The commander of the U.S.-led Combined Joint Task Force in the Horn of Africa says terrorism is alive and well in the region, but his forces are working with local governments to make it harder for the terrorist groups to operate. The general spoke from Qatar via satellite with reporters at the Pentagon.
Major General Samuel Helland says his multi-national force is engaged mainly in working with local governments in East Africa, and across the Red Sea on the Saudi peninsula, to increase their capability to fight terrorists.
"There are terrorist networks alive and well in the Horn of Africa," he said. "So they're there, and they all know each other. I couldn't believe they don't. And I suspect they're connected to the worldwide network, just like we are."
General Helland says the al-Qaida terrorist network operates through local groups in Africa like the Eritrean Islamic Jihad, the Somali Mojahedin and Somalia's al-Itihad al-Islamiya. He says the goal is to disrupt the ability of local governments to control their territory, which makes it easier for the terrorists to operate. In addition, the general says he would not be surprised if some senior al-Qaida leaders fled to the region after the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, but he could not confirm whether that had happened.
He also could not confirm a report in Kenya's East African newspaper that a United Nations team has concluded terrorists are smuggling weapons through Kenya to use against Somalia's new government, once it tries to establish itself in Mogadishu. Kenya has denied the charge. General Helland said he can not say for sure because smuggling is rampant in the region. And he says the situation in Somalia is still too fluid for his task force to play any role.
"Right now all we can do is watch and provide our support. We have to wait for the political process to work before we can engage. And we're standing by," he added. "But until things become better and more stable, I think we'll just continue to watch and monitor."
General Helland commands 1,400 U.S. troops in East Africa, headquartered in Djbouti, as well as foreign forces attached to the task force. The force was created two-and-a-half years ago. The general says his troops are working to build trust among the local people and governments in order to promote anti-terrorism cooperation. He cited several successes, including an invitation from the town of Goday in Ethiopia to repair two mosques that had been damaged by wild animals.
"The fact that they were willing to come and ask us to do the work for them probably is what's more important than the amount of work that was done itself," said General Helland.
General Helland says the task force is also getting much larger responses to its offers to provide medical and veterinary care in various communities in Africa, and has helped Yemen build its Coast Guard capability to improve trade and keep terrorists out of its ports.