US faces test to secure E. Africa

The USS Mount Whitney could arrive Friday in Djibouti with an additional 400 US troops.

It's the usual Friday night crowd at the Pavement Club in Nairobi's Westlands: Young expatriates, upper-middle-class locals, a sprinkling of Asians, a few prostitutes. But the Americans with the crew cuts and G-Shock watches sipping energy drinks at the bar stand out.

"We are here to see the wildlife," one explains brightly.

Since the hotel bombing by Al Qaeda that killed 13 people two weeks ago in Mombasa, Kenya is awash with crew-cut types: undercover intelligence agents - both Israeli and American - sorting through evidence, talking to eyewitnesses, trying to find the clues that will lead them to the perpetrators of the attack and their backers.

Four years after the bombing of the US Embassy in Nairobi that killed 219 people, the US has once again been rudely reminded of the danger involved in ignoring Africa. The Bush administration is, therefore, increasing its presence on the continent, strengthening allies to assist in the fight against terrorism. But in a poor region with porous borders, weak or corrupt governments, cheap arms, and an increasingly radical Muslim community, this is no easy task.

"If the US does not plug the terror hole here, however tricky that might be," says Moustafa Hassouna, lecturer at the University of Nairobi's Institute of Diplomacy and International Studies, "then it can only expect more terror from here. It knows it needs to get moving."

The US appears to be getting the message. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld wrapped up a trip through neighboring Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Djibouti this week; the USS Mount Whitney - a floating command post for the new Joint Task Force Horn of Africa, which is to oversee antiterror operations in the region - is en route with 400 troops to Djibouti, where some 800 special forces and several hundred marines are already stationed; and a White House advance team checked into the Nairobi Safari Park Hotel Wednesday, holding schedules showing a tentative presidential visit here on Jan. 16.

Mr. Rumsfeld emphasized that he was not in the region to "engage in transactions," or "put pressure on anybody," but he did indicate the possibility of expanding US military presence in the region. Several African countries here - including both Ethiopia and Eritrea - have reportedly already offered their countries as bases for US troops. In his Washington meeting last week with Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi and Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, President George W. Bush stressed that African allies would be helpful not only in providing bases for the US, but also in sharing information.

Intelligence gathering and sharing, say experts, should be the US's priority. Stephen Morrison, Africa director at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says that diplomatic and intelligence personnel have been reduced in Africa over the past decade, leading to incomplete knowledge of quickly changing trends on the ground.

There is, for example, a great amount of talk about ties between a Somali group - Al Ittihad al-Islamiya - and Al Qaeda. Al Ittihad has been on the US list of terror organizations for over a year, and has been fingered as a possible perpetrator of the recent bomb attack here. But the US has had no official full-time presence in Somalia since 1993.

"It is not easy to properly monitor or investigate - never mind crush - Al Ittihad if the US does not have people on the ground it can trust finding out about this group," says one European official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

"Nobody wants to face up to the cleanup of Somalia. Only if there is hard evidence of terrorist action out of Somalia would that be reconsidered," asserts independent military strategist Edward Luttwak, who has served as a consultant to the office of the secretary of defense and the State Department. "As of now there is only suspicion." That needed evidence, he says, is what must now be sought.

Intelligence cooperation led investigators this week to question the mother and brother of a man thought to have purchased the vehicle used in the Mombasa bombing. Investigators are unsure whether 23-year-old Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan was one of the three men who died in the suicide bombing. Police also released a computer-generated composite sketch of the two men suspected of being involved in the simultaneous missile attack on an Israeli jetliner. So far no arrests have been made.

Another priority for the US is to block the illegal movement of arms and people across the region's borders. "Intelligence cooperation will prove useless unless countries here are committed to adopting serious arms-control measures to stem the smuggling of weapons to terrorists," says Pauline Baker, president of the Fund for Peace, a nongovernmental organization (NGO) based in Washington. "Such weapons flows not only endanger the lives of civilians on the ground but create operational capabilities for international terrorism."

After the Embassy bombing in 1998, experts from the US and Israel came in to improve security. They trained personnel, installed X-ray machines in airports and satellite phones at outposts along the Somalia border, and brought in speed boats to help the Coast Guard. Yet all met with limited results. Today, it is still possible, with a kitu kidogo - Swahili for "a little something," meaning a bribe - to travel in and out of Kenya by air, road, or sea without documentation.

The US is again helping Kenya beef up security - with money, additional speedboats, and military training - but also makes it clear that it expects Kenya to be more vigilant in protecting its borders.

While the US goes about the work of moving closer to its allies, it has continually to ensure that it does not compromise too much when it comes to accountability, warns John Githongo, Kenya director of Transparency International. "Just because Kenya is fighting terror today does not mean the US should turn a blind eye when leaders are corrupt, abuse human rights, fail to implement economic reforms, or refuse to allow for a transparent national election," he says. "Doing so would be counterproductive."

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