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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.

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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.

"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."

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