Bin Laden, Issias Afewerki & Sheikh Ahmed

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 Shebab, 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 Shebab. 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 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 Afewerki 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 (Balie, Harar, Arussi and Sidamo) 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 Shabab – 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.