WASHINGTON – The Pentagon is creating a special military command on the Horn of Africa to monitor and pursue terrorists trying to transit, hide, train or organize in countries like Yemen and Somalia, defense officials said Monday.
Yemen is of particular interest, although the U.S. counterterrorism strategy there goes beyond use of the U.S. military. Officials said a CIA-operated aircraft fired a Hellfire missile at a car in northern Yemen on Sunday, killing at least six terrorists, including Al Qaeda's top man in Yemen, Qaed Salim Sinan al-Harethi.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, while not saying who conducted the attack, said he understood al-Harethi was among those reported killed. He said al-Harethi was involved in the October 2000 attack on the USS Cole, the Navy warship bombed while in the port of Aden, killing 17 sailors.
"It would be a very good thing if he were out of business," Rumsfeld told reporters.
To coordinate U.S. military operations against terrorists in Yemen and elsewhere in the vicinity, the Pentagon is establishing a Task Force Horn of Africa, to be based in the tiny country of Djibouti, between Somalia and Ethiopia.
A headquarters element of the 2nd Marine Division, numbering about 400 troops, will head the command, officials said. It initially will operate from a Navy ship in the Red Sea, probably the command ship USS Mount Whitney, for the 60 to 90 days it likely will take to build a command post ashore.
There already are about 800 Army Special Forces soldiers in Djibouti. More Marines could be added later, officials said. They described the arrangement as a significant step forward in the global war on terrorism, likening the task force to a similar command running operations in Afghanistan.
Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, confirmed the plan at a Pentagon news conference.
"The Horn of Africa turns out to be a fairly busy place in terms of the flow of people and other instruments of war — weapons, explosives, perhaps weapons of mass destruction," he said.
Myers described the Horn of Africa — which includes Sudan, Ethiopia, Djibouti and Somalia, as well as Yemen across the Red Sea — as a region in which "terrorists can gather and either do operational planning or training.... We're very interested in the area for that reason and have positioned forces there to take appropriate action."
The task force is nearly ready to begin operating, Myers said.
U.S. Special Forces soldiers conducted counterterrorism training with Yemeni forces earlier this year, and Rumsfeld said in a joint appearance with Myers on Monday that a small number of U.S. military personnel are still there.
"We have some folks in that country that have been working with the government and helping them think through ways of doing things," Rumsfeld said. "It's been a good cooperation, and we've shared some information and we think that over time it ought to be beneficial because there is no question but that there are Al Qaeda in Yemen."
Rumsfeld said terrorists have "taken advantage" of sea routes in and out of Yemen as well as its porous borders.
On other matters related to the war on terrorism, Rumsfeld said:
— More members of the National Guard and Reserve almost certainly will be called to active duty for a variety of missions. He would not say specifically whether or when some might be called for a possible war in Iraq.
— The Pentagon is looking to reduce its dependence on the National Guard and Reserves for certain skills it expects to need in the war on terrorism such as civil affairs specialists, few of whom are in the active military. Thousands would be needed in Iraq to stabilize the country after a U.S. military invasion to depose Saddam Hussein.