CAMP LEMONIER, Djibouti U.S. forces have disrupted several planned terrorist attacks against Western and other targets in the Horn of Africa and local authorities have killed or captured more than two dozen militants, the U.S. general in command of an anti-terrorism task force told The Associated Press.
Of the hundreds of foreign fighters detained by U.S. troops in Iraq, approximately 25 percent come from the seven countries that fall under the purview of the Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa, Marine Brig. Gen. Mastin Robeson told AP in his first in-depth interview since taking command in May 2003.
The task force is responsible for fighting terrorism in seven Horn of Africa countries: Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Yemen, Sudan, Kenya and Somalia. The impoverished, Islamic region is a well-established recruiting ground for terrorist groups and U.S. officials describe it as a critical theater in the war on terrorism, which they fear could become another Afghanistan.
Robeson said suspected terrorists from Tanzania, through the Horn of Africa, all the way to southern Egypt and Saudi Arabia are working with each other to promote radicalism.
''There are three issues here: there is transnational terrorist networking, at large, there are specific cells planning terrorist attacks, and there's the recruiting, training and shipping of foreign fighters into Iraq,'' Robeson said Saturday night at his headquarters on a former French Foreign Legion post in Djibouti.
''They are down here training and recruiting,'' he said. ''They are trying to create numbers and what we want to do is prevent them from creating numbers.''
U.S. forces first arrived in Djibouti, a country the size of Massachusetts located where the Red Sea opens into the Gulf of Aden, in June 2002. The country was a French colony, carved out of the Horn of Africa because of its strategic location and a natural, deep water harbor.
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 the Kenya coast.
Al-Qaida has either claimed responsibility or has been blamed for all of the attacks and U.S. officials in the past have said at least five senior al-Qaida terrorists with close ties to Osama bin Laden live in the Horn of Africa. Robeson said initial estimates were too low.
''A year ago, it was basically thought that there were probably five to seven, maybe 15, depending on who you talk to,'' Robeson said. ''There have already been 25 captured or killed, and now it's in the hundreds of named people that we and host nations would like to find and talk to.''
Robeson said his job is to empower governments in the region to stop terrorism by helping them improve their militaries, police, coast guards and intelligence services. His troops also help the governments fight poverty through humanitarian projects.
All the governments with the exception of Somalia, which doesn't have a central government are fully cooperating in what Robeson said is a long-term effort that will take years to complete.
He said that just as attacks have increased elsewhere in the world, the Horn of Africa also faces a growing problem.
''There are more terrorist threats, right now ... than has ever been listed in this region,'' he said. ''The increase in the attacks that you see in Iraq and Afghanistan are parallel here. The difference is we have been successful here with host nation partnerships at disrupting those plans.''
The 27-year decorated veteran whose combat experience includes Liberia, Somalia, Bosnia and the Gulf War declined to describe the planned attacks or say what countries were involved. But he did acknowledge an AP exclusive report on a plot to destroy the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya, in June as one instance of a foiled terrorist attack.
''I think we have frustrated the terrorists,'' Robeson said. ''Mission success does not necessarily only resonate in how many people we either capture or kill, because when we put them on the move, they're now out of their comfort zone and they are vulnerable.''
There are no prisoners being held at the tented camp in Djibouti, military officials said, and Robeson refused to say how many terrorists his men have captured in U.S. operations.
But Robeson did say the 1,800 troops permanently based in Djibouti work throughout the region and are establishing a model for future operations that will depend more on intelligence and less on firepower. The focus is on helping poor countries stop terrorism before a massive U.S. military intervention, like the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, is required.
''We like to use the analogy that if Iraq and Afghanistan were an apple and an orange, we're a Volkswagen,'' he explained. ''Our mission is pure and simply to help host nations control their own destiny.''
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