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Waging the War on Terror in the Horn of Africa

By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service

CAMP LEMONIER, Djibouti, Dec. 20, 2003 – The American presence here has helped thwart at least three and possibly as many as 10 terrorist attacks in the Horn of Africa region, said Marine Brig. Gen. Mastin Robeson, commander of the Combined Joint Task Force Horn of Africa.

Robeson spoke to press traveling with Joint Chiefs Chairman Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers during a stop at the command's headquarters here Dec. 19.

Robeson said the only mission of the 1,400 Americans deployed in the region is counterterrorism. The command uses humanitarian assistance, military-to-military ties, civil-military missions and other means to help the countries of the region fight terrorists that have burrowed in to the region.

The U.S. service members in the region, which stretches from Kenya to Yemen and Sudan to the border of Oman, work through host nations to fight al Qaeda and other terrorist groups. "We measure our success by allowing the host nations to do what they do," Robeson said. "If we're doing our mission, we will help find and fix the transnational terrorist, and the host nation will capture or kill him."

And the commitment by host nations is there. "We're facilitating and partnering with them," he said. "But they are doing a great job of capturing the terrorists within their borders."

Success in this very poor region will be measured by the governments exercising effective control over their borders and all areas within their countries. Robeson and representatives from other American agencies, such as the State Department, U.S. Agency for International Development and other government bodies, work together to build a regional partnership among the seven nations of the region. Operations in the region are complicated by ethnic, tribal and clan divisions.

Somalia the "poster child" of failed states, according to joint task force officials presents another challenge. "There are many people in Somalia who want to help (this anti-terrorist effort), but there are no governmental structures to work through," Robeson said.

He pointed out that the command has been very successful at exposing the transnational terrorist networks. He said al Qaeda made a conscious, deliberate decision to emplace operatives and have them blend in with local populations. The young al Qaeda operatives were to "marry local girls, live a normal life and wait to be called up," Robeson said. "We're seeing a significant growth in our ability to pull the carpet up so to speak and see the all cockroaches underneath."

The general noted it is possible that as more pressure is applied to terrorist groups in Iraq and Afghanistan, some of those people will flow to the region. "We believe that's why (Osama) bin Laden and al Qaeda left the architecture they left so they'd have a place to flow back to," he said.

Robeson said that when he arrived in the region seven months ago, officials thought there were between 20 and 40 al Qaeda operatives in the region. Today dozens of terrorists have been captured or killed and there are "hundreds we know by name that we need to talk to."

The fight against terrorism in the Horn of Africa is inherently different from operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. In those countries "the (terrorist) architecture is above ground. Everything here is below ground," he said. "It's like crab grass: You pull one weed up and think, 'I've got it,' but there's a whole runner that's connected to it."

The Marine commander said he wouldn't be surprised if there was still an American presence of some sort in the region in 10 years. "We're committed to this fight and to establishing a relationship that could serve as a model for the rest of Africa," Robeson said.

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