Military, Public Service

The Forgotten Front

By James T. McKenna | March 1, 2005

Since September 11th, 2001, a small group of U.S. forces and allies have been waging the fight against terrorism in the cradle of Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda--the Horn of Africa.

Their war on terrorism, Bush administration officials have always stressed, is a long-term fight that by necessity must be waged wherever in the world terrorists muster for attacks.

International and domestic U.S. attention has been focused for more than three years on the war's fronts in Afghanistan, whose Taliban leaders openly supported Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda followers, and in Iraq, where the links with bin Laden and international terrorism were less clear.


But since the September 11th, 2001 terror attacks that provoked the war, U.S. forces and allies have operated on another front. This front is overlooked in public debate. Indeed, it is barely mentioned, saved by those military leaders helping to orchestrate the fight there. Lt. Gen. Michael Hough, the U.S. Marine Corps' deputy commandant for aviation, seems to rarely miss an opportunity to remind the public that Marines are operating on three fronts.

The third, "forgotten" one arguably could prove most critical to victory against terrorism, given its location: the nations in the Horn of Africa. That region, made up of the easternmost reaches of that continent as well as a portion of the Arabian Peninsula opposite it across the Red Sea, is where Osama bin Laden's war against the West was born.

The eyes of U.S. military leaders were opened to threats in the Horn of Africa even before bin Laden's teams struck New York City and Washington, D.C. On Oct. 12, 2000, terrorists steered a small boat laden with explosives next to the guided missile destroyer USS Cole, moored in Aden, Yemen. The blast that followed killed 17 sailors and injured 39.

After Al Qaeda henchmen crashed airliners into the World Trade Center and Pentagon 11 months later, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Gen. Tommy Franks, then head of the U.S. Central Command, dispatched special-forces units to the Horn region.

In addition to its role as the cradle of bin Laden's terror network, the Horn was of concern to U.S. military and intelligence officials who feared that al Qaeda members under attack by an international coalition's Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan would flee toward Yemen and Somalia. Yemen historically has been a key source of recruits for al Qaeda.

"The Horn of Africa turns out to be a fairly busy place in terms of the flow of people and other instruments of war: weapons, explosives, perhaps weapons of mass destruction," as well as intelligence, Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff said in late 2002. In addition, in the region "there are a number of areas that you can call ungoverned or at least not under some government's tight control--where terrorists can gather and either do operational planning or training."

Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa was stood up in late 2002, when a contingent of 400 troops embarked from Morehead City, N.C. aboard the sophisticated command and control ship USS Mount Whitney under the command of Marine Maj. Gen. John Sattler. The contingent included H-46D Sea Knight aircrews from Det. 4 of U.S. Navy Helicopter Combat Support Sqdn. 6 from NAS Norfolk, Va.

The task force moved ashore in May 2003, establishing its headquarters at Camp Lemonier, a former French Foreign Legion base in Djibouti, a small nation just across the Red Sea from Yemen. Djibouti has strategic value, sitting beside Bab al Mandeb, the strait between the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden.

At that time, Pentagon officials said, there were 800 U.S. troops on the ground in the Horn, in addition to the personnel aboard the Mount Whitney; some media reports put the number on the ground as high as 1,800. Their collective mission was threefold, as Sattler said at the time.

First, "detecting the terrorists," he said. Second, "disrupting and then defeating" the terrorists. "The third portion of our mission is to enhance the long-term stability of the region."

The task force's operating area is defined as "the total airspace and land areas out to the high-water mark of Kenya, Somalia, Ethiopia, Sudan, Eritrea, Djibouti and Yemen" (see map, page 32).

The Horn of Africa task force includes rotorcraft support of unspecified size. The most visible helicopter element is a detachment of a Marine heavy helicopter squadron. The detachments are deployed to the task force on a 180-day rotation. The current one is Det. B (Reinforced) of Heavy Marine Helicopter Sqdn. 461 (HMH 461). The "Ironhorses" detachment, commanded Lt. Col. Frank "Spanky" Crisafulli, took "an undisclosed amount" of the squadron's CH-53Es to Camp Lemonier.

The pace of operations for the detachment has been busy, according to Crisafulli, who noted that it logged more than 120 hr. in November 2004, "a great accomplishment in itself given the challenges we face out here at the `end of nowhere.'"

Rotorcraft support has, at times, included other units. In late 2002, for instance, aircrews of U.S. Air Force MH-53 Pave Low helicopters used the Mount Whitney's flight deck for landing qualifications. The special forces' pilots are required to conduct six daytime landings, six nighttime landings and 10 landings using night vision goggles. Task force officials have said Pave Low crews will continue to qualify and practice deck landings periodically throughout the duration of their use in the area.

Publicly, the task force emphasizes the last part of the mission outlined by Sattler. Officials highlight the efforts of task force personnel to renovate roads, rebuild medical clinics and schools, hand out shoes to the region's children and provide field medical care to them, their parents and the animals their parents rely on for food, farming and transportation.

On Jan. 29, for example, Ironhorse Super Stallions ferried building supplies to Dorra, Djibouti, where U.S. officials were overseeing rebuilding of a youth center.

"Our only other option was to drive the materials for a portion of the distance to the town and then use camels for the rest of the distance," a U.S. embassy official in Djibouti said.

But clearly a key role for the task force is to take the fight to terrorists and their supporters in that region. For example, in early November 2002 a Hellfire missile fired from a U.S. Predator drone killed six people identified by authorities as members of al Qaeda in the Yemen province of Marib, 100 mi. east of that nation's capital of Sana'a. Reportedly, the drone took off from Djibouti but was controlled from CIA headquarters in Langley, Va.

Just a month before that attack, terrorists identified as al Qaeda associates resurrected the tactics demonstrated against USS Cole, this time attacking the French oil tanker Limburg is the waters off Yemen. As a result, task force officials have said, a focus of their intelligence gathering is on identifying where terrorists might store small boats and launch attacks with them.

In that regard, the Horn of Africa task force collaborates closely with Combined Joint Task Force 150. That multi-national maritime task force currently is made of ships from France, Germany, Italy, Pakistan, the United Kingdom and the United States. Today it is commanded by Rear Adm. Henning Hoops of the German navy.

In addition to the Marines, Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa includes units from the U.S. Army, Navy and Air Force as well as military personnel from Ethiopia, Djibouti, French, South Korean, the United Kingdom and Yemen.

In addition, task force members have trained jointly with French forces in Djibouti. This has included anti-terrorism training involving Task Force Rawhide, 4th Marine Expeditionary Brigade (Antiterrorism) and the French Foreign Legion's at France's commando training center at Arta Plage, Djibouti.

The Ironhorse detachment's CH-53Es have been fitted with the Ramp Mounted Weapon System, which is designed to give their crews 180 deg. of defensive fire from the rear of the aircraft.

The system is being evaluated as a defensive weapon for several Marine assault support aircraft. The HMH 461 detachment is the first Fleet Marine Force air unit to make operational use of the system, which includes a Fabrique Nationale M3M .50-caliber machine gun modified for Marine applications.

The Horn of Africa task force has a strong rotorcraft heritage. Its current commander, Maj. Gen. Samuel T. Helland, is an old "Ironhorse" commander as well as a former assistant deputy commandant for aviation. After a combat tour with the U.S. Army's 5th Special Forces Group in Vietnam, Helland left that service to enlist in the Marines. He gained a commission in 1973 and became a CH-53 pilot in 1974.

In addition, Col. Mark A. Dungan, who recently took over as commander of Marine Detachment-Camp Lemonier is a helicopter pilot. Also an enlisted Marine, he earned his commission in the early 1980s and became a Naval helicopter pilot, serving with HMH-464 and Marine Aviation Weapons and Tactics Sqdn. One. Dungan also commanded HMH-366 at Marine Corps Base Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii.

Receive the latest rotorcraft news right to your inbox