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U.S. Command Fights Terrorists On African Soil


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

Back in January, Navy Seals rescued an American aid worker who was held for months by Somali pirates. That moment shone a spotlight on the U.S. military's newest regional command - Africom, the U.S. Africa Command, which was created in 2007. One of its biggest concerns is dealing with terrorist groups such as al-Qaida and its regional affiliates. Renee spoke with the head of Africom, General Carter Ham.


Good morning.

GENERAL CARTER HAM: Good morning, Renee. Thank you.

MONTAGNE: One of the biggest terrorist attacks in the '90s was in Africa, a very deadly coordinated assault on two American embassies. Are you still concerned with the threat to American interests on the continent or do you see Africa as a potential staging ground for terrorist attacks in the U.S.?

HAM: It is both, Renee. We're charged with insuring the security of Americans and American interests from threats that might emanate from the continent of Africa. We have seen, certainly, the two embassy attacks, but also kidnappings of American citizens, other indications that they are expressing the intent to export their attacks.

MONTAGNE: Well, the U.S. does have a small base in Djibouti, which is east Africa. Describe that base for us.

HAM: The geographic location of Djibouti  places it right at the horn of Africa, so at the intersection of the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea, directly across the Gulf of Aden from Yemen. It's a major shipping line for commerce. And it also is a great platform from which we can extend our reach into other parts of east Africa.

MONTAGNE: Where else on the continent would you see American forces and what would they be doing?

HAM: In most of the rest of the continent of Africa, our presence is very small and specifically tailored to the mission sets that are required. For example, many listeners, I think, will recall a few months ago when President Obama announced the deployment of about a hundred special forces advisors to help the militaries of Uganda, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo and the Republic of South Sudan to counter the threat posed by a violent organization known as the Lord's Resistance Army.

MONTAGNE: Let's talk for a moment about the Lord's Resistance Army and that particular mission in Uganda alongside soldiers there. What American interest is served by getting American forces involved in a fight that does seem to be basically local?

HAM: Well, first, our personnel are there in an advise and assist role, not in a role to conduct operations to counter the Lord's Resistance Army. That's the responsibility, and rightfully so, of the four African nations which are involved.

It's a fair question to say why should the U.S. care about this. The Lord's Resistance Army, though very small, is a very vicious organization. It's pretty horrific what they do. But from a larger standpoint, they have caused the displacement of many tens of thousands of people. They've disrupted economies. They've disrupted good governance. They undermine regional stability. And that's why we're concerned.

MONTAGNE: Which gets us to the Arab Spring. Libya, for instance, did not have a military to military relationship with the U.S. before the Arab spring, but it now does. And Africom was the first to send missiles into Libya in that time before NATO got involved. How much effect has the Arab Spring had on your mission?

HAM: It's had a very significant effect. The conduct of military operations in Libya did afford now the opportunity to establish a military to military relationship with Libya, which did not previously exist. And we found the Libyans very understanding of the need to establish security across the country and also to contribute to regional stability. And we're seeking to establish what I would call a normal military to military relationship with Libya.

We see much the same thing, though less violently, in Tunisia. In fact, Tunisia's probably a little ahead of Libya and are moving on a very positive trend, and we're in contact with the Tunisians and have a very good relationship with their minister of defense to find ways in which we can cooperate on mutual concerns in the security arena.

MONTAGNE: General, thanks very much for speaking with us.

HAM: OK, Renee. Thank you very much.

MONTAGNE: General Carter Ham is the head of the U.S. Africa Command, speaking to us from the Pentagon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.