NAIROBI (IPS)–As the United States gears up for possible strikes on Iraq, the Horn of Africa is emerging as the focus of its vast anti-terrorism operations.
Regional political allegiances are becoming extremely fluid and the United States will have to tread carefully to avoid upsetting its erstwhile allies.
“The Red Sea and Middle East is now the central arena for terrorism. Everyone is on the lookout for this phenomenon,” said Mustapha Hassouna, a political and diplomatic analyst with the University of Nairobi.
The tiny French protectorate of Djibouti is the focus of U.S. attentions. Some 400 troops, including Marines, are on their way to Djibouti, to supplement a force of 800 Special Forces troops already stationed there. Their job is to monitor and be prepared to make commando raids on suspected terrorists trying to transit, hide or organize Al-Qaeda bases in the region.
Djibouti has traditionally been a firm ally of France, which has been vocal in its denunciation of President George W. Bush’s aggressive stance towards Iraq.
“The U.S. is taking over territory that was the political turf of the French. Whether it has France’s tactic approval is open to question,” Mr. Hassouna observes.
The United States has had a military presence in the region for several years, but it is now increasing dramatically, hand in hand with an unprecedented intense surveillance of the Horn’s lengthy coastlines and porous borders.
Mr. Hassouna points out that the region’s poorly policed borders have long made it a focus of a “very visible and widespread” narcotics trade that is a “comfortable bedfellow” of terrorism.
General Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a news conference in Washington recently that they “have positioned forces” in the Horn of Africa to prevent “terrorists” from “planning or training” there.
Gen. Myers went on to speculate that the Horn of Africa could be a hiding place for “people and other instruments of war–weapons, explosives, perhaps weapons of mass destruction.”
Djibouti’s strategic position, between Somalia and Ethiopia, makes it an ideal base for U.S. military and intelligence operations. It sits at the meeting point of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden and within striking distance of Yemen and Somalia–the two main suspected havens of Al-Qaeda followers.
The Pentagon announced that a headquarters element of the 2nd Marine Division, of some 400 troops, will head the Horn of Africa command. It will initially operate from a Navy ship in the Red Sea for the 60 to 90 days it will take to build a command post ashore, according to Associated Press reports.
The United States also has begun working more closely with other armed forces in the region. At a recent press briefing in Washington, Gen. Tommy Franks admitted that the U.S. also has “security arrangements or engagement opportunities” with Kenya, Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Yemen, according to The East African weekly.
But Mr. Hassouna believes the latest U.S. “off the cuff” moves–particularly the assassination of Qaed Salim Sinan Al-Harethi in Yemen–could jeopardize these previously harmonious relationships.
“Anti-Americanism is in vogue right now. Traditional allies, like Kenya, are wary of being seen as too close to the U.S.,” he said.
Kenya has a sizeable Muslim community along the coast, which is vociferously opposed to the Bush regime and their own government’s support for him. They charge that the war on terrorism is a pretext for persecuting Muslims and that Mr. Bush is the real terrorist, because of U.S. policy towards Palestine.
Similarly, in Yemen, currently the focus of U.S. operations, Osama bin Laden, who allegedly masterminded the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, has more popular support than Mr. Bush.
While Yemeni President Abdullah Ali Saleh has been busy rounding up scores of suspected members of Mr. bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda network–including his youngest wife, 20-year-old Amal al-Saddah, according to Time magazine–the majority of Yemenis living in its remote hillsides are much less sympathetic towards the United States.
“The government controls the cities and the towns but the countryside is in the hands of traditional chieftains,” said Mr. Hassouna.
Yemen, Mr. bin Laden’s ancestral home, has long been a base for Al-Qaeda. Hundreds of Yemenis followed him to Afghanistan in the 1990s to become his disciples. They are now believed to have returned home, in the wake of the U.S. war on Afghanistan.
Intelligence reports say Al-Qaeda has decentralized its operations around the globe, making it difficult to launch conventional military offensives against the illusive organization.
This is good news for Somalia, which has lived in fear of U.S. missile attacks for the last year. One of the reasons the U.S. sees Somalia as a potential haven for Al-Qaeda is because it has been without a central government since 1991.
It also alleges links between Al-Qaeda and a group called al-Itihaad al-Islamiya, which means Islamic Unity. The U.S. believes Al-Itihaad allowed Al-Qaeda to train in Somalia before the August 1998 twin attacks on the U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
The U.S. has sent reconnaissance missions to Somali to investigate but has not come up with any evidence of terrorist operations.
Somali leaders have been anxious to reassure the United States that their country is not a terrorist haven. One of the main points on a cease fire recently signed by Somali leaders negotiating in neighboring Kenya was a commitment to fight terrorism.