STUTTGART, Germany — As part of an effort to capture one of Africa’s most wanted men, an unique partnership has taken shape in central Africa where battle-tested U.S. special operations forces have been working alongside a team of young activists from California to eliminate the notorious rebel group known as the Lord’s Resistance Army.
“We were able to come together with them and strategize,” said Sean Poole, counter-LRA programs manager for Invisible Children, a San Diego-based non-profit group. “It all started with military chartered aircraft dropping leaflets.”
While Invisible Children focuses on creating flyers aimed at disaffected members of the rebel group headed by the elusive warlord Joseph Kony, the military has been instrumental in helping to get their messages out, Poole said. So far, those efforts have been focused on the Central African Republic, though efforts are under way to ramp up a similar effort in the neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo, where the LRA also is active.
In the past year, the U.S. military has been dropping hundreds of thousands of leaflets over the region. In contracted aircraft and military C-130s, the leaflets have been a key part of an effort to encourage defections from the LRA, a group known for abducting children for service both as sex slaves and soldiers, according to U.S. officials and activists.
“There definitely is a sense of momentum,” said Charlene Brown, an official with the U.S. Embassy in Uganda, who specializes in counter-LRA measures and helps coordinate U.S. efforts in the region.
Invisible Children, a non-governmental organization founded in 2004, has produced 14 different flyers. Most of the 690,000 leaflets dropped have showcased former LRA members who deserted from the rebel group and urged their former colleagues to do the same.
In addition, the group also conducts drops of its own. Invisible Children dropped some 30,000 leaflets over the DRC’s sprawling Garamba National Park one day recently. However, partnering with the U.S. military adds enormous reach to the effort, Poole said.
“Obviously it is a sensitive issue, working with the military,” Poole said. “NGOs have to separate themselves. But from our perspective, we looked at the logistical resources of the military. It made sense to leverage that. We are still in control of the messaging of the product.”
While partnerships between NGOs and the military are not unprecedented, the one between Invisible Children and U.S. troops operating in the region is a particularly strong one, Brown said.
When asked if the U.S. and its African partners are getting closer to Kony, Brown said: “We might be entering a phase where in the next six months we might see something happen, but it is difficult to predict.”
The launch of the leaflet campaign along with radio programs, “safe reporting sites” where locals ensure the safety of defectors, and a Ugandan effort to blast loudspeaker pro-defection messages from helicopters, has resulted in a recent spike in desertions, according to U.S. officials and Invisible Children.
“These efforts have seen progress in the way of an increase in the number of LRA defectors in 2012 from previous years,” said Lt. Col. Scott Rawlinson, a spokesman for U.S. Special Operations Command Africa, in a statement.
In 2011, there were 11 defectors. In 2012, there was a total of 33 defectors, many of whom cited the leaflets and loudspeaker messages as influencing their decision to defect, Rawlinson said.
At its peak, the LRA had about 2,000 fighters, but today the rebel group is believed to have a force of about 250, roaming across parts of the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Sudan and Uganda.
“The majority of [defections] have occurred since August, when combined forces increased their efforts to distribute leaflets and loudspeaker messages to encourage defectors to leave the LRA. All defectors have been safely handed over to the UPDF, with reports that many more want to leave,” Rawlinson said referring to the Uganda Peoples’ Defense Force.
In October 2011, President Barack Obama ordered about 100 U.S. military advisers, mostly special operations forces, to deploy to central Africa as part of an effort to apply pressure on the LRA, which has been a destabilizing force across the region for two decades.
The move was in response to the LRA Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act, bi-partisan legislation that was pushed by several activist groups including Invisible Children. In the years that followed, various high profile public awareness campaigns have focused international attention on the LRA.
U.S. Army Gen. David Rodriguez, who has been nominated to succeed Gen. Carter Ham as commander of U.S. Africa Command, said during his confirmation hearing last week that the LRA is one of four major threats he will be contending with if confirmed.
The LRA abducted 517 people and killed 51 others in 2012, according to the LRA Crisis Tracker, an online effort launched in 2011 by Invisible Children and another activist group, Washington-based Resolve.
The current U.S. military mission also provides intelligence, logistical and training support to regional militaries, which are responsible for on-the-ground operations against the rebel group, according to Brown.
Brown said the U.S. special operators continue to provide training and logistical help, but have so far stayed on the sidelines when it comes to actively hunting for LRA members in the field.
“It’s an advise and assist mission,” Brown said. “The UPDF is the tip of the spear.”
U.S. forces occasionally go on tracking patrols with Ugandan troops, but that is for the purpose of providing training while in the field, according to Brown. U.S. troops are prohibited from going on such missions when a possible encounter with LRA forces is deemed likely or is a main objective of the patrol, she said. To date, U.S. troops have not had any direct encounters with LRA members, she said.
The U.S. troops, however, have engaged directly with activists, such as Poole. In a place where there are few Westerners, it was inevitable that special operators and members of the Invisible Children team began to mix, Poole said.
“There aren’t a lot of English speakers in the area, so that breaks down barriers fast,” said Poole, who spends about seven months out of the year working in the region.
“I’ve been impressed with the professionalism and the level of expertise they’ve built on the LRA in such a short time,” Poole said of the U.S. military advisers.
The White House is expected to decide in the coming weeks whether or not to extend the deployment of U.S. advisers in the region.