A conference to increase cooperation in the fight against terrorism in the Horn of Africa gets under way Thursday in the United States. The meeting is taking place amid fears that al-Qaida terrorists are planning attacks in the Horn.
The University of South Florida is hosting the conference and its organizers have an ambitious goal. They hope it will lead to the creation of a confederation of states in the Horn of Africa that, that working with the United States, will seek to promote security in the region. During the two-day conference, representatives from four Horn countries, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Somalia, are expected to hold talks with officials from the U.S. State Department.
Africa specialist Stephen Morrison, of the Center for Strategic Studies Institute in Washington, says the conference appears to be the first step in a U.S.-led effort to create a political organization to fight terrorism and lawlessness in the Horn.
"The national security strategy that President Bush issued on September 17, in that, it's argued that the U.S. will partner with states that are vulnerable to infiltration by shadowy networks of terror and the Horn of Africa is the most acutely vulnerable," Mr. Morrison said. "So, this, in a way, is an implementation of that strategy."
On Monday, U.S. officials confirmed a warning by the international law enforcement group, Interpol, that al-Qaida terrorists are planning to carry out attacks in the Horn of Africa and elsewhere.
U.S. officials say countries and waterways in and around the Horn have long been used by al-Qaida and other terrorist networks to hide, organize, and train men. The Horn also lies a short distance from Yemen, identified by the United States as a breeding ground for terrorists.
Last week, the Pentagon announced it was sending 400 U.S. Marines to the Horn to set up a special military command to track down al-Qaida operatives intent on making their way into Yemen and Somalia. The Marines will join 800 U.S. troops already stationed at a French military base in Djibouti. It is believed that the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency used this base to fire a missile that killed six alleged al-Qaida operatives in Yemen.
Mr. Morrison says as countries in the Horn of Africa gain strategic importance, they are in a better position to negotiate for more political recognition and economic aid from the United States.
"Eritrea and Ethiopia, their relations with the United States suffered very significantly when those two countries went to war with one another from 1998 to 2000," Mr. Morrison said. "They are both looking to get back into a more normal and close working relationship with the United States. Somalia, that government barely exists, but it is looking to be treated as legitimate, that it can provide some sort of partnership in ensuring that al-Qaida and its affiliates don't operate on Somali soil."
What may not be so easy is to stimulate cooperation among the countries in the Horn. Ethiopia and Eritrea signed a peace accord two years ago, but both countries remain far apart on a number of issues. Somalia's transitional government is weak and holds little power outside of the capital, Mogadishu.
But Mustapha Hassouna, a regional security analyst at the University of Nairobi, adds a note of caution. He says that forging closer ties with the United States could be politically risky for some of the leaders in the Horn. He says that many Muslims in the Horn and elsewhere in East Africa remain wary of U.S. motives in the region.
"If the United States comes off better in its confrontation with the al-Qaida network and its dealings with the Arab world, then perhaps they can pre-empt any anti-American sentiments," Mr. Hassouna said. "On the other side of the coin, if things don't go very nicely for the United States in the Middle East, these governments will probably be on the receiving end of a popular backlash that will definitely be anti-American."
Another Nairobi-based analyst, Johann Svensson, says he believes U.S. efforts to prepare the region for the fight against terrorism will fail if the effort does not have the backing of the people there.
"If there is an integration effort, it has to be initiated by the people and it has, above all, to answer to the needs of the people in the region," Mr. Svensson said. "The regard for terrorism is important. But I think her there are other priorities."
In the United States, organizers of the conference acknowledge the proposal for a regional confederation in the Horn is still at an early stage. They say they hope this week's conference will produce what they call a "vision plan" that would be refined in the months leading up to a second conference, likely to be held sometime next year in the United States.