The Makings of a Terrorist State

The tiny country of Eritrea carves out a formidable reputation for itself.

Despite a recent UN report that found the country of Eritrea, located on the Horn of Africa, to be actively planning terrorist attacks as well as funding a wide array of terror groups, the Obama administration has declined to list it as a state sponsor of terrorism.

The report by a UN monitoring group in June 2011 alleged the Eritrean government was providing military, financial and logistical support to Islamist and other militant terror organizations throughout East Africa, including Djibouti, Ethiopia, Somalia, and the Sudan.

The terrorist and militant groups receiving Eritrean support include Somalia’s Islamist al-Shabab and Hizbul Islam; Ethiopia’s Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) and Oromo Liberation Front (OLF); and Djibouti’s Front pour le Restauration de la Democratie (FRUD).

Eritrean support to these terror outfits include “training, people smuggling, arms trafficking, money laundering and extortion,” all facilitated by a large number of Eritrean political, military and intelligence officials. Moreover, Eritrea has established its own training camps, built for the purpose of training foreign fighters.

While Eritrea has outsourced most of the implementation of its terrorist agenda, it has proven quite willing to undertake terrorist activities on its own. That willingness was cited in the UN report as well, which alleged that the Eritrean government was behind a failed plot to bomb several civilian and government targets in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa during an African Union (AU) summit in January 2011.

According to the UN report, the Eritrean aim was to make Addis Ababa “like Baghdad” by setting off car bombs outside AU headquarters and assassinating targeted AU delegates.

For its part, the UN Security Council had already imposed sanctions against Eritrea in December 2009, which included embargoes on the delivery of military equipment, as well as a travel ban and an asset freeze on Eritrean political and military leaders. Now, the UN monitoring group is urging the UN Security Council to impose yet another round of sanctions on the Eritrean government.

While US ambassador to the UN Susan Rice said the United States was prepared to add additional sanctions, she would not say if the latest findings would be enough to place Eritrea on the State Sponsors of Terrorism List. Instead, Rice voiced concern that the sanctions not be designed so they would “harm the people of Eritrea, who are suffering enough as it is.”

Eritrea’s suffering stems from its inclusion as one of the nations severely affected by the drought in the Horn of Africa, a drought which has forced an estimated 61,000 Eritreans to find refuge in Ethiopia. Added onto that burden is Eritrea’s status as an already desperately impoverished nation, one with a gross national income per capita of $360.

Yet, despite famine and grinding poverty, Eritrea has still been able to finance a far flung terrorist support network. According to the UN report, cash transfers to al-Shabab and other groups are facilitated by a “vast and complex system” in which senior officials of the Eritrean government and ruling People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ) collect and control hundreds of millions of dollars each year in unofficial revenues.

In addition to private business arrangements involving PFDJ-run companies or business partnerships abroad, most revenues come largely from a 2 percent tax levied on the estimated 1.2 million Eritrean nationals (or 25 percent of its entire population) living overseas.

Still, the Eritrean government has categorically denied the UN charges, sloughing it off as “irresponsible interference” ginned up by the United States and Ethiopia. However, Eritrea’s past behavior puts that denial into some question.

In fact, Eritrea’s role as a destabilizing force in East Africa has been in play since 1991 when Eritrean President Issayas Afewerki led the country to independence from Ethiopia. Since then, Eritrea has at various times gone to war with Ethiopia, Yemen, Djibouti and Sudan, the most bloody conflict being a border war with Ethiopia between 1998 and 2000 that claimed over 80,000 lives.

So, given its past track record, it wasn’t too surprising that even prior to the release of the UN report, the Inter-Government Authority on Development (IGAD) -- a six-country security and economic partnership that includes Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, Sudan and Uganda -- had called for toughened UN and African Union sanctions against Eritrea for its terrorist activities.

Ironically, however, Eritrea was once an American ally in the war on terror. In fact, Eritrea was one of the “coalition of the willing” -- those nations that supported the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. That support was underscored in May 2004 by the Eritrean ambassador to the United States who said that Eritrea stood “ready to assist the United States in any way it can.”

However, by 2005 Eritrea had quickly slipped out of favor with the United States and much of the international community due to its repressive human rights abuses. So, by November 2006, Eritrean President Issayas Afewerki had reversed course and broke ties with America, claiming that the US was now “an historic enemy” of Eritrea.

At that same time, Afewerki began accelerating Eritrea’s descent into a rogue state by seeking ties with extremist groups and regimes all over the world. To that end, Afewerki began focusing Eritrea’s relations on countries like Libya, Sudan and Iran.

Most disturbing perhaps has been Eritrea’s push to become a military launch pad for Iran. Specifically, in 2008 Iranian ships and submarines reportedly deployed an undisclosed number of Iranian troops and weapons -- long-range and ballistic missiles -- at the Eritrean port town of Assab on the Red Sea.

The Eritrean-Iranian military agreement had been preceded by an accord between the two nations that called for Iran to “revamp, manage, and exercise complete authority” over production and maintenance of Eritrea’s oil refining facilities. As the world’s second largest importer of gasoline, Iran has been able to refine its crude oil in Assab to cover shortages it faces at home from Western sanctions on refined products.

Yet, all this nefarious activity has been unable to qualify Eritrea alongside Cuba, Syria, North Korea and Iran as a State Sponsor of Terrorism. Instead, it was named by the State Department in May 2011 as a Specially Designated Country -- along with Israel -- for “not cooperating fully with US anti-terrorism efforts.”

So, while some in Washington may not view Eritrea as being the greatest global threat, as demonstrated in the latest UN report, it’s certainly not been for a lack of trying.