The United States military is stepping up its anti-terrorism activities in the Horn of Africa as senior defense officials report increased movements there of terrorist suspects and weapons. There is even some concern about weapons of mass destruction moving through the area.
The Pentagon has decided to form a new Joint Task Force for the Horn of Africa to oversee anti-terrorist operations there.
A special headquarters unit, consisting of some 400 personnel under the command of a Marine Corps two-star general, is expected to leave for the region shortly.
Initially, the group will be based aboard a special U.S. amphibious command and control ship. But military officials say that within 60 to 90 days after arrival in the area, the Task Force command will set up its headquarters on land, probably in Djibouti.
That is where some 800 Army Special Operations troops have already been deployed for months. In addition, some 2,000 Marines remain in the area aboard an amphibious assault ship.
General Richard Myers, Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff of the armed forces, says U.S. interest in the Horn of Africa stems from increased terrorist activities.
"The Horn of Africa turns out to be a fairly busy place in terms of the flow of people and other instruments of war, weapons, explosives, perhaps weapons of mass destruction. But certainly intelligence says it flows either through the waters there or through some of the countries," he said.
General Myers declines to elaborate. But other officials say maritime interdiction operations off the coast of Somalia in recent months by British and French ships have gathered what one describes as "lots of intelligence information" about suspected terrorist activities.
Somalia is one of two countries in the Horn area that have long been viewed with concern by U.S. officials as possible terrorist sanctuaries. The other is Yemen, where officials say there is no doubt terrorist suspects have been in hiding.
General Myers mentions no countries by name but points out the problems posed by the region's ungoverned or uncontrolled areas.
There are a number of areas that you could call ungoverned or at least not under some government's tight control where terrorists can gather and either do operational planning or training and so forth. So we're very interested in the area for that reason and have positioned forces there to take appropriate action.
General Myers will not discuss any possible anti-terrorist operations.
But last week, another top U.S. General indicated the build-up in the Horn will enable American forces to coordinate activities and conduct exercises with countries including Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya and Yemen.
The decision to set up a special command unit for the Horn of Africa follows establishment of a similar command element in Afghanistan to oversee U.S. military operations there. Pentagon sources say these moves effectively free up other senior generals to concentrate on planning for possible armed actions against Iraq.