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Djibouti Serves as Headquarters for US-led E. Africa Anti-Terrorism Task Force - 2003-06-16

A U.S.-led coalition, created last October to fight terrorism in east Africa, has moved its headquarters from an American warship to a land base in Djibouti. U.S. Marine Harrier jets scream across the skies over Djibouti, the tiny former French colony in the Horn of Africa that has emerged in recent years as a vital anti-terror partner for the United States.

Nowhere is that partnership more visible than at Camp Lemonier, on the outskirts of the capital Djibouti City.

Last October, the Djiboutian government allowed the United States to officially begin using the former French military barracks as a base for U.S. troops conducting anti-terror operations and training in the region.

Back then, the 36-hectare base was shrouded in secrecy, housing about 900 mostly Special Forces troops. Another 400 U.S. military personnel and nearly a dozen representatives from countries participating in the global war on terror were aboard the U.S. counter-terrorism warship USS Mount Whitney in the nearby Gulf of Aden. The ship operated as the floating headquarters for the newly-created anti-terror coalition called the Combined Joint Task Force - Horn of Africa.

But last month, the entire task force and much of its high-tech monitoring equipment were moved ashore to Camp Lemonier. Now, the base is home to nearly 2,000 U.S. troops. It is the largest U.S. military presence in Africa since American forces pulled out of Somalia in 1994.

Task force spokesman, Marine Major Steve Cox says the move to a land-based military installation was necessary to improve intelligence gathering and sharing among coalition partners, Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya and Yemen.

"What this facility does for us, what is unique about it, as compared to [the ship] Mount Whitney, is that we now have three times the communication capability, three times the band width out of this facility. Hence, [we have] the ability to move more information faster to more partners across the region than any other previous point in the operation.

Task force officials believe the threat of terrorism is clearly on the rise in the Horn and elsewhere in east Africa.

Last month, coalition partner Kenya warned that a terrorist suspect, believed to have been involved in earlier attacks on American and Israeli targets in the country, had resurfaced in east Africa. The warning prompted British and Israeli airlines to suspend flights to Kenya. Numerous Western countries, including the United States, have issued safety warnings to their citizens.

The task force is also alarmed over a Boeing 727 jet that has been missing from the southern African country of Angola since late last month. Officials here worry that the plane could be used in a terrorist attack against Western targets in east Africa.

The current situation presents a huge challenge for the new commander of the task force, U.S. Marine Brigadier General Mastin Robeson. He says the key is to build solid cooperative relationships with coalition partners.

"At this point, we are meeting at ministerial level and presidential level in every country, with the minister of defense in every country, with the idea that this problem isn't going to go away," he said. "This problem is here and it is as much your problem as it is ours because transnational terrorism historically preys on impoverished regions. So, the only way you're going to grow economically and develop your country nationally is to first rid yourself of the transnational terrorist network."

U.S. officials say the task force needs maximum cooperation from all of its coalition partners because the region's porous borders make it almost impossible for any one country to stop the movement of terrorists.

One such cooperative effort is already paying off in the form of a sophisticated tracking computer system run by the U.S. Air Force at Camp Lemonier.

The system relies heavily on coalition countries to be its eyes in the region. For example, if a coalition partner spots any suspicious vessel, vehicle, or activity and is able to track it by radar, the computer system at Camp Lemonier can pick up the data and pinpoint the location of the threat.

As long as the target is being tracked by the coalition partner, the computers can stay on the target at near real time, giving the task force precise information about the threat at any given moment.

Meanwhile, the American military presence continues to grow in and around Djibouti. Last week, the three-ship USS Iwo Jima Amphibious Ready Group, along with a guided missile frigate, arrived in the Gulf of Aden.

The U.S. military says the additional military muscle is intended to show American resolve to fight terrorism in the region for as long as necessary.