As unlikely as it may seem, a U.N. report says that Al-Qaeda’s Somali affiliate, al-Shabaab, is being financed by the “Christian” dictator of Eritrea, Isaisas Afewerki. The report also implicates the regime in a massive bomb plot against the African Union in Ethiopia in January. Al-Shabaab has proven frighteningly effective in recruiting Americans, and any regime helping it must be immediately placed on the State Department’s list of State Sponsors of Terrorism.
The danger of Eritrea’s support for terrorism was laid bare in the U.N.’s report exposing that the regime attempted “mass casualty attacks against civilian targets” in January. The mayhem was to begin with the detonation of a car bomb at the African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. At the same time, the largest market in Africa would be bombed, and the area between the Ethiopian Prime Minister’s office and the Sheraton Hotel where the African Union leaders stay would come under attack. One of the participants said he was told by his Eritrean superiors to make “Addis Ababa like Baghdad.”
All but one of the aspiring attackers was trained and supervised by Eritrean officials. One of them was in communication with the Oromo Liberation Front, an Eritrean-backed group fighting the Ethiopian government. They were discovered with C4 explosives, detonators, a sniper rifle and other equipment for carrying out the attacks. The need to confront Afewerki’s desire to commit acts of spectacular terrorism is especially pressing in light of his regime’s support for terrorist groups including al-Shabaab and friendship with the Iranian regime.
The Afewerki regime gives al-Shabaab about $75,000 every single month through its embassy in Nairobi, Kenya. In August 2009, Secretary of State Clinton publicly condemned Eritrea for arming the Al-Qaeda affiliate. In December 2009, the U.N. punished Eritrea with sanctions that included freezing the assets of some complicit officials and a travel ban. Al-Shabaab hasn’t participated in a plot to attack the U.S. homeland yet, but it is an integral part of Al-Qaeda’s infrastructure and is a major contributor to homegrown radicalization.
At least 14 Americans have been indicted for their role in al-Shabaab’s American network. In February 2010, an associate of al-Shabaab was arrested in Virginia after illegally smuggling 270 Somalis into the country through Mexico. House Homeland Security Chairman Rep. Peter King’s third hearing on homegrown extremism covered this problem, and revealed that 40 Americans and 20 Canadians are known to have joined al-Shabaab’s ranks in Somalia. Of these, 15 Americans and three Canadians were killed, including the first American suicide bomber. Twenty-one Americans remain unaccounted for. Eritrea’s involvement with this group and the aggressive inclinations of the regime are a recipe for disaster.
Al-Shabaab isn’t the only Islamic terrorist group that the Eritrean regime is abetting. Hizbul Islam, another group in Somalia that merged with al-Shabaab in December 2010, received extensive aid from Eritrea. The government of Djibouti accused Afewerki of training and arming it, and the President of Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government said the regime gave Hizbul Islam operational guidance. In May 2009, its leader, Sheikh Hassan Dahir Awyers, admitted, “Eritrea supports us and Ethiopia is our enemy.”
The regime actively supports a range of other militant groups in Africa. The U.N. says that the same officers involved with the African Union bomb plot give financial and logistical assistance to groups in Djibouti, Ethiopia, Sudan and possibly Uganda. In September 2010, the Ethiopian authorities captured members of the Ogaden National Liberation Front with weapons from Eritrea. The militants said that they were trained there, and then dispatched to Ethiopia through Somaliland. Some of the money for these operations is raised from Eritrean-Americans, specifically in Oakland, C.A. The regime pressures its nationals living outside the country to pay it a two percent income tax, bringing in tens of millions of dollars, which then goes to such nefarious purposes.
The Eritrean opposition claims that the Iranian Revolutionary Guards is active in the country. The IRGC is reported to have trained members of the radical Shiite Houthi rebels in Eritrea in 2009 when they were fighting the Yemeni and Saudi governments. Weapons for the Houthis were said to have arrived from Eritrea’s Asab harbor, forcing the Saudis to launch a naval blockade to intercept them. If true, this cooperation manifested from a tightening relationship between the Iranian and Eritrean regimes. In May 2008, Afewerki met with Ahmadinejad, and an Iranian opposition group has alleged that the Iranians have a military presence in the Asab region. There are unconfirmed reports of a large buildup, including submarines, arms stockpiles and ballistic missiles. The Eritrean regime gave Gulf News access to the sites that were linked to Iran and camps said to be used to train militants, and found no incriminating evidence. Of course, the regime may simply have cleansed the sites. Significantly, the regime denied access to the U.N.
Eritrea’s alliance with Al-Shabaab and Iran also has strategic ramifications. Its geographic position allows enemies of the West to threaten the Bab-al Mandeb Strait, which connects the Mediterranean Sea to the Indian Ocean through the Red Sea. It also allows a threat to be posed to the western side of the Arabian Peninsula, specifically Yemen and Saudi Arabia, which are enemies of both Iran and Al-Qaeda.
Ethiopia is leading a group of East African countries in pushing for U.N. sanctions on Eritrea. The U.S. is supporting such measures, which will target Eritrea’s mining industry and ban the two percent income tax that the regime pressures Eritreans who have left the country to pay. Last July, Rep. Ed Royce of the House Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation and Trade wrote a letter to Secretary of State Clinton requesting that Eritrea be added to the State Department’s list of State Sponsors of Terrorism. This designation is long overdue.
The Afewerki dictatorship is allied to Iran, the world’s leading sponsor of terrorism. It has tried to carry out dramatic acts of terrorism and supports al-Shabaab, an affiliate of Al-Qaeda that is radicalizing Americans. What will it take for Eritrea to be added to the list of State Sponsors of Terrorism?