ABOARD THE USS MOUNT WHITNEY – Petty Officer 1st Class Jaja O'Neil knows all about the terrorist threat in the Horn of Africa. He was aboard the USS Cole in Yemen two years ago when an Al Qaeda attack killed 17 U.S. soldiers.
O'Neil returned to the Gulf of Aden last week, among 400 Navy, Marine, Army and Air Force troops on this ship assigned to the U.S. military's new task force in the Horn of Africa.
"It feels pretty good to be back in the region, considering what we are doing as far as the war on terrorism goes," O'Neil, a Chicago native, said Tuesday. "There's a lot of emotion ... sadness remembering my shipmates and the families they left behind, and there's anger."
The task force's mandate is to eradicate terrorist activity in Kenya, Yemen, Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Sudan and Somalia, and to hunt down operatives of Usama bin Laden's Al Qaeda network.
"We know that when we went to Afghanistan and started evicting Al Qaeda that they fled to other countries," Rear Adm. Don Bullard told reporters visiting the ship Tuesday, "and we have fairly good reasons to believe that some of those fled to Yemen and some of those fled to the Horn of Africa ... Terrorist acts are prevalent here."
The crew of the USS Mount Whitney joins 900 U.S. troops based at Camp Lemonier in nearby Djibouti, from where they have been gathering intelligence and building relationships with governments in the region.
Djiboutian officials say publicly that they will not allow their small, but strategically important nation to be used as a base for attacking other countries. Privately, however, they admit there is little they can do if one of the many U.S. helicopters at the camp takes off and crosses into neighboring airspace.
In October this tiny Muslim country agreed to allow U.S. forces, who began arriving in April, to remain at Camp Lemonier for another six months. But Djibouti's International Cooperation Minister Mahmoud Ali Youssouf told The Associated Press that the impoverished nation is not getting the assistance it would like from the United States.
"We have provided America with everything, and we do not see any results of this cooperation," Youssef said. "We cannot fight terrorism effectively if we cannot fight poverty. The United States has the means to help a small country like Djibouti, so why does it not help build schools and hospital and supply medicine?"
Djiboutian and U.S. officials discussed an aid package of about $10 million earlier this year.
On Tuesday, the troops at Camp Lemonier whiled away the hours playing cards, and riding exercise bikes. Army Specialist Joshua Griggs, a native of Tifton, Ga., called the stint "hot and tiresome."
But "We are keeping busy," added Sgt. Ben Reed, from Byfield, Mass., a fellow member of the 101st Airborne Division. "There's a lot of training and stuff going on. It's really a small little bit of the global war against terrorism."
Whenever Marine Sgt. Jason Franco goes home to New York City, he drives past the rubble-strewn pit where the World Trade Center towers stood.
"Why are we here?" he asked. "Because this is the place (the terrorists) chose to go."
The Horn of Africa — particularly Sudan, Yemen and Somalia — has been cited as a possible haven for terrorists since the Sept. 11 attacks.
Sudan was bin Laden's home in the 1990s; Yemen is his ancestral home, and Somalia has not had an effective government since 1991.
U.S. officials suspect a Somali Islamic group, al-Ittihad al-Islami, has links to Al Qaeda and that it was involved in the Nov. 28 attacks in Kenya that killed 10 Kenyans and three Israelis.
Kenya, which shares long and porous borders with Sudan and Somalia, was the scene of a terrorist attack in 1998 when the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi was bombed, killing 219 people, including 12 Americans.
Rear Adm. Bullard said the task force will work with its coalition partners, including Kenya and Ethiopia, to establish what if any links al-Ittihad has to terrorism.
"If that is in fact true, part of our mission is to defeat that," he said. "I think we have information in fact that there have been terrorist activities ongoing in and out of Somalia ... you look at the current indications that maybe the bombing in the Kenya hotel was supported out of Somalia."
Youssouf, the minister, conceded there was terrorist activity in the region, but said it was carried out by foreigners.
"There are many Islamic groups throughout Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda, but I do not think these are militarily active groups," he said.