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Eritrea: Who Knew?

Status as State Sponsor of Terrorism Seems Self-Evident

By Clay Varney | October 31, 2007

In what has so far been a widely overlooked arena in the war on terrorism, the Horn of Africa has emerged as a pivotal region for the prosecution of America’s long struggle against jihadist extremism. However, this should not be surprising, as al-Qaeda has long been a player in the region. There was, of course, the residence of Usama bin Laden and his organization in Sudan during the 1990’s, and the dual attacks against the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998. In more recent times, a new player has emerged on the scene, threatening to do further harm to American interests in the region. This player would be the seemingly unimportant nation of Eritrea, a nation of 4.9 million people on the Red Sea surrounded by Sudan, Ethiopia, and Djibouti. After a thirty year fight, Eritrea gained its independence from Ethiopia in 1993.

Recently, Eritrea has come onto the radar of officials in the United States government regarding its support for Islamist insurgents operating in Somalia against the nascent government. After Ethiopia invaded Somalia with American backing to wrest power from the Islamic Courts Union, a Taliban-style grouping of Islamist militias, an insurgency ignited featuring tactics reminiscent of Iraq, including suicide bombings and assassinations. As an example, a suicide bomber targeted Somali Prime Minister Ali Mohamed Gedi unsuccessfully in his Mogadishu home this June, killing seven. Violence in Mogadishu has expanded significantly in recent days, causing thousands of refugees to flee the city as a result of increased fighting between the insurgents of the Islamic Courts Union and the combined Ethiopian and Somali government forces.

Eritrea has been fingered as a source of arms for these insurgents. In a July report by the United Nations Monitoring Group on Somalia, Eritrea was blamed as a major weapons supplier. Specific accusations revolved around a plane that made 13 flights from Eritrea’s capital Asmara to Mogadishu and the importation of SA-18 surface-to-air-missiles. Eritrea’s president, Isaias Afwerki, danced around the question in a recent interview with the Los Angeles Times, stating: “I still would like to know what is behind this allegation. Nobody is convinced. What are the accusations?” Further, unsatisfied with merely supplying the Islamic Courts Union with weapons, Eritrea is also harboring its leadership, à la another prominent member of the list of state sponsors of terrorism, Syria. Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, the head of the Islamic Courts Union, now resides in Asmara, Eritrea. Why should this concern the average American? The answer is simple as the sheikh was placed on a State Department list as an al-Qaeda collaborator since shortly after September 11. Furthermore, he was also associated with the now defunct al-Ittihad al-Islamiya, which is believed to have played a role in the 1998 East Africa embassy bombings perpetrated by al-Qaeda.

In early September of this year, a major gathering of figures opposed to Somalia’s current government was held in Asmara. The group included a number of prominent Islamists, whom at its conclusion formed the Alliance For The Re-Liberation Of Somalia. Isaias Afwerki openly backed the formation of this confederation. The previously mentioned Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys was present at this gathering, leading Jendayi E. Frazer, Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, to comment: “But clearly the fact that Eritrea is providing sanctuary for terrorists is best illustrated by the report that Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys was in Asmara yesterday.” Dr. Frazer announced on August 17 that Eritrea was being considered for inclusion on the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism. Other esteemed nations currently designated as such are Syria, Iran, Sudan, Cuba, and North Korea. Such a label would result in harsh economic sanctions against the African nation.

Eritrean officials have denied the allegations. In one telling statement, the information minister of Eritrea, Ali Abdu, responded to Secretary Frazier’s assertions by saying, “Eritreans kneel on only two occasions…when they pray and when they shoot.” No final decision has yet been made on Eritrea’s status and the possibility of such a designation may dissuade Eritrea from continuing to supply weapons to the Somali insurgency, but based on Abdu’s contention, compliance appears unlikely.

Though Eritrea’s actions may seem marginal at first, there are in fact major implications for American national security. Eritrea’s supply of weapons provides a major tool for the Islamic Courts Union in its campaign to unseat the delicate interim government. If the instability and violence continues, Somalia will remain a failed state, and as Afghanistan showed, failed states in which Islamist forces are free to operate can directly impact the United States. Additionally, a significant American military presence has been established in Djibouti, a tiny nation sandwiched between Somalia and Eritrea. In January of this year, a number of al-Qaeda members were targeted in air strikes by American military forces based in Djibouti. These members of the terrorist organization had been sheltered by the Islamic Courts Union. Individuals targeted in the strikes included Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, the planner of the 1998 embassy bombings.

In short, Eritrea is giving weapons to an organization that has provided safe haven for members of al-Qaeda responsible for the deaths of Americans and is also granting sanctuary to that organization’s leader. The State Department defines state sponsors of terrorism as follows: “State sponsors of terrorism provide critical support to non-state terrorist groups. Without state sponsors, terrorist groups would have much more difficulty obtaining the funds, weapons, materials, and secure areas they require to plan and conduct operations.” Eritrea’s status as such seems self-evident.



This is a country that was staunch ally of the United States before it was alieanted.
The previous Defense minister Donald Rumsfield in 2002 has this to say " Eritrea Could Teach U.S. Much to Combat Terror " when in the 90's it single handedly frustrated the spread of Bin Ladens effort to spread terror in the horn from Sudan.

You assesment is flawed to say the least. It is the State Department's flawed foreign policy that is preventing Eritrea from continuing to be a staunch US ally. The DOD seems to think the same.

you can read a detailed comment I previously wrote.


The transcript below from a joint hearing in congress You can gauge Eritrea's grievance towards the US.

P19 Transcript of Dana Rohrabacher (R- California)
As we know, at one of the hot spots in Africa, for decades has been a border dispute between Ethiopia and Eritrea, and as part of this partnership, we basically have been ignoring a commission that was put in place, with the agreement of Ethiopia and Eritrea, to respect the boundaries as established by the commission, and here we are walking away from that in order to have the Ethiopians' partner be our proxy and invade Somali on our behalf.
What is that going to do to the cause of peace? We are telling everybody in Africa what? They can now ignore peaceful methods
of solving problems because if somebody makes a deal with us, we will negate the basic understandings of abiding by peaceful solutions.
The whole thing stinks. It is something that we need to talk about. I am glad we are having a hearing today. The last part we need to look at is, number one, what comes with repression? Corruption, and we have overwhelming corruption going on in Ethiopia. I have been trying to fight, for years, for some of my constituents who happen to have come from that country whose property was confiscated, and what happens? It goes right into the pockets of the clique that runs the country.

P52 Transcript of Donald M. Payne (D- New Jersey)
I note that in your statement you question Mr. Dagne's suggestion that the al-Ittihid's strength and record had been exaggerated.

In my opinion, and even the State Department's, Dr. Jendayi Frazier admitted that al-Ittihid was not dominated and run by alQaeda. And I think that, although the Islamic Courts Union Government of Somalia was not the best formed, one thing that I personally believe, and facts support, is that it is not al-Qaeda dominated. It may become, since this belligerent attack on them has occurred under our encouragement.So this is another example of where I think that our policy is going to create animosity when it could, I think, have been dealt with in another way. Incidentally, the head of ICU is not Aweys Sharif Amin is the leader of the ICU in Somalia.

The full webcast video

Mr. Clay, I am sure you have heard of the phrase "little knowledge is dangerous". America understands so little about the dynamics of The Horn of Africa that it is overlooking a much bigger game that is driven by local politics and 100 years long history of animosity between clans and races. The local politics and relationships are so complex that even seasoned locals some times get confused. With so little knowledge and experience, America has become a tool that can be used by whoever can master your “language” and wants to capitalize on your paranoia of terrorism in order to achieve goals that you have no clue of. Just like you are focusing narrowly on your national interest and decide to sleep with brutal dictators to achieve your goal, so do local leaders and sleep with you for the sole purpose of achieving their goal.

Your so called “regional experts” operate by the book and by the accounts of individuals who for many reasons lies to you and use you as a toy and means of achieving their own personal goal. Many of these experts have not even traveled to the region to understand local situation. Thus your decision is driven by falsity and deceptive information you receive from various sources with various interests. In this situation, you need seasoned leaders and not inexperienced diplomats like Jandyee.

You must be very foolish to focus on allegedly 3 “Al Qaida related” individuals in Somalia and blindly follow the advise of your “partners” that serves the primary goal of serving their own interest. In the process, your “partners” are achieving their goal of destroying their local enemies using your weapons and money while you are multiplying the number of “Al Quida” affiliated individuals by the factor of thousands and turning them in to terrorists that want to attack America.

Eritrea: What logical explanation can there be for a “Christian dominated” government to support a Muslim fanatic movement? You must be the most misinformed person on earth to think that Eritrean government supports Islamic terrorists while this government was the first victim of BinLadin’s assault for years. Until this day the Eritrean government is targeted by Al Quida as the infidel. The very government you are accusing of terrorism was the first government ever to cut diplomatic relationship with Sudan because of BinLadin’s Islamism and expansionist ideology. The Eritrean government is fighting a deadly Eritrean Jihad movement supported by your own best ally Ethiopia. If your memory severs you well, the Eritrean government was declared by the US as one of the first “coalition of the willing”. In addition, Eritrea is one of the few countries where Muslims and Christians live in harmony without t a single incident. How is it possible that overnight a friend can turn in to an enemy? Something must be fishy here. Don’t you think so?

The reality is Eritrea is your number one friend when it comes to fighting terrorism. Eritrea could have played significant and may be decisive role in the fight against terrorism in the region. Unfortunately, you marginalized this country and betrayed it when it needed you most. When Eritrea signed an agreement to end the border war with Ethiopia, the US, UN, EU and OAU were there to witness and guaranty that the agreement is respected. The agreement is to delimit the border by a panel of experts and the verdict will be final and binding. 5 years ago the verdict was issued and Eritrea has accepted the verdict. However, Ethiopia rejected the verdict. Under the international law and as per the signed agreement, the US should have forced Ethiopia to respect the verdict and move on. Instead, the US due to its misguided policy and interests in the region has chosen to look the other way and some times encourage Ethiopia to trap international law. Eritrea is left with only one option; to fight for its existence and in the process will understandably ally with regional players like Sudan, Somalia and others. This creates a messy situation that sometimes results in conflicting interests. Where there is instability, there is fertile ground for Binladin. The US could have avoided this by simply working to stabilize the region and make sure that Ethiopia and Eritrea solve their border war in line with the agreement made. Once this is solved, the Somali situation would be much easier to solve.

The US needs to play an honest role and needs to broker peace. Bullying everyone in its way will not help. Supporting warlords and dictators like Zenawi, at the expenses of others, will come to bite the US badly. Eritreans are the most honest and straight minded people you can find on earth. They know the dynamics of the region and will be very helpful in bringing peace to the region. America hoever seems to have put all its eggs in one basket, the Zenawi basket. Ask the history of the winding road in Eritrea called “lbi Tgray” and you will know why you should play the game differently.

I can tell you are watching the developments in the horn in quite some detail, which is more than can be said for most of the news outlets. I would suggest that you add a bit more context and not come to such a quick conclusion as to whether Eritrea reaches the level of an official state sponsor of terrorism. You mention that Osama Bin Laden and Al'Qaeda have been in the region since the 1990s but what you fail to mention is that Eritrea has been fighting Islamic extremism emminating from Sudan in various forms since the 1980s. Even Donald Rumsfeld mention said during his trip to Eritrea after 9/11 that it could learn a lot from Eritrea fight against islamic terrorist. Eritrea was part of the ciollition of the willing. There is even an Eritrean Al'Qaeda organization that blew up a bus in the western part of the country and released videos a couple of years ago. Like the government or not, it is secular and fights against islamic extremism, like Iraq under Saddam Hussien. As to the issue of Somalia, Somalia is made of up 100% muslims who are primarily moderate. The islamic courts did impose islamic law, but it was in no way as extreme as the Taliban. There were no mass public executions or extremely strict doctrinal anti-western ideology. There were extreme elements but it was mainly led by moderates. They pleaded to negotiation with the U.S. and other western nations. Eritrea's support of the Islamic court is primarily a proxy war against Ethiopia and its EXTREMELY unpopular invasion and occupation. Ethiopia and the U.S. support have done more to tear apart and radicalize the country then the islamic courts ever have done. In fact, the country was the most stable and strongly governed as it has been in fifteen years, since 1991, during the months the islamic courts were in power. It is now at the most unstable point then it has been in the last 15 years. It is NOW a breedying ground for terrorists. And worst yet, this moderate country that didn't hate the west, now HATES the west! The longer the Ethiopian backed troops tear apart the country the more terrorist organizations will form and train and will potentially attack the U.S. My main point is that labeling Eritrea a state sponsor of terrorist because it supports an islamic insurgence that may lead to a more unstable Somalia is ill-concieved. The U.S.-Ethio policy in Somalia creates the conditions that terrorist can take advantage of, like U.S. policy in Iraq. I can go on, but I just wanted to plead to your intelligence because I can tell you are playing close attention to what's going on. I would really appreciate a response from you so we can discuss this matter further.

Clay: I'm gathering that you are a stounch believer of the notion that Iraq today still has a WMD in its possession, regardless what the evidence dictates. Your views and opinions about Eritrea espouses naïveté,to say the least. If you are not familiar with the Eritrean history, culture, relations vis-a-vis Islamic fundamentalism, please try to dig and understand what Eritrea stands for before barking at the wrong tree. If you are taking the State Department's threat to put Eritrea into the list of states that support terrorism at face value, then, I don't need to elaborate much further. One thing I want to make it clear to you is: It's Eritreas' desire to see the US succeed in its undertaking, be it removing security threats or against terrorist elements anywhere. One thing that is bothering the Eritrean government is the fact that the US adminstration has been hijacking the 2000 Algeries agreement that ended the border conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea. The independent court of arbitration in Hague rendered its verdict in April, 2002 but the agreement still not implemented due to Ethiopias' flagrant disregard to the verdict. The US adminstration, as a guarantor to the peace ageement, instead of forcing Ethiopia to abide by the final and binding rule, is playing a partisan role supprting Ethiopia to disregard the rule of law by creating tangential mechanisms to derail the peace process. At times threatning to unleash war through Ethiopia unless the "final and binding" ruling is reopend for amendement. Ethiopia is 60% muslim while Eritrea is 50% muslim ...why would Eritrea, the most known secular government, support islamic fundamentalists as you have aluded? Before terrorism was a house hold topic in the US, Eritrea, since 1996 has been at the fore front combating terrorism facing Sudan's islamic fundamentalists, including the main masterminder Bin Laden. At that time the US adminstration was not intersted to hear what Eritrea had to say about the fundamentlism growing across the boarder in Sudan. The only thing Eritrea wants is for the US adminstration to stop the covert and overt support of Ethiopia to invade or threatning to start a war against Eritrea and implementation of the "final and binding" verdict.

I would be interested to know how such a tiny poor nation could manage to supply weapons to Somalia with the US army having established a base in Djibouti with control over somali Waters. It just makes no damn sense to accuse Eritrea to justify aggresion and cover up the failer of the American administration in subjugating resistance. The writer would have made a service to his country had he concentrated on facts and the negative role that his country is playing in causing instability in the region and the wide world. Eritrea is a victim and not a sponsor of terror. The 'war-on-terror' has lost its meaning, thanks to sheer incompetence of the American adminstration.


Clay,I think it is important to emphasize that you are talking about Eritre in terms of the tyrannical regime and not in terms of whole nation. The people of Eritre are neither terrorist nor harbor terrorist. Thanks.
Arizona, USA

The people in Eritrea, Sudan, Somalia and most parts of Ethiopia are tired of you so- called analysts sitting in Western capitals and "analysing" this and that. You obviuously don't seem to know what terrorism stands for.

Eritrea became a victim of Osama bin-laden's terror in 1994 way before the WTC attacks.

How can a victim of terrorism suddenly become a supporter? The struggle against foreign (Ethipian) invaders in Somalia is a legitimate cause.

You can't intimidate us into submitting into your bogus "Empire". We are proud of our Africanness.

Yonathan Haile

Hello Mr.Varney,

You are a byproduct of the same University of Denver that Condoleeza Rice and Jandai Frazer went to study "Misguided Foreign policy 101" and "No matter what support Ethiopia 202" add to that the big anti-Eritrea community of Tigraians, Mr Meles Zenawi's home, it makes good sense as to why you would write negative articles about Eritrea. Eritrea is not a terrorist state and I can bet you a million dollars. Please educate yourself and try to be a wiser analyst instead of fabricating lies.

Eritrean American

I don't think that the Horn of Africa has been ignored at all. Certainly, even before the problems in Somalia with the ICU, and then with the establishment of the U.S. African Command, we have noted the strategic significance of this region.

The writer doesn't have a clue about the country. It is so depressing to see somebody who just 'researched' what has been written on internet by other 'researchers' and misleads more people and 'researchers'.

A fair world?

Thank you for writing this article. It is important to get out as much information about Eritrea as possible. One of the comments asked "Why is such a Christian nation helping Muslim fanatics?". First of all, the country is only about 49% Christian, and the other 51% is Muslim. It is true that the nation has been opposed to terrorism for a long time. But Isaias is getting desperate. Even the Chinese foreign investment has left the country pretty much and when you're that desperate you need someone powerful, even if they are terrorists. The Eritrean people do not support this, I can assure you. Isaias is making life hell for them and they are very peaceful people who trust their leader so they probably won't do anything for a long time. Meanwhile, we're sitting here wondering whether to put restrictions on them or not. The point is, the government may be friends with terrorists, but that's the least of its problems. The people of Eritrea are oppressed completely and they are starving because there is no food there and there are no imports allowed even though only 4% of the land is arable. Isaias Afeworki doesn't know how to run a peaceful government because he is good at the kind of leadership you need in war. He was a great leader during the revolution, but he's a horrible leader now. He's still too focused on Ethiopia. If Eritrea could get a president who was able to put the country together again, they would not be allied with the Islamic Courts.