The dictatorship of Eritrea is rarely talked about, but it has formed a partnership with Iran, helping the Islamic Republic to threaten a strategic shipping lane and pressure the pro-American Sunni Arabs into submission. The East African country has also had relations with Somali Islamists, including an Al-Qaeda affiliate that has proven effective at recruiting Americans for jihad.
Somalia expert Dr. Mike Weinstein, Professor of Political Science at Purdue University and analyst for Garoweonline.com, told FrontPage that the Afewerki regime turned to Iran after receiving a “severe slap” from the West when it sided with Ethiopia over a border dispute and that his support of Islamists is an attempt “to stymie Ethiopia at every turn.”
There have been unconfirmed reports that Iranian weapons, soldiers, ballistic missiles, submarines, and naval vessels have been deployed to Assab in Eritrea after Iran agreed to help upgrade a Russian refinery there that could help decrease their reliance upon gasoline imports.
These reports have not been verified but there have been public expressions of friendship between the two governments. After meeting with Afewerki in May 2008, Ahmadinejad said that there was “no limit for expansion of mutual cooperation” and they’d resist the hegemonic powers trying to dominate them. An Iranian opposition group claims that regime documents obtained in January 2009 revealed the same details about a buildup in Assab. Eritrea reacted to the reports by granting Gulf News permission to be the first foreign newspaper to take photos inside military sites. Predictably, the reporters only found an abandoned site with two guards at the refinery Iran was said to be upgrading.
Eritrea has also become part of Iran’s efforts to overpower those who would resist its regional domination. A member of the Eritrean opposition has accused the Iranian Revolutionary Guards of training the radical Shiite Houthi rebels in Eritrea when they were waging war against the Yemeni and Saudi government. It’s also been reported that weapons are delivered to them via the Asab harbor. The Saudis had to launch a naval blockade to stop the weapons from arriving to the rebels via this route. This wasn’t just an attempt to pressure or overthrow the Arab regimes, but an attempt to assert control over the Bab-el-Mandeb strait that is transited by oil tankers and other vessels traveling to and from the Suez Canal and the Indian Ocean.
In June 2008, the Eritreans, perhaps at the Iranians’ request, initiated border clashes with Djibouti, a small country that hosts major bases for the French and the U.S. This happened as the Iranian-backed proxy war in Yemen raged on. Last month, the border dispute was settled and Eritrean forces were withdrawn from Djiboutian territory. It is unclear what made Eritrea retreat, but the U.N. sanctions placed on them in December for supporting Somali extremists likely played a role.
Iran is using allies in East Africa to try to dominate the Middle East and sponsor terrorism. The partnership with Eritrea is similar to the one with Sudan. The Israelis bombed an Iranian convoy delivering arms to Hamas via Sudan in early 2009. The Sudanese opposition says that the Revolutionary Guards are also running a factory in Khartoum to support Somali militants, the Houthi rebels, and Hamas. The deputy-editor of the newspaper that broke the story was then arrested.
This partnership may explain why Sudanese President Bashir recently declared that the border town of Khalieb belongs to his country and not Egypt during a major speech. The state media did not report the comment; it was clearly aimed at foreign digestion. This comes after Egypt arrested dozens of Hezbollah operatives that received arms via Sudan and said they were planning on training recruits in Sudan. The fact that Iran’s closest allies in East Africa are picking fights with Iran’s enemies is very significant. While everyone focuses on the competition in the Middle East, Iran is actively maneuvering in East Africa to gain leverage.
The Afewerki regime has also shown it is willing to support even elements of Al-Qaeda when their interests align. Last August, Secretary of State Clinton threatened Eritrea for shipping weapons to al-Shabaab, the Somali terrorist group that has pledged allegiance to Osama Bin Laden. While much attention is given to countries like Pakistan and Yemen for not being fully committed to fighting Al-Qaeda and radical Islam, the Eritrean dictatorship of President Isaias Afewerki has directly armed a branch of Al-Qaeda.
The strong language by Secretary Clinton has not been followed by strong action. Officials during the second term of the Bush Administration said that discussion was underway about adding Eritrea to the State Department’s list of State Sponsors of Terrorism, but such talk appears to have ended in 2009. At the insistence of Uganda, the United Nations placed sanctions on Eritrea in December for their support of terrorism, paving the way for the assets of officials involved in helping al-Shabaab to be frozen, the inspection of cargo and an arms embargo. Despite even the U.N.’s agreement that Eritrea is a state sponsor of terrorism, the U.S. State Department has not officially placed that label on Afewerki’s regime.
Eritrea also supported the radical Islamist group in Somalia called Hizbul Islam when it was so close to al-Shabaab that the two discussed merging their forces. In May 2009, Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, the group’s leader, admitted that he was backed by Eritrea. Aweys has been designated as a terrorist by the Treasury Department and has had his assets frozen.
“Eritrea supports us and Ethiopia is our enemy—we once helped both countries but Ethiopia did not reward us,” he said. The Foreign Minister of Djibouti has accused Eritrea of supporting radical Islamist groups in his country and Ethiopia with training and arms. The President of Somalia has claimed that Eritrean officials are giving Hizbul Islam operational guidance. Hizbul Islam and Al-Shabaab are now fighting each other and it is not clear which side Eritrea has chosen, if any.
The Eritrean government has also expressed some level of solidarity with the Somali Islamists. In August, after Australia busted a terrorist cell including three Somalis planning a suicide attack on a base, Eritrea said that the arrests were a CIA deception. The Foreign Ministry said it was part of a Western plot “to justify the acts of intervention and domination in the Horn of Africa as well as link the Somali people’s popular resistance with ‘global terrorism.’” It is Eritrea’s official position that the radical Islamists in Somalia are freedom fighters victimized by the West.
Support for al-Shabaab directly impacts U.S. security at home. In February, the man in Virginia was arrested who had contact with al-Shabaab. He smuggled 270 Somalis into the U.S. via Mexico that the authorities are having great difficulty tracking down. At least 14 Americans have been indicted for supporting the group, and about 20 individuals, mostly young Somali-Americans, have disappeared in the Minneapolis area alone and are believed to have been recruited by al-Shabaab. The Al-Qaeda affiliate’s success is recruiting Americans is one of the foremost concerns of the government, and Eritrea has shown a willingness to support them and similar Somali groups.
Dr. Weinstein believes Afewerki stopped supporting al-Shabaab in 2009 after the group started exchanging fighters with Al-Qaeda in Yemen. He says that although Afewerki professes to be a Christian, he had “no problem” working with “nationalist Islamists” like Hizbul Islam and that his past support for al-Shabaab came via these elements, although that conflicts with the accusations of direct support from the U.S. He says that the ties between Afewerki and Hizbul Islam have soured, but that Afewerki will ally with who he needs to in order to fight his enemies.
Eritrea’s involvement with Somali extremists may qualify them to be listed by the State Department as a State Sponsor of Terrorism and this threat should be raised. The Afewerki regime is motivated by personal interest, and is not ideologically motivated as he isn’t even a Muslim. The backing down from the clash with Djibouti indicates that sanctions and other forms of pressure do concern President Afewerki. As Eritrea helps Iran threatens strategic lanes and supports Somali Islamists, the U.S. is not taking this simple action to make them reverse course.
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