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To fight Al Qaeda, US troops in Africa build schools instead

More than 1,500 US troops are on a hearts and minds mission.

By James BrandonCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / January 9, 2006



CAMP LEMONIER, DJIBOUTI

Pointing to his computer screen, Maj. Gen. Timothy Ghormley sounds more like a Peace Corps volunteer showing off holiday photos than the shaven-headed US Marine entrusted with defeating Al Qaeda in East Africa.

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"That's what it's about right there," he says, stabbing his eyeglasses at the pictures of African children celebrating as water gushes from a new well. "Look at those kids. They're gonna remember this. In 25 years they'll say, 'I remember the West - they were good.' "

In 2002, more than 1,500 US troops were sent to this former French colony in East Africa to hunt followers of Al Qaeda throughout the region. Now, under General Ghormley, their mission has evolved to preempt the broader growth of Islamic militancy among the area's largely Muslim population.

"We are trying to dry up the recruiting pool for Al Qaeda by showing people the way ahead. We are doing this one village, one person at a time," says Ghormley, commander of the joint task force based in Djibouti. "We're waging peace just as hard as we can."

Previously East Africa has hosted an array of Islamic militant groups. In 1998, Al Qaeda bombed the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, killing more than 220 people. The group has also tried to shoot down an Israeli airliner in Mombasa, Kenya, and sink oil tankers and US navy vessels in the Red Sea.

Now many analysts worry that trouble is again brewing as rising poverty combines with the anti-Western ideologies of hard-line Islamic missionaries in a region already dogged by porous borders, plentiful weapons, and poor governance.

"There aren't actually that many groups or individuals involved," says Matt Bryden, director of the Horn of Africa project for International Crisis Watch. "But there's a danger that if these groups are not contained it is just a matter of time before they strike at Western targets in Somalia or start reaching out to the region again."

"Some of them did have links with Al Qaeda but for the most part there doesn't seem to be an active Al Qaeda or even an Al Qaeda franchise," says Mr. Bryden. "But the US has discovered that there are actually much fewer targets than they expected."

No targets but hearts and minds

Unable to find or strike at any visible Al Qaeda members, US forces based in Camp Lemonier - Djibouti's former French Foreign Legion base - have instead begun to work to tackle the factors that might contribute to the growth of extremism in the future.

Ghormley's men have so far built more than 30 schools and 25 clinics, as well as new wells and bridges. They are focusing particularly on the mainly Muslim areas close to the porous Somali border where poverty and dissatisfaction with pro-Western central governments might make many receptive to extremist teachings.

"Ungoverned spaces are vulnerable. The forces of law and order don't exist there," says Lt. Col. Richard Baillon, of Britain's Parachute Regiment. A small contingent of British troops are working with US forces in a coalition effort. "The people in these areas aren't getting government support."

Planners in Camp Lemonier say that their long-term strategy is to gradually move deeper into these poor and ungoverned areas.

"We're not likely to go where we're not wanted or where there's open hostility," says Baillon, tapping a wall-map like a schoolmaster. "But it's about pushing the boundaries of where we are wanted."

The Coalition's planners hope that by tackling localized dissatisfaction now, they can create long-term goodwill toward the US in the region. "A lot of times when we first show up there's a mixed reaction," says Sgt. Richard Crandall of the 96th Civil Affairs Battalion. "One place we went to they considered the US to be warmongers. But we built a school and when we left they said they considered us friends."

The military is taking time to adapt to its new humanitarian mission too - and this means that there have been some mistakes made along the way.

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