ThreatsWatch.Org: Commentary

Eritrea: Who Knew?

Status as State Sponsor of Terrorism Seems Self-Evident

By Clay Varney

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.