We share information with each other; we share intelligence with each other. We find that there are places that we can do things that benefit them and there are places they can do things that benefit us,” Robeson said. “There are places where U.S. law permits us to spend our money and do things, and places U.S. law permits them.”

Robeson said for such a small task force to cover such a large area, the operation relies heavily on intelligence collection. Uncovering and infiltrating regional terrorist groups has posed a major challenge to all intelligence and police agencies in the region, he said.

“This is a closed society,” Robeson said. “But it was the same case with the (Ku Klux) Klan, and the same case with the Mafia. Infiltrating those two was tough; it is tough to get people on the inside.”

Robeson said the ultimate goal is for all seven countries in the region to have their own modern methods of protecting their borders and coordinating their customs and intelligence activities so that terrorists have no chance of staging attacks or taking shelter in the region.

“In truth, this is more of the model of how the global war on terrorism should be fought, not Iraq and Afghanistan,” Robeson said.