AHIR DAR, ETHIOPIA ——In the remote northern highlands of Ethiopia, where news travels by word of mouth and the occasional signal from battery-powered radios, six farmers serving as part-time militiamen guard a deteriorating stone bridge.
With AK-47s slung low on their backs, they question each approaching traveler: "Where are you going? Why?"
Most people here live on less than $1 a day. Some keep their children out of school because extra hands are needed to shepherd animals and guard crops.
Their main security concern is domestic terrorism, after years of border conflicts with neighboring Eritrea. But the militiamen also watch for international terrorism.
"There is al-Qaida in Ethiopia," said Negese Belay, a teacher who lives near the bridge. "We are all fearful that al-Qaida (from) Somalia … have missions in our region. Maybe it is to recruit, maybe it is something we don't understand. But we have to protect ourselves to keep the peace."
It's not a concern void of evidence. Al-Qaida was linked to the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in neighboring Kenya and nearby Tanzania. In 2000, the group was deemed responsible for the bombing of the USS Cole, a Norfolk-based destroyer, in the Yemeni Gulf of Aden.
The U.S. military is watching the area, also, and employing a different sort of pre-emptive tactic. In military parlance, it's called "nonkinetic warfare." It's taking the fight to insurgents by improving the lives of poverty-stricken villagers before they can be recruited by terrorists.
It's recognizing, as former Secretary of State Colin Powell said, "the war against terror is bound up in the war against poverty."
"You can't kill all the terrorists," Navy Capt. Kurt Scott said. He's with the Norfolk-based U.S. Joint Forces Command and last year helped manage military operations in East Africa. "You have to stop the fertile ground that's breeding the terrorists. These people are hopeless, and terrorism breeds on desperation. If you give people hope, it's amazing what you can do."
STRATEGIC VALUEIn December 2002 — following the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan to rid that country of the regime that harbored the terrorists responsible for the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks — the U.S. military's Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa started operations.
Its mission: capture terrorists who flee to the Horn from Afghanistan.
"The problem … is al-Qaida has always liked the Horn," retired Marine Corps Gen. Anthony Zinni said. "The Horn is really unstable. The Horn is appealing to them."
Zinni, of Williamsburg, led Central Command — which oversees operations in the Middle East — in the years before the U.S.-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.
The task force soon realized that its work in the Horn region — covering Djibouti, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Kenya, Seychelles, Somalia, Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda and Yemen — would be more than ensuring terrorists didn't have another place to go.
"Winning the people over is critical to winning the war on terrorism," said Paul Melshen, the task force's first political adviser. He now teaches at the Joint Forces Staff College in Norfolk. "You have to get in the mind-set that this will be a long-term event. If you take that as your critical assumption, you lay the groundwork for a successful campaign."
Because getting terrorists out of Africa is a long-term endeavor, Melshen said, "the people of the countries had to be supportive of us." To get that support, "you create a better life for them," he said.
Navy Rear Adm. Tim Moon said, "The new goal was this: overcoming the underlying conditions that create a recruiting ground for terrorists."
Moon, of York County, works with Joint Forces Command. He returned from Djibouti in April, after a 14-month stint as deputy commander of the Horn of Africa task force. Joint Forces Command, among other duties, helps prepare the task force's commanders for their deployments to Africa.