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Department of Defense Briefing by Gen. David M. Rodriguez

Press Operations

General David M. Rodriguez (USA), Commander
April 7, 2016
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TAKEN FROM PREPARED STATEMENT:
Ladies and gentlemen, good morning and thank you for the opportunity to update you today on the activities of our African partners, our other international partners and Africa Command.

The last time I stood before you all, I discussed how the men and women of Africa Command were supporting the USAID and other interagency partners with the Ebola response in West Africa and how Africa Command was addressing many of the security and governance challenges elsewhere on the continent.

The Africa continent continues to present significant opportunities as well as significant challenges. Much of the continent is doing well with many of the nation’s strengthening their democratic institutions. But as you know, there are many challenges in Africa. In some regions, weak governance, corruption, uneven development, disease, food insecurity, crime and violent extremism have contributed to instability and conflict. Africa Command is working with both international and interagency partners to mitigate immediate threats and advance enduring security interests. Our efforts are always conducted in support of the hard work of our U.S. ambassadors and partner nations. Our programs, exercises and operations strengthen military-to-military relationships … 

(JOINED IN PROGRESS) GENERAL DAVID M. RODRIGUEZ:  -- in a region where the United States has little forward presence.  

They make the U.S. and partner forces more effective as we learn from each other and operate together.  Now, I'm going to talk about some of the examples how we're approaching the regional and international security challenges in Africa.  

Over in east Africa, of course, the big threat is Al-Shabab inside Somalia.  We work with five of the troop contributing countries as well as the Somali -- developing the Somali national army to continue to support the Somali government in helping provide stability in that region.  

In north Africa, the big threat there revolves around Libya and the gowning threat of ISIS in the region, and we work with many, many partners there to help that situation out, from the European Union, who has a strong mission in the Mediterranean Sea to mitigate the challenges of migration, to Tunisia, where we're continuing to build some significant partner capacity, as well as in Niger and Chad, who also have challenging borders in the area.  

In -- that continues.  If you look from Libya down to the southwest over to northern Mali, which is a challenge, the French are leading that effort there, and we support the French, from their leadership in N'Djamena and Task Force Barkhane across from Chad to Niger and all the way over to Mail where they're -- they are leading the efforts there.  

And then down in West Africa, the challenges built around Boko Haram and the threat in northeast Nigeria, which also overlaps into Niger, Chad and Cameroon.  And we're working there with all those partners to help them improve their capacity to defeat Boko Haram, doing some significant intelligence sharing and working with a multi- national joint task force who is leading that effort there.  

And with that, we'll take your questions.  

Q:  Hi General, on Libya.  What is your assessment right now of the number of Islamic State fighters in Libya?  How much is that growing?  Can you give us some perspective on how the threat is changing there from ISIS?  

And the president, during his meetings with Stoltenberg, raised the possibility that perhaps NATO might be able to help in the Islamic State fight there.  How do you see this going forward?  Is the U.S. hampered in the ability to take strikes there now because of the government chaos, or is it a lack of intel?  

GEN. RODRIGUEZ:  First of all, in Libya, the U.S. intelligence community has said it's around 4 to 6,000.  It is probably about doubled in the last 12 to 18 months based on what their assessments were last year.  And the -- first, the huge effort in and around Libya by all the African partners has been -- has been significant, led mainly by Tunisia, who has done a tremendous job of building their capacity and working the challenges across their border, as well as both Niger, who has had a long-term effort to disrupt the lines of communication in northern Niger as well as Chad, who has -- is worried about the challenges in southern Libya.  

And then the -- you asked about NATO, they are looking at what they can do based on the discussion that you mentioned.  If you remember, back a couple of years ago, NATO had signed up in that situation to help with some of the capacity building in the institution and the strategic planning effort for Libya.  

On your other question about what are we hampered by, you know, right now, just like in many places, we are continuing to go after targets that pose an imminent threat to U.S. interests and personnel, and that was in the case of both Abu Nabil who is the leader of ISIS, as well as the effort in Sabratha recently.  And that's with the type of target set.  And we continue to do that.  

Q:  Just as a follow-up, are you -- since the number has doubled, are you not able to see targets any -- and is it a lack of ISR or -- because we understand there's training camps and other gatherings in Libya.  What is -- what are the hurdles that you're seeing?  

GEN. RODRIGUEZ:  Again, the policy right now is to go after the continuing and imminent threats to U.S. personnel and interests, and we're continuing to do that.  The government of national accord asset, you know, continues to consolidate power, we'll continue to develop situation on -- in our efforts in accordance with their development as well as their asks.  

Okay?  Thank you.  Yes ma'am.  

Q:  If I could follow up on that, the -- where are you seeing -- Courtney Kube with NBC News -- where are you seeing most of these fighters coming from into Libya?  And where -- there were some reports that they were -- there was sort of a stronghold in Sirte Is that -- is that the case?  Where are they, like, coalescing?  Are they coming from the developing -- I mean, a capital in Libya where they are primarily?  And then I have a question on al-Shabab?  

GEN. RODRIGUEZ:  Okay.  Thank you.  On -- for the threat of ISIS in Libya, their largest and biggest home is in and around Sirte itself, but they also have a presence out in the east in Benghazi and Darna, as well as over in Sabratha in the west.  

As far as, you know, where the fighters are coming from, as you know, the foreign fighter flow goes back and forth across, you know, north Africa not only internal to north Africa, which generates a lot of the foreign fighters that go all the way across to Syria and Iraq, but also some that have come.  And then there's the other phenomena in Libya which is some that have just, you know, moved over and pledged allegiance to ISIS who were already there.  Okay?

Q:  And then on al-Shabab, there have been three strikes in the past week or 10 days in the east against al-Shabab specifically.  One target had, like 150 fighters.  Has there been some change in the last several weeks?  Is there some uptick, is there some imminent attack that the U.S. is aware of?  

I guess just, what has changed in the last few weeks?  Are these just targets of opportunity?  Is there any operational change?  

GEN. RODRIGUEZ:  There's a -- when --

Q:  And do these strikes actually have any kind of a real impact on al-Shabab's operations, I guess?  

GEN. RODRIGUEZ:  Yes.  In -- al-Shabab over the last several months have evolved their tactics and their mode of operation in Somalia, and what they have done is they --the pattern has been that they gather and train a significant number of people and then they disperse and attack and focus all that energy on one of the forward operating bases of the troop contributing countries.  

That has had a negative impact on the troop contributing countries because they have lost significant people in multiple types of these attacks, and so the one that you're mentioning was a defensive fire to protect.  

There were -- we weren't sure exactly which one they were going to, although we had multiple, you know, different intel streams, but there were 10 outposts within a couple hours of that site, and they were getting ready to do that.  So they took defensive fires to prevent that.  

The other ones -- one of them was a -- one was a strike in the last two weeks against a high-value target, the same type that we've been doing for many years there, and then there have been a couple of other ones where the fires were in defense of techniques to prevent casualties to the partners that we're working with.  Okay, thank you.  

Q:  Can we go back to Libya for a minute?  Just to drill down a little bit, do you believe that the foreign fighters and the fighters in Libya are actually -- that their goal is to attack in the West, whether it's Europe or the United States, to plot and plan and train for external attacks?  Do you think that's their goal?  

GEN. RODRIGUEZ:  Yeah, that's been their aspirations all the time, and they are continuing with the same threats that ISIS main is making, yes.  

Q:  So what I don't understand, if you -- if you believe -- if the U.S. believes that that is the goal of this doubling of fighters in Libya, or the fighter in Libya, I guess the question is why only two strikes, essentially, against them?  Why --

GEN. RODRIGUEZ:  Well, it's their level of what they're doing.  So, you know, like I said, the strikes we continue to do against are ones that have continuing imminent threat, and they're not as far along in their, you know, ability to do that as many other places.  

Q:  I'm sorry.  I apologize.  I really don't understand.  You said --

GEN. RODRIGUEZ:  Well, we're going after, and continue to go after, is the ones that have imminent threat to U.S. personnel and facilities.  Not the intent to do that, the ones that do that, Okay?  

Q:  So that's two essentially.  So can -- when you look at Libya right now and the ISIS presence in Libya, what is your top concern about that presence?  

GEN. RODRIGUEZ:  The top concern about that presence is really the challenge that it presents for any movement forward for the government of national accord so that they can reduce the chaos there.  That chaos contributes to the migration issues, it continues (sic) to some of the threats external to Libya and threats external to Libya as in the situation with Tunisia.  Yes, ma'am.  

Q:  Hi –Missy Ryan from the Washington Post.  Two questions.  On Libya, how confident are you that the forces with the United States and its partners might work or might support in the future the militia forces and the remnants of the Libya national army?  How confident are you that they can set aside the differences that they've had since 2011 and especially since 2014, to conduct the ground operations needed not just to sort of clear ISIS out of Sirte but to, you know, impose order throughout the country?  So that's on Libya.  

And the second question, regarding Shabab, there were also -- following up on Courtney's question, there were some reports that there was an airstrike against Shahab militants in a place called Jalib.  Can you comment on that?  

GEN. RODRIGUEZ:  Okay.  On the first one, you know, that is really the second major challenge of the government of national accord as they work with the militias and how strong their, you know, allegiance to the GNA is going to be.  

There are more and more people in Libya that are focusing their efforts against ISIS and against each other, and that's part of the challenge, as you know, because of the conflicts between militias.  And I think that, you know, because it's all about the power and influence, it will really depend how the government of national accord develops and brings those people alongside to be part of the future.  

As far as their ability to actually conduct operations and activities, you know, they have -- there -- it's a wide range of activities.  Some of them are really good, some of them are, you know, just fair, relatively speaking, for the Libyan militias and national army.  But again, it will really determine -- be determined by how well and effective those militias support the GNA that really makes the difference in the end.

Q:  And then on the Shabab strike?

GEN. RODRIGUEZ:  On the Shabbab again?  Those -- the ones that you are talking were again, defensive fires to protect the people that we're working with.  Okay?  Thank you.

Yes.

Q:  General, (inaudible) BBC News.  I have a couple of questions about the Chibok girls in Nigeria.  We're approaching the second anniversary of their kidnapping.  276 of them taken two years ago.  Greater outcry across the world, but the promises to do as much as possible to find them.

Can you tell us what the U.S. military has done, what it plans to do and what the sort of -- what is hampering you finding and helping to release these girls?

GEN. RODRIGUEZ:  Okay.  Thank you.  First the Chibok girls who were taken, as you know, almost two years ago were taken by the local Boko Haram militants and moved to some very, very isolated places and that Boko Haram maintained a fairly secure site.  

Right away the U.S., not just the military, but the entire intelligence community began sharing information with the Nigerian military, as well as other militaries were -- they were, who had anything to do with anything near the borders of basically, Chad and Cameroon.

Over the last -- you know, just under two years, the efforts of the multinational joint task force and the foreign nations that have been involved in that effort have reduced the area that Boko Haram  maintains control over and has opened up the major lines of communication.  And now the Boko Haram operates out of us some terrain that is pretty tough to get at and get to.  

All the international community, as well as our efforts continue to develop intelligence to help get the girls back and to also release not only girls, but also a huge number of people that they have kidnapped and are holding against their will.  And the Nigerian military as well as the Cameroon military and the Chadian (sic) have gained a lot of our freedom for many of those over time.

Q:  And do you (inaudible) you (inaudible) need them, finding them?  

GEN. RODRIGUEZ:  Well, some of them have been found in different things.  You know, it is not the an exact science and they're not all in one place.  So, many of -- like I said, many of the people who have been detained against their will, including some of the Chibok girls have been have been recovered. Yes sir.

Q:  Gordon Lubold from the Wall Street Journal.  Actually, I wanted to take another stab at this Unity Government issue.  I think, you know, a lot of us have been hearing folks say, you know, as soon as this is established in a substantive way, like the light turns on and allies can go in and the U.S. can potentially get more involved in Libya.

But I just wonder if you can help make us a little bit smarter on what changes.  I mean, I think we understand the idea of a viable partner on the ground, but what kind of changes in terms of what the U.S. and its allies would be able to do, post Unity government that you can't do in some more fashion now.

GEN. RODRIGUEZ:  Well, that really depends what that unity government, you know, wants the international community to do.  So, I think that, you know, you say there's -- because the government is just getting its feet under itself there.  

And yes, you can see, even today, one of the former political leaders is not now pledging of allegiance like they were yesterday, so this is going to take some time for them to, you know move this thing forward.  

And -- but the United Nations, the international community as well as many of the Libyan people, you know, are starting to move toward -- to support this, but it's going to be driven by, you know, their leadership and what they really want the international community to do.  

There are a lot of planning efforts going on, whether you look at what's happening in Italy with the Libyan International Assistant mission to help advise and assist the Libyan forces as they, you know, are integrated into a, you know, cohesive liberty security forces.  So there are a lot of plans out there and everything, but it's really going to be driven on how that government of national accord develops over time and where they really need the support.

Q:  I guess, you know, part of the question is what's your assessment of the risk of allies acting more unilaterally inside Libya without a unity government, and what's the risk of kind of playing this waiting game?  

GEN. RODRIGUEZ:  I think -- I think the allies, you know, again will -- just like us will do it based on the threats to themselves, to -- imminent threat to themselves.  And that's where I think that they would do that, and that would really it until, you know, something changes in the government in that piece.  Okay?  

Q:  General, Andrew Tillman with Military Times.  I'd like to ask you for a minute about the Chinese military and ask you what is your take on the Chinese intent for building some kind of a naval facility in Djibouti?  And more broadly, how much Chinese military activity are you seeing across Africa, and to what extent is that affecting your operations and your mission?  

GEN. RODRIGUEZ:  The Chinese activity throughout Africa for the military has been all inside the United Nations missions as part of the peacekeepers there.  It's not that -- not that big a number, so they have, you know, no, you know, real impact on, you know, any of the activities that we are doing on the African continent.  

And the -- and the base in Djibouti that they are starting to build, you know, we, just like all the other international countries, expect them, just like everybody expects us to live in accordance with international norms and standards.  And there'll be no impact on our freedom to conduct the activities that we desire to take.  

Q:  Why do you think that they are building that.  What is their --  

GEN. RODRIGUEZ:  They've, for a long time have had a presence out in the Indian Ocean, they have helped with the whole international community to reduce the piracy off Somalia, and they have done that in coordination with not only the U.S. but also the other international nations.  And so they're, you know, building a logistics base and support structure to help those efforts out, because that's a long way from home for them.  

Q:  Luis Martinez with ABC.  Thank you so much for doing this briefing today.  Going back to Somalia and those defensive fires that you referenced are these  anew thing, or have -- or are we just hearing about them for the first time?  

And also, is the definition of broader in the sense of defensive fires because, you talk about these being for -- our partners on the ground.  Is it no longer that there is a threat to American forces that requires this to occur?  

GEN. RODRIGUEZ:  It's a threat to both our partners and ourselves, Okay, and there's been no change or broadening of anything, but the two things I think that have changed over time was the evolving tactics of Al-Shabab, one, and the second thing is that as the troop contributing countries and the Somali national Army develops and builds more capacity and grows, they're going to be more active.  I think that is something that's driven that, Okay?  

Q:  Has that also driven our increased participation, such as helicopter transport to -- for these Somali forces?

GEN. RODRIGUEZ:  Yes because now they have the capacity to do some of those things, yes.  Okay?

Q:  And one other question sir.

GEN. RODRIGUEZ:  Sure.

Q:  How many U.S. personnel are actually in Somalia, and how would you characterize what their roles are?

GEN. RODRIGUEZ:  There are -- I won't give you an exact numbers because it fluctuates here and there.  But, you know, what we are doing is providing, advising and assisting to selected organizations in the -- both the troop contributing countries and the Somali National Army.  Okay.  Thank you.

Q:  Sir, Bill Hennigan, Los Angeles Times.  Are there any forces on the ground inside Libya that are stopping the growth of ISIS.  And if there isn't, does the fact that they've doubled over the last 12 months, 18 months, does it - do they run the risk of the same situation that we saw in Syria in for instance, where they can sweep out and start taking land elsewhere?

GEN. RODRIGUEZ:  They Libyans themselves, both the remnants of the Libyan National Army, the militias, they've got, you know, significantly -- significant numbers and groups of them.  And yes, they are stopping ISIS from growing and trying to do that the best they can.  They have had some success over the in the east in Derna and Benghazi.  They have challenged them in Sirte and have not been as successful and they have also challenged them in Sabratha and been a little bit successful.  

So yes, there's forces on the ground that are doing that.  Mainly, you know, Libyan -- either former Libyan National Army or Libyan militias.  And they're continuing to do that.  The challenge that they have is that in addition to doing that, sometimes they fight amongst themselves.  And based on, you know, power and you know, past and history and everything else.  So that is why the challenge of the Government of National Accord is to bring them together to you know, one for the future of Libya.  But also to get rid of ISIS.

Q:  The situation that you are describing sounds an awful like what was previously and still is in Syria, in which you have these groups fighting against one another.  Doesn't that offer the breeding ground for ISIS to do the exact same thing and build up and sweep out and get there?  

GEN. RODRIGUEZ:  I think it is significantly harder for ISIS to do the inside of Libya, because they don't have the home grown people that know as much about Libya like they did in Iraq and Syria.  So it's different conditions.  So Libyan people are also, you know, different in that the way they treat and respond to foreigners.

So all of that has an impact.  So the majority on the Libyan militias, first of all, they can fight.  They've been fighting for a long time.  And two, they don't like, you know, external influences like that there.  So, I think it's some significantly different conditions.  Okay?

Q:  And lastly, if the number of ISIS fighters double again, over the next 12 months, would we -- would the U.S. be willing to act?

GEN. RODRIGUEZ:  That's a decision for the national command authority and leadership.

Q:  I wanted to ask you, do you anticipate, given -- once the national government is set up in Lydia, do you anticipate the U.S. working in concert with them or at their invitation, conducting airstrikes against ISIS in Libya?  Do you - do you expect that that is a real possibility in the future?  

GEN. RODRIGUEZ:  Well, the U.S., as you know, has said they'll support the government of national accord as they move forward here, and that -- again, that will be determined between the government of national accord and the -- you know, the international community and how that moves forward.  So, you know, I mean, we'll just -- we'll just have to see.  

But yes, that's a possibility, as are many other things, because, like I said, as you look at the multiple efforts, whether it's trying to get after the ISIS problem, whether it's trying to build a Libyan national army to bring together the militias in and around Tripoli to, you know, help support this government.  I mean, there's a wide range of things that could be done, and like I said, this situation -- and you can see if, like I said, this morning in that, you know, some guys were part of the solution, some guys not, and they changed, you know, in the last two days here.  So we're just going to have to monitor that very carefully and watch that.  Okay.  

Q:  Just to follow up on, I guess, Courtney, and build this sort of stream.  How concerned are you, as you watch this, that this -- these stumbles with setting up the unity government are going to really leave the door open for ISIS to coalesce?  

You suggested that the Libyans don't like having them there, but is that enough?  And are you worried that you do not have the capacity or the ability yet to take actions you want to take because of the lack of a government partner right now?  

GEN. RODRIGUEZ:  The effort right now continues to remain on the imminent threats to U.S. personnel and facilities.  We have all the authorities and resources we need to continue to do that, and we will continue to do that.  And that's the number one concern for us right now.  

Now as the -- the question I think what you're asking is really is when that becomes overwhelming, which it is not right now, then what do you do?  And again, that will have to be a policy decision, if it gets to that point.  But it's going to be a challenge for them to get to that point because of the Libyan population, people and militias that are out there.  So we'll have to see how that develops.  Is it possible?  It is.  But right now we're not -- I'm not concerned about that, Okay.  

Q:  You're not concerned about the risk of it happening?  I mean, because by then, would it be not too late, but by then, it's a bigger fight, isn't it?  

GEN. RODRIGUEZ:  It could be a bigger fight and everything.  But again, we -- we're watching that very carefully and taking action as we see those threats develop.  Okay?  

Q:  Following up on that, based on the idea that the Libyan population is averse to foreign elements, how much of a barrier would that be for the international community assisting them on the ground?  

GEN. RODRIGUEZ:  Right.  No, it's -- absolutely, you know, that's the - that's the situation that any people would find themselves in and everything.  So again, we'll just have to see how this government of national accord develops and grows as we move forward.  And then what they want and what they think is in their best interests and how much they're willing to ask or, you know, need international aid.  

They like everybody, you know, want to do it themselves and to protect their sovereign people, and just like everybody else would be a little bit embarrassed that they need help.  So where that all comes out and everything, like I said, we'll just have to watch that very carefully as the situation develops.  Okay?

Q:  Hi, I'm -- (inaudible) -- with Military.com.  

The Marines Crisis Response Force for Africa, has its employment or replacement been affected by this evolving threat in Libya or elsewhere?  

GEN. RODRIGUEZ:  First of all, they you know get employed for multiple reasons.  

As an example, they were a huge of the reinforcement of the Libyan Embassy before we relocated that.  They also provide reaction forces across north and west Africa as well as support to quick reaction, as well as personnel recoveries.  So they do a lot of things to support our efforts across the regions.  

Okay, yes?  

Q:  General, thank you very much for the briefing.  

I just want to understand something a little bit better.  Are you saying that the ability of the Libyan militias that are there now in the Government of National Court as it stands now, that they've been able to do enough to limit the growth of Islamic State compared to how it had doubled previously?  

GEN. RODRIGUEZ:  Well, in different places you are in a different situation.  

They have had a challenge in and around the surge but in the east in Benghazi and Derna, they have fought back against the Islamic State and made it much more tougher for them to operate as well as in Sabratha.  They've had activities that have limited the growth and the challenges that are out there.  

So you know, it's uneven and it's not you know consistent across the board.  As they're squeezed and pushed other places and everything, we'll have to see how that situation develops.  But they are contesting the growth the ISIS in several areas across not Libya, not all.  

Q:  One other question.  

So to what extent do you see the Islamic State in Libya as a threat specifically to Europe?  If there are attempts are always to attack abroad and at western targets, how much more a threat perhaps are there to the U.S. European allies as opposed to the U.S. itself?  

GEN. RODRIGUEZ:  Well, I think the biggest and worst threat they are you know providing to the neighbors is really to Tunisia first.  That's the biggest one.  Then followed up the European threats.  

They have not to this point been able to project that power toward Europe at this point again.  That's aspirational at this point.  

Okay?  Yes, sir?  

Q:  Joe Talbot with -- (inaudible).

As you may know sir, there are many regional players in Libya right now, like Qatar and Egypt.  How would you describe their role now to face the situation in Libya and if there is any kind of military to military relationship with Egypt or Qatar to counter this situation inside of Libya?  

GEN. RODRIGUEZ:  Well, the international and U.S. diplomatic efforts are all focused on trying to limit the external influences that shift the balance of power inside Libya.  

So that the governments as you know, the House of Representatives in the east, and the General National Congress in the west, and now the GNA has -- we want to do the best we can as an international community to support the Libyans so that they have self-determination of where their moving instead of from external influences.  So that's a huge a diplomatic effort that everybody is trying to mitigate that negative impact that you mentioned.  

Okay, yes ma'am?  

Q:  Can I ask you about al Qaida and the Maghreb?  

I know the French take the lead the on this but we've seen such a big jump in attacks on south targets in the last few months from Mali to Burkina and reaching as far south now as Ivory Coast.  How worried are you about this?  And putting aside what the French are doing, what can the U.S. do to work with these African partners on -- I mean, how do you combat an attack on a hotel?  

GEN. RODRIGUEZ:  Yes well, first, it's a huge international effort and intelligence community effort to try to help that as best that we can.  

First, the French as well as the U.N.  mission , we share intelligence.  We help the French with aerial refueling, with intelligence surveillance, and reconnaissance, and strategic lift.  They continue to move and support their efforts across Mali, Niger, and Chad.  And then we work with all the partner military services as does of our interagency partners who work some of their intel organizations in each of the different countries -- different forces and elements have the mission to do -- to defend or protect or protect their capitals in this case.  Some of them are military, some of them are police, some of them are intelligence.  

So we're working across the inter-agency as well as with our international partners to the first and foremost share intelligence on all of those threats and the second piece that's important is the capacity building.  We've worked with several of those nations on their military forces as well as our partners in the international community, inter-agency working with our intel and police forces to improve that.  

The threat of that happening continues to grow as you said, "not only the three attacks but also the threats to many other region forces." So I think that everybody is working together to mitigate the risk as best as they can.  And I think that it will continue to be a threat because of the challenges in Mali and what al Qaida wants to accomplish here.  

I think that the evolving tactics -- it's when you go back a couple years to Somalia they did the same thing, when they got under pressure and everything, they struck at Garissaand them all and those things.  So I think that all the nations understand that and are working hard to not only keep the pressure on them in the combat zone but also protect their soft targets in that area.  

Okay, anybody else?  Okay.  

Well, thank you very much.