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U.S. Executives Tour The Horn Of Africa, Learn Of The Terrorist Threats Ahead
By Chris Tomlinson
DJIBOUTI December 13, 2006 – Business executive Peter Thoren rode in the cockpit of the C-130 cargo plane as it raced over barren scrubland in the Horn of Africa, surveying a battlefield in the war on terror that most Americans know nothing about.
Thoren and seven other members of Business Executives for National Security could see the footpaths used by nomads to search out water and pasture. A few dirt roads connected small settlements, but from thousands of feet in the air, the region is intimidatingly vast.
On the ground, itinerant Islamic militants are teaching religious intolerance and hatred of the United States. Rebels and terrorist groups smuggle weapons and plot attacks. The Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa's mission is to convince local people to reject extremism.
Rear Adm. Richard Hunt, the task force commander, invited the delegation of business executives and international attorneys for a close look at the region in hopes of spreading the word, and the alarm. His mission isn't an active war, like the battles in Iraq and Afghanistan, and as a result he finds it hard to compete with for the attention and funding it requires.
“I think the more that America understands what is going on here, the easier it will be for someone like me to have resources provided,” Hunt said.
While most Africans reject extremism, it only takes a handful to carry out terrorist attacks like the 1998 bombings of the U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen, or the 2002 simultaneous car bombing of a hotel and attempt to shoot down an Israeli airliner over Kenya.
The multinational task force is attempting the ultimate form of pre-emption. The unit tries to build political alliances, provide military training and help civilian development. The military hopes to stop people in one of the poorest regions on the planet from ever considering political or religious extremism in the first place.
BENS has provided the military with a nonpartisan, outsider's point of view since 1982, said Charles Boyd, a retired U.S. Air Force general who is the president and CEO of the group. BENS has been extremely influential, shaping legislation on base closures, Pentagon contracting policy and building public-private partnerships for disaster response.
The group frequently sends delegations to U.S. military operations around the world. The delegation toured Kenya, Djibouti, Yemen and Ethiopia in October and invited an Associated Press journalist along.
Hunt wanted them to see the three D's of U.S. foreign policy – diplomacy, defense and development – and how they work together in a unique way to keep a cold war in the Horn of Africa from becoming a hot one.
A key to the strategy, he said, was never using the word terrorism. The U.S. war on terror is seen by most Muslims in the Horn as a U.S. war on Islam. But if you talk to people about fighting extremism, people are ready to cooperate.
“It is extremists that impact in a negative manner on the majority of the population,” Hunt said. The extremism comes in many forms, not just religious.
The Horn marks where the Red Sea opens into the Indian Ocean and links the Saudi peninsula with Africa. The task force was set up in 2002 when the Pentagon thought al-Qaeda operatives would flee Afghanistan for the Horn, specifically Somalia because it has no effective government. The mission has shifted away from capturing al-Qaeda members, though, to preventing the seeds of Islamic extremism from taking root.
But the task force only has 1,800 people for a region half the size of the United States and home to 170 million. The unit's humanitarian budget is only $12 million and civilian aid workers question whether the military should be involved in such operations at all.
While the Horn has been quiet except for Somalia, many fear it could explode into staggering violence. In June, a militant Islamic group took control of most of Somalia and Osama bin Laden declared his support for them. A recent U.N. report said 10 nations have been sending weapons to the warring sides in Somalia.
“The pure complexity of the situation, the number of people playing double games and covert and overt interests, the different layers of diplomacy, it is true intrigue,” said Bill Campbell, a partner at San Francisco-based Marbill Management. “I think it is critical that the U.S. get involved in the region.”
Hunt arranged a meeting with Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi to discuss Islamic militancy in Somalia. Meles backs a weak transitional government, but said the international community must do more to prevent men with ties to al-Qaeda from taking over.
A problem in one country in Africa can quickly spread to others. Police departments are notoriously corrupt and inefficient, militaries are poorly trained and ill-equipped and judicial systems can rarely deliver convictions.
In Yemen and Kenya, the task force trained new coast guards and recently gave Kenya three patrol boats. In Djibouti and Ethiopia, U.S. troops train soldiers to better guard their borders.
Ramon Marks, a former Marine officer and an attorney with Arnold & Porter in New York, said more needed to be done.
“There is a real danger of war in this part of the world,” he said. “And it's connected in many respects to what is going on in Iraq and what was going on in Afghanistan.”
To aid development and build up America's image, troops with special training in civil-military operations have provided health care, veterinary services, refurbished schools and water wells to impoverished Muslim communities in five countries.
BENS members visited a camp in Ethiopia built by the task force hours after flash floods left thousands of people homeless. Thoren, executive vice president of New York-based Access Industries, said humanitarian work is critical to military success.
“Everything is winning the hearts and minds of the people and letting them understand that we're here not as an occupier and not as an enforcer, but rather as a force that provides good things,” he said.
After mulling over what they've seen, the delegation will draft a formal report. The group will also hold private meetings with top officials in the Departments of State and Defense, the White House and select members of Congress.
But it will take many years to determine if the task force was effective and gauging short-term success is difficult. If Islamic extremists expand their reach, that will be a defeat for the task force and the war on terror.
Mary McInnis Boies, an attorney with Boies & McInnis who worked for the Carter administration, has been a member of BENS for 20 years and has made eight similar trips.
“The Horn of Africa task force is fighting the long war against terrorism by using the tools of both peace and war,” she said. “They give people a basis to seek democracy rather than terrorism.”
Source: ASSOCIATED PRESS