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You are here: Home News Analysis Eritrea: the Al Qaeda Connection to Somalia

Eritrea: the Al Qaeda Connection to Somalia

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There are three parts to this news analysis. The introduction and conclusion are written in light of the new information coming out from Somalia regarding Al Qaeda’s desperate attempt to relocate itself, or a branch of itself, in Somalia, and the dangerous role the Eritrean regime is playing in making this terrorist mission a success.

The second part was written a year ago, on March 2009, on the same subject matter: on the triangular connection between the totalitarian regime in Eritrea, the Somali Islamists (namely, Al Shabaab and Hizbul Al Islam) and Al Qaeda. Even though that news analysis was written in hypothetical language, I thought that in light of its ongoing actualization the old article deserves another look; at least, for its attempt to provide the rationale behind this triangular connection.

Introduction (written on 04/08/2010)

It is no surprise that the latest news regarding the Eritrea-Al Qaeda connection has to do with Somalia, for both of these entities have vested interests in this unfortunate nation that has nothing to do with welfare of the Somalis.

Commenting on a recent development on the unholy alliance between Eritrea, Al Qaeda and Somali Islamists, the Somali minister said, “They[senior Al Qaeda operatives] have come to assess the situation on the ground for a possible relocation of Al-Qaeda’s biggest military bases to Somalia since they are facing a lot of pressure in Afghanistan and Iraq.” He further claimed 12 Al-Qaeda operatives have arrived from Eritrea and Yemen. Yemen’s further assertion that “some Al-Qaeda operatives have fled to Somalia after coming under intense pressure due to military offensives in the northern regions” gives further support to this claim. (Somali Minister claims senior Al-Qaeda arrive in Somalia, Garowe Online, April 7, 2010).

What we are looking at is a terrorist organization increasingly squeezed out from its traditional areas in the Middle East (Iraq and Yemen) and further east in Afghanistan and Pakistan. And Isaias Afwerki of Eritrea, infamously known for sponsoring terrorism throughout the region, in general, and in Somalia, in particular, is providing the necessary link to make Al Qaeda’s desperate attempt to relocate itself in Somalia a success.

Even if Al Qaeda’s total relocation to Somalia seems to be inconceivable in the near future, there is no doubt that the petering out of the Sunni insurgency in Iraq, the heavy military presence of the US in Afghanistan, the ongoing offensive of the Pakistani army on traditional Al Qaeda hideouts and similar offensive on Al Qaeda offshoots in Yemen has incapacitated the organization to a point that it cannot carry any meaningful terrorist attack outside these areas. So there is no doubt that it needs a safe haven outside these areas from which it would be able to launch its terrorist attacks on the West and other nations considered to be pro-West (Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia, Kenya, etc). And there is no better place than the strategically located, war-torn, anarchic and religiously radicalized Somalia to locate that safe haven. The riddle is: where in this picture does Eritrea fit in?

Given that Eritrea is now under intense scrutiny from the international community for sponsoring terrorism in Somalia, the UN having already imposed sanctions on it for this role, why would it take the risk of providing a safe route to senior Al Qaeda operatives? Part of that answer might be found in a news analysis that I wrote on March 21, 2009 (Triangulating Bin Laden, Isaias and Sheikh Ahmed), long before sanctions was imposed on Eritrea. Below is that news analysis:

Triangulating Bin Laden, Isaias and Sheikh Ahmed (written on 03/21/2009)

Yesterday (March 19), Osama Bin Laden bombarded the world with one more of his web incendiary messages, but this time around it was entirely focused on Somalia, which tells us the extent to which he seems to have invested his hopes on that region to carry out his Islamic revolution. An analyst makes a similar point:

“‘I think people who were skeptical that al-Qaida has ambition in Somalia will now have to think twice’, Rashid Abdi, an analyst at the International Crisis Group think tank in Nairobi told The Associated Press.” (Bin Laden exhorts militants on web message, AP, March 19)

In this message, Bin Laden makes it clear that he is unhappy with the current leader of Somalia, the moderate Islamist President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, and urges the radical Islamists, like Al Shabaab, and the people of Somalia to overthrow him because he “changed to partner up with the infidel”.

Sheikh Ahmed has no partnership with the West, so that cannot be the reason why he has drawn this much ire from Bin Laden. There are two other reasons – one minor and one major – why Bin Laden is so much worried by the turn of events in Somalia. First, understandably, he would be unhappy if the kind of Taliban-like, fundamentalist Islam he champions doesn’t take roots in Somalia – a hope that could only materialize under the leadership of Al Shabaab. But his major worry is that, if Sheikh Ahmed succeeds in uniting and stabilizing Somalia, the Islamist revolution will remain confined to that nation’s borders only and that there will be no further interest or incentive for the Islamist revolution to spread outside that country. One of the main reasons why Islamic fundamentalism is inimical to the very concept of nationhood is because once a nation is built it naturally works for its own self-interest and avoids any overt confrontation that might in turn destabilize it in a significant way. That is to say, once a nation is built, the interest of the state trumps the interest of the religion. That is why radical Islamists like Bin Laden pine for a return to a Caliphate, where the borders will be determined by the aspirations of the religion.

There are striking parallels in the way Bin Laden and Isaias Afwerki are thinking; what worries the former is precisely what worries the latter. In Bin Laden’s case, the fear is that, under Sheikh Ahmed, the nationalist cause would trump the international cause (that of Islamist Jihad). In Isaias’ case the fear is that the nationalist cause would trump the regional cause. Isaias realizes that if Somalia is united and stabilized as a nation, it will start acting like a normal nation. If Somalia is going to have any chance of sustaining its newly found nationhood, if and when that is achieved, the first thing that it will have to do is normalize relations with Ethiopia. And that means, at minimum, reigning over the militant groups that want to destabilize Ethiopia – and that would be the worst nightmare scenario for Isaias. Thus, both Bin Laden and Isaias Afwerki have found a common cause: the anarchy in Somalia is essential to their respective designs on the international and regional arena. If there are two leaders that are dead set to derail any prospects of Somali nationhood, it would be these two. To reiterate the fear that joins Bin Laden and Isaias: that under the rule of Sheikh Ahmed the Islamist cause would remain confined to the nation.

Both have their specific reasons for wanting to keep Somalia in a state of anarchy indefinitely. Bin Laden’s base is being increasingly threatened by Pakistan and Afghanistan (the NATO forces). And even if this haven remains safe, it has become very hard to launch any meaningful operation against the West from there. The anarchy in Somalia is the only place in the world that could provide him with the kind of safe haven that Afghanistan provided him prior to the US invasion. Besides, the strategic location of Somalia, very close to Middle East and other African nations that are considered to be in the “infidel” camp (Ethiopia and Kenya), makes it ideal to his efforts to destabilize Arab nations and internationalize his Islamic revolution.

What about Isaias? What is in there for him? When Isaias trained and financed Islamist groups in Somalia, the last thing he had in his mind was to help the Somalis build their nation. His one and only goal was: how to destabilize Ethiopia through Somalia. So it is not surprising that when Ethiopia pulled out of Somalia, he couldn’t hide his unhappiness; for, to him, the Somalia insurrection was relevant so far as it bogs down Ethiopia in an endless quagmire from which it would be unable to extricate itself; the last thing he wanted to see was for these two forces to disengage from fighting permanently. Moreover, he was hoping that this Islamist insurrection would spread not only to the Ogaden region, but throughout southeastern part of Ethiopia where the majority of the population is made up of Oromo Muslims.

That is why both Bin Laden and Isaias have put all their hopes on one militant Islamist group: Al Shabaab – one that has, self-admittedly, a close connection with Al Qaida and, consequently, has been listed as a terrorist organization by the US.

A terrorist under any name

A terrorist under any cause still remains a terrorist. The fact that Isaias is no Islamist doesn’t make him less of a terrorist. In fact, at this particular moment, he is more dangerous than Bin Laden to the region; for the latter’s help to the militant groups in Somalia remains largely inspirational. Isaias’ help is more handy and potent: First, given the geographic proximity of Eritrea, the country has become a hub of armed groups that, at one time or another, have been deployed in Sudan, Ethiopia and Somalia. Second, despite its abject poverty, Eritrea is footing the bill for the training, arming and transporting these armed groups. In the latest UN report on Somalia, Eritrea was identified as the main financier of the armed groups in Somalia. And third, the latest footprint of Iran in Eritrea tells us that it has become a conduit of arms smuggling to militant groups all over the area, one that reaches as far as Hamas in Ghaza. This is what WIC had to say on an interview with the Israeli Ambassador to Ethiopia (March 19):

“In an interview he held with WIC, Ambassador Ben-Haim said the Eritrean government is providing military training, and supplying military logistics for a number of terrorist groups.

Ambassador Ben-Haim said that the Eritrea government, in addition to its attempts of destabilizing the Horn of Africa region, is also working to subvert the peace process in Somalia by supporting and arming Al-Shebab, a terrorist group in Somalia.

The Ambassador said the Eritrea government, which has put its hands in smuggling weapons, is an arm supplier of Al-Shebab in Somalia and other internationally recognized terrorist groups including Hamas.”

An alliance building up

With all the evidence build up, there is not the slightest bit of doubt that Eritrea has established itself as a terror-sponsoring nation. Given this fact, it is unfortunate that the Bush Administration left the White House without designating it as such. And it is even more unfortunate that Eritreans in the opposition waffled on this issue and missed a great opportunity to unseat the tyrant. But that doesn’t mean all is lost. Now, the same kind of momentum is building up against the Isaias regime, and we should make the most of it. An alliance is in the making, and we shouldn’t miss this boat. Already the US, Israel and Ethiopia are in this boat and France might join soon if the Djibouti case remains unresolved. This is the time for us to revive the issue of sanctions forcefully. And this time, it might succeed.

We Eritreans have our own reasons why we should regard the Isaias regime as a terrorist one. More than any other foreign entity, it is the Eritrean people that have been daily experiencing the terror unleashed under this totalitarian regime. Not a single population group has been spared: students, merchants, farmers, parents, minority religions, ethnic groups, etc. The whole nation has been turned into a huge prison. And lately, with the mass exodus picking up speed, with the killings and massacres at border crossings and prisons, with a full blown famine raging all over the country and with the plan to dislodge entire villages and to dismantle centuries-old monasteries, there is a Khmer Rouge like apocalypse looming over the nation. If we are to save our people from a catastrophe of Khmer Rouge like proportions, the time to act is NOW. And the urgency of the matter gives us no luxury to pick and choose the means by which to finish off this regime. We should be able to grab this opportunity and join this alliance, and do whatever we can to convince this alliance-in-the-making to finish off the Isaias regime by whatever means necessary.

Conclusion (written on 04/08/2010)

The wish that the alliance-in-the-making mentioned above would materialize in sanctioning Eritrea came to happen towards the end of that year. Since then, the often repeated cry of the regime in Asmara has been, “Where are the evidences”, even as they keep piling up. To the tyrant in Asmara, the fact that he openly conducted a Grand Meeting for all kinds of Somali Islamists in Asmara broadcasted in EriTv, with the whole world watching, is not evidence. The training camps inside Eritrea for all kinds of armed insurgents in the region are not evidence. Cargo planes hauling arms to Somalia, easily detectable through satellite, are not evidence. His army dug in trenches on Djibouti soil is not evidence. His accommodation of Iran in its clandestine support of all kinds of insurgent groups in Somalia and Yemen is not evidence. But above all, his big mouth, with his endless diatribe against the US and the West and his open political support for the insurgents in Somalia, is not evidence.

Although many of us in the opposition are happy that the UN has finally decided to impose sanctions on Eritrea, so far the steps taken are not enough. The UN has to realize that this is an unrepentant regime that would never change its ways. Good evidence that supports that unrepentant behavior is the mass protest the regime unleashed in many capitals of the West to blame the West and the UN for its predicament. Since then, its political and financial support of the Islamists in Somalia has been going on unabated, even as the flow of arms seems to have slowed down. And now, it is aiming big by facilitating a safe route to senior Al Qaeda operatives to Somalia. It is doing all of this because it believes that the UN sanction has no bite at all. Given the high opinion it has of itself in its clandestine mafia-like activities, it believes that it can outsmart the UN and out-survive the sanctions. For the UN, there is no other recourse left but to tighten the sanctions. That is the only language that the regime understands.

The role of the Eritrean opposition in owning the sanctions has been lukewarm at best and apologetic at worst. Instead of the endless meetings that the opposition keeps conducting in promoting “democracy”, “peace” and “unity” – elusive and diversionary – it would have been great if it spends it time and resources in owning the sanctions so as to facilitate and usher the downfall of the regime as early as possible. It has to realize that the starting point for democracy in Eritrea, peace in the region and unity among Eritreans is the downfall of the regime and not endless conferences in Diaspora.

   

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