OFF THE KENYAN COAST – U.S. Marines and Kenyan troops are carrying out joint exercises, annual maneuvers that have taken on greater significance since the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings and last week's attacks on Israeli targets.
The latest "Operation Edged Mallet" got under way on Kenya's idyllic Indian Ocean coast just days before the twin attacks last Thursday that killed 15 people, both Kenyans and Israelis.
Although Kenyan police say they have few leads, both Israeli and U.S. officials say they suspect Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda network and al-Itihaad al-Islamiya, an Islamic fundamentalist group from neighboring Somalia, for the suicide bombing at a hotel catering to Israelis and for a failed missile attack on an Israeli airliner.
The joint exercises by members of the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, Navy explosives experts and Kenyan forces are designed to "enhance the interoperability and proficiency between Kenyan and U.S. forces," Lt.j.g. Joshua Frey, a spokesman for the U.S. 5th Fleet, said Tuesday.
"It also will refine and strengthen the existing military-to-military relationship between the United States and Kenya," Frey said. "It provides an excellent opportunity for the United States to demonstrate its commitment to its allies and regional partners."
The Marines are fresh from a live-fire exercise in Djibouti, a small former French colony to the north in the Horn of Africa facing Yemen, where some 800 U.S. Special Forces and commandos set up shop in August as part of the U.S.-led war on terrorism.
Later this month, the amphibious assault ship USS Mount Whitney carrying more Marines is expected in Djibouti to serve as the floating headquarters in the Red Sea for the Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa.
U.S. Navy ships, and those of allied forces have been patrolling the waters off Somalia, Djibouti and Kenya since the Sept. 11 attacks.
Edged Mallet was planned long before last week's attacks just north of Mombasa, the largest port on the east coast of Africa, Frey said, and "has not really changed," because of them.
The exercise will involve an airfield seizure scenario and combat engineering — "building things in forward areas," Frey said.
There will also be medical and dental projects, he said, adding that the exercise is also part of a program to improve relations between the Kenyan military and local communities.
Kenya is regarded as a key ally in an unstable region: the East African nation shares a long, porous border with Somalia, which has not had an effective government in more than a decade, and a border with Sudan which is in the midst of a 19-year civil war.
It also has an 800-mile Indian Ocean coast whose principal inhabitants are Muslims.
Bin Laden lived in Sudan during the 1990s, and U.S. officials say Al Qaeda established cells in Sudan, Somalia, Tanzania and Kenya in the early 1990s.
Some of the authors of the 1998 Nairobi embassy bombing that killed 219 people, including 12 Americans, and injured another 5,000, had been living in Kenya's coastal region for several years, where they had set up a fishing business.
The Horn of Africa, together with Kenya and Sudan, is awash with weapons that easily pass the Kenyan-Somali border.
Muslims make up an estimated 5 percent to 10 percent of Kenya's population of 30 million, and Africa's eastern coast is dotted with cities and towns founded more than 1,000 years ago by Muslim traders.
Off the coast, there are a number of small islands where poverty-stricken Muslim fishermen and their families live.
The region took on added importance after the Sept. 11 attacks; U.S. officials frequently cite the Horn of Africa, which includes Somalia, Eritrea, Djibouti and Ethiopia, as possible terrorist havens.
After last Thursday's attacks, the State Department warned American citizens in Djibouti and other countries in the region that it had received unspecified threats of another possible terrorist attack.
Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi and Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi are to meet with President Bush in Washington on Thursday to discuss security in the Horn of Africa.