OBO, Central African Republic — Six months after President Obama ordered 100 elite troops to help capture the messianic warlord Joseph Kony, U.S. military commanders said Sunday that they have been unable to pick up his trail but believe he is hiding in this country’s dense jungle, relying on Stone Age tactics to dodge his pursuers’ high-tech surveillance tools.
Kony and his brutal militia, the Lord’s Resistance Army, have slowed their pace of rapes, abductions and killings in recent months. Under renewed international pressure, LRA fighters have slipped deeper into the bush, splintering into smaller bands to avoid detection and literally covering their tracks, according to U.S., African and United Nations officials who are collaborating on the hunt.
Kony, a Ugandan guerrilla who began his uprising in the 1980s, long ago ordered his followers to stop using radios and cellphones to avoid leaving an electronic trail. Nowadays, officials said, his 200 or so fighters rely on foot messengers and preordained rendezvous points to communicate.
Kony’s methods have proven effective against the U.S. military’s satellites, sensors and other forms of surveillance. Commanders warn that it could take years to find him.
“They’re on the run,” Capt. Kenneth S. Wright, a Navy SEAL who leads the overall U.S. search effort, said last week. “This is not going to be an easy slog. Knock wood, maybe we get lucky. But by experience this is going to be a persistent engagement.”
Since October, U.S. troops have fanned out to five outposts in four countries, advising thousands of troops from Uganda, the Central African Republic, South Sudan and Congo who are hunting Kony across a territory the size of California. In Obo, the terrain is so remote that it took the U.S. military four months to carve out its jungle camp.
For the first time, American military officials provided details of their hunt for Kony in extensive interviews over the past week in Africa and Europe. The interviews culminated Sunday with a visit to Obo, where the military arranged for journalists to arrive on chartered Cessnas, scattering stray dogs while landing on a makeshift dirt runway.
A team of about 20 Green Berets from the U.S. Army has set up camp in Obo, a remote town in the southeastern corner of the impoverished Central African Republic. The military would not permit journalists to tour the American camp — which villagers described as being protected by razor wire and cameras — but granted interviews with the local U.S. commander and security forces from Uganda and the Central African Republic who also are based here.
The Americans said they rarely leave the vicinity of their camp and do not go on patrol, leaving it to their African partners to send trackers into the bush. Instead, they spend most of their days in meetings with African troops and local officials, guiding operations and offering technical advice.
The U.S. forces carry arms but are not permitted to engage in combat, except in self-defense. They said they have not encountered any of Kony’s forces directly.
“We’ve had no assaults on any of our bases,” said Wright, who oversees all the five U.S. outposts in central Africa. “It would be unwise for them to do that.”
Tricky intelligence, terrain
The U.S. government declared the LRA a terrorist organization a decade ago and has provided the Ugandan military with equipment and advice for years.
But Obama raised the stakes of American involvement in October by ordering troops into the field, even though the LRA does not pose a direct threat to U.S. interests. The military operation has broad support in Congress and among human rights groups, which say U.S. intervention is necessary to prevent LRA atrocities.
The hunt for Kony has drawn fresh attention after the recent release of videos produced by the advocacy group Invisible Children, including “Kony 2012,” which has gone viral online.
About half of the U.S. contingent is based at a joint operations center near the international airport in Entebbe, Uganda. The rest of the troops are divided among four far-flung camps in Dungu, Congo; Nzara, South Sudan; and Obo and Djema in the Central African Republic.
Perhaps the Americans’ most valuable function is to analyze bits of intelligence about the whereabouts of LRA fighters, both from electronic and human sources, and share that information with their African partners. Kony has long evaded capture by crossing borders and exploiting the inability of regional governments to work together effectively.
U.S. officials said that the intelligence picture is improving but that it is difficult to distinguish bogus reports from rare legitimate LRA sightings. They said villagers tend to blame Kony’s gang for all forms of banditry and crime, whether or not it was really responsible.