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Djibouti-Based Anti-Terrorist Task Force Steps Up Training - 2003-06-18


The U.S.-led anti-terror task force based in Djibouti has stepped up training of American and regional military forces to counter the terrorism threat in the Horn of Africa.

A giant CH-53 Super Stallion military helicopter hovers three meters off the ground, as it unloads its cargo of troops at a remote beach in northern Djibouti.

Gripping a rope hanging through an opening on the belly of the helicopter, armed soldiers of the U.S. Army's 10th Mountain Division slide down to the rocky terrain below. With guns raised, some of the soldiers fan out to secure the area while others move quickly toward a group of buildings near the shoreline.

Sergeant Jim Lewis explains the buildings have been chosen to practice urban warfare, a skill the soldiers need to hone if they are to hunt down terrorists who may be hiding in cities around the region.

"We are focused on battle drills, something we need to constantly train on so that it becomes an instinctive and familiar thinking for the soldiers," he said. "That is what we are mainly focused on, to stay ready and wait for the call."

Most of the 150 or so 10th Mountain soldiers deployed here say before they arrived a little more than a month ago, they knew very little, if at all, about tiny Djibouti on the Horn of Africa.

But since then, the troops have been getting to know every corner of the country, relying on experience the division acquired during missions in Afghanistan. The light infantry division played a major role in U.S.-led operations there, including Operation Anaconda in March, 2002, to flush al-Qaida fighters out of complex network of caves in eastern Afghanistan.

The U.S. military remains vague about whether any of its troops have ever taken part in similar missions in east Africa.

Journalists have had little access to the movements of nearly 2,000 American troops in the region, which also includes Special Forces troops, the Marines, the Navy, and the Air Force.

The troops form the core of the U.S.-led task force, called the Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa, created last October to enhance regional anti-terrorism cooperation with coalition partners Djibouti, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Kenya, and Yemen. The task force believes many of the countries in east Africa and Yemen are being used by al-Qaida and other organizations to transit or to plan terrorist activities.

To counter the threat, American anti-terror training teams have been deployed in recent months to various coalition partner countries in the region to work with their militaries and security forces.

An unknown number of U.S. troops are currently in the Kenyan coastal towns of Mombasa and Lamu training Kenyan naval forces. Mombasa was the site of last November's deadly car bombing at an Israeli-owned hotel and the unsuccessful simultaneous attack on an Israeli airliner.

Other American training teams have been dispatched to Ethiopia and Yemen to prepare soldiers there for anti-terror operations. The new commanding general of the task force, Marine Brigadier General Mastin Robeson, acknowledges that such training could have minimal impact if it is not kept up over time.

"Without a doubt, there are clearly examples, historically, where people who have been trained, that capability have eroded over time and was not sustained," said General Robeson. "But we have been very encouraged at both the ministerial level, at the heads of the military and down at the operational level at how committed they seem to be, to want to gain the capability and maintain the capability. They seem to understand the need to put money into equipment, their need to put money into exercises that sustains. So, we have great hope."

General Robeson estimates it could be two to three years before the task force reaches its objective of what it terms detecting, disrupting, and destroying transnational terrorism in the Horn of Africa region.

But with such an enormous territory to cover in the hunt for terrorists, the general does not rule out the possibility that the U.S. military presence in the region could be far longer than two to three years.