- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 31, 2003

CAMP LEMONIER, Djibouti — 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, among them Lt. Cmdr. 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,” said Cmdr. Cooper, of Jackson, Miss., his calm, friendly demeanor a reflection of how U.S. forces fight terrorism here.

Sometimes his job gets boring, he said, 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,” Gen. 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 in December 2002.

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.

The region has already suffered four terrorist attacks, all of them either claimed by, or attributed to, Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda 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.

Gen. Robeson said 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, Gen. 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.

Responsibility for stopping ships possibly carrying al Qaeda 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. Cmdr. Dean Matusek, a Navy liaison officer at Camp Lemonier.

This month, 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 this 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 Gen. 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,” Gen. Robeson said. He refused to say whether his forces have snatched any terror suspects.

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,” Gen. 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.”

Gen. Robeson said the ultimate goal is for each of the seven countries in the region to have its own modern methods of protecting its borders and coordinating its 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,” he said.


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