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 , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

"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.

Recommended: 5 reasons why Africa is not ready to meet its own security needs – yet

"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.

For example, the task force's military budget only covers the cost of constructing and renovating school buildings. Before the schools can open, soldiers have to pester nongovernmental organizations, charities, and friends back home for donated textbooks. In other cases there has been poor communication between the US and local people. Some villages, thinking that the Americans could only build schools, requested a new school when they needed wells and bridges instead. The mistake was realized too late.

Meanwhile, the US increasingly depends on local governments to use their cultural and linguistic knowledge to track and tackle Islamic extremists.

"The information sharing is not ideal; not up to the point that we would like," admits Nabeel Khoury, deputy chief of mission at the US embassy in Sanaa, Yemen.

And although there are handfuls of up-armored Humvees parked alongside rusting French artillery pieces throughout Camp Lemonier, the US increasingly seeks to delegate its military operations.

"We're doing military-to-military training with five countries in the region," says Col. Doug Carroll, director of operations for the Horn of Africa task force. The US has trained Yemeni special forces in counter-terrorism while officers from Mauritius and the Comoros Islands in the Indian Ocean have been taught how to train their own soldiers once they return home.

"In Ethiopia we've taught border security, we've taught basic counter-terrorism, what they call advanced map reading and also defensive operations," says Carroll, who denies that the training will upset the region's delicate balance of power. "We're not teaching them anything that would be applicable to the Ethiopian-Eritrean border war," he says of the training of Ethiopian border guards, while also denying that US-trained troops have been used to crush recent uprisings in Yemen.

Somalia remains a clear blind spot

But although the lack of recent Al Qaeda attacks in the region points to the mission's success so far, there remains a clear blind spot at the heart of the US deployment.

"It's a bit of a paradox," says Bryden. "The threat that the US perceives in the region comes from Somalia, but that is the only place where they can't operate."

Senior officers in Djibouti refuse to even discuss Somalia, although one officer privately admitted having contact with high-level members of the government of Somaliland - a breakaway republic in the north of the war-torn country that recently arrested one Al Qaeda team linked to extremist groups in Mogadishu.

"The US has had to develop a much more nuanced approach and it shows that they are dealing with the problem," says Bryden. "They've had to discover the difference between terrorism and a domestic insurgency."

As the US gradually increases its understanding of the region there is no sign of the mission winding down. Instead, as more British troops also prepare to deploy to the region, the operation seems to have become entirely open-ended.

"It's important that we share what we have to allow all nations to advance," says General Ghormley. "We didn't earn being born in America - the Good Lord put us there and with that came responsibility."

An area five times larger than Iraq

Standing in his office, Ghormley, surrounded by maps where arrow-straight borders drawn by European colonialists cut across mountains, deserts, and complex ethnic groups, provides more than an echo of a Victorian soldier-missionary.

"You can win a heart and mind today and lose it tomorrow," Ghormley continues. "We see no spread of radical ideology. We see a lot of people who would like it to spread."

But with Camp Lemonier boasting less than 1 percent of the troops currently deployed in Iraq and responsible for an area five times larger, Ghormley is aware that there is a limit to what the US can achieve in the region.

"I could use more money, more people, but I've got the resources I need to carry on," he says, taking a last look at the pictures on his computer screen. "They're good people and it breaks your heart that you can't do more for them."

Share this story:

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.

Loading...

Loading...

Loading...