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The African Front

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A number of little noticed and remarked upon developments over the last six weeks point to the opening of a new front in the Bush Administration’s war on terror. The new front is in Africa, and seems focused in the area between Djibouti and Tanzania. Ethiopia is emerging as the key strategic ally in this effort, and the chaotic zone around Mogadishu, not really controlled by any government, is a focal area of concern.

Today the Department of Defense announced the second transfer of a suspect seized in Africa to Guantánamo. According to the press release,

Abdullahi Sudi Arale is suspected of being a member of the Al Qaeda terrorist network in East Africa, serving as a courier between East Africa Al Qaeda (EAAQ) and Al Qaeda in Pakistan. Since his return from Pakistan to Somalia in September 2006, he has held a leadership role in the EAAQ-affiliated Somali Council of Islamic Courts (CIC).

Another detainee, Abdul Malik Mohammed, was picked up at a currency exchange store in Mombassa, Kenya in March 2007. He was transferred to Guantánamo in April. An American convert to Islam, Daniel Maldonado, was also seized in the region and transferred to custody somewhere in Texas. A significant number of Europeans appear also to have been seized and moved out of the area.

These detentions and transfers appear connected to a major operation established by the United States, involving Department of Defense, Department of State and CIA components, in the Horn of Africa. The shadowy operation has a focus on “filtration,” namely a large number – certainly thousands – of persons suspected of having a connection with a violent Islamic organization of whatever flavor are swept up and sent to filtration camps, usually run under the auspices of the Ethiopian Government. In fact, however, these camps are organized, paid for and operated by the U.S. Government, and the conditions there are abysmal. Detainees at the camps are subjected to interrogation over extended periods, and a decision is made either to return, release or transfer the detainees. Those selected as probable activists or sympathizers may be passed to a CIA blacksite.

While mainstream media has generally ignored these developments (the exception being an Associated Press report that went out when an FBI agent assigned to the project expressed his horror about what was going on), Tom Porteous has done a good survey on OpenDemocracy.

Against this background, the Pentagon has also announced the creation of a new African Command (AFRICOM) which is set to open for business in October in the Stuttgart suburb of Vaihingen – which is the site of the U.S. European Command. USEUCOM previously had responsibility for Africa. The Washington Post’s Walter Pincus describes a key aspect of the project:

The Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa, set up in October 2002, maintains a semi-permanent presence of 1,500 U.S. military and civilian personnel at Camp Lemonier in Djibouti, from which it carries out counterterrorism and humanitarian operations. U.S. military advisers from there currently aid the African Union mission in Sudan. The Pentagon is carrying out information operations with military information support teams deployed to U.S. embassies on the continent.

These operations require Congressional oversight and better public attention as well. From what has been reported so far, they appear to be geared to repeat the key mistakes that were made in both Afghanistan and Iraq. That would be a very inauspicious start for a new military command.

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