Lurking danger

Expanding terrorism in East Africa and the Horn of Africa

There are various kinds of terrorism in East Africa (Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania) and the Horn (Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti, and Somalia).

If timely steps are not taken it will be a disaster for the whole continent even impacting West Asian region.

The Horn of Africa has been the most conflicted part of Africa during the last 50 years. Although there have been long-standing disputes in places like Angola, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Rwanda, Burundi, and the Congo, no other region on the continent has had as many conflicts over such a long span of time.

The root causes are numerous and sometimes complex even within a single dispute. They include ethnic, language and cultural differences, arbitrary boundaries, religion, ideology, competition for scarce resources including pasturage and water, unequal sharing of resources controlled by the state, and the sheer desire for power.

There are underlying conditions in East Africa and the Horn that contribute directly to conflict and the use of terrorist tactics.

Poverty and social injustice are widespread. Borders are porous even by African standards. Tanzania, Kenya, Somalia, and Eritrea have long and poorly patrolled coasts on the Red Sea or Indian Ocean.

Weapons are readily available throughout the region, but especially in Somalia. All of the countries have a severe shortage of financial resources and trained personnel to counter the activities of terrorist elements.

Corruption is endemic in the region and a particularly serious problem in several countries. Important to the understanding of terrorism in the region is the inter-connectedness of most of the indigenous conflicts. They often result in refugee flows in various directions.
Supporting rebels

That support, in turn, causes the affected country to back another dissident organization against the offending government. At different points in time, Ethiopia, Uganda, and Eritrea have supported the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) against Khartoum while Khartoum has supported the LRA against Uganda, the OLF against Ethiopia, and the EIJ against Eritrea.

Following the 1998-2000 Ethiopian-Eritrean war, Eritrea has supported the OLF against Ethiopia. Ethiopia responded by supporting a coalition of Eritrean dissidents against Eritrea.

Somalia also plays this game. This has developed into a debilitating tit for tat in the region that shows no sign of abating. It also increases the prospects for the use of terrorist tactics.

The primary terrorist threat to American and Western interests comes from those organizations that are not indigenous to the region.

Although Americans and other foreigners sometimes find themselves at the wrong place at the wrong time and are, therefore, caught up in attacks aimed at harming local authority, the indigenous groups generally do not target foreigners.

There have been exceptions when attacks on bars and hotels frequented by foreign tourists or residents seem designed to attract international publicity and/or embarrass the local government. Ethiopia, Kenya, Sudan, and Uganda, for example, have suffered from such attacks.

Not all of the local groups that use terrorist tactics are linked to Islam. The LRA claims to be a Christian fundamentalist organization based on the Ten Commandments. A cult-like group, it has used terrorism in its campaign against the government of Uganda.

The ADF consists of a diverse coalition of former members of the National Army for the Liberation of Uganda and Islamists from the Salaf Tabliq faction.

The external terrorist organizations, on the other hand, are all linked to radical Islamic fundamentalism and target Western, pro-Western, and Israeli interests.

The most threatening external group in this regard is al-Qaeda. Experience shows that these external terrorist organizations can function with only a small number of local supporters.

There are also numerous Islamic non-governmental organizations in East Africa and the Horn. Some of them, which are usually funded by persons or even governments in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States offer cover for terrorists.

Islamic population

Every country discussed in this analysis has either a predominantly Islamic population or has a significant Muslim minority.

Sudan’s population of about 36 million has between 60 and 70 percent Muslim. At least 45 percent of Christian Ethiopia’s 67 million people are Muslim.

This means that Ethiopia’s approximately 30 million Muslims tie it with Morocco for the 11th most populous Muslim nation in the world.

Eritrea’s 4.3 million people are divided about equally between Christians and Muslims. Although Djibouti has only about a half million people, some 94 percent are Muslim.

Somalia and Somaliland together total about 7.5 million people; 99 percent are Muslim. Kenya has a population of about 31 million.

There are wide variations in the estimates of Muslims, but most fall in the 10 to 30 percent range. Uganda’s population of 24 million contains the smallest proportion of Muslims at about 16 per cent. There are some 37 million Tanzanians, 35 percent of whom are Muslim.

Zanzibar is 99 percent Muslim. Except for a significant minority in Sudan and a smaller group in Somalia, the vast majority of Muslims in East Africa and the Horn have shown no interest in Islamic fundamentalism.

Nevertheless, it is not surprising that organizations like al-Qaeda and Gama’at al-Islamiyya have been able to recruit from this population small numbers of local collaborators.

Sudan constitutes a special case because it has a long history of tolerance toward and support for terrorist groups. This policy existed even during the Muhammad Gaafur al-Nimeiry government, which remained in power until 1985.

The first suggestion that Sudan was willing to cooperate in a limited way against terrorism occurred in 1994 when it turned over to the French the infamous terrorist Illich Ramirez Sanchez, known as Carlos the Jackal, who had been living in Khartoum during the previous year.

There was no additional US-Sudan engagement on counter-terrorism until President Omar Al-Bashir managed to neutralize the militant Islamic wing of his government represented by Hassan al-Turabi. Progress with Sudan on counter-terrorism has been impressive and is continuing.

This is happening in spite of a faction in the Sudanese body politic that welcomes support for terrorists and what must be major pressure on Sudan from groups like Gama’at al-Islamiyya to continue its support for terrorist organizations.

With the largest Islamic population of any country in the region, the situation in Ethiopia deserves careful attention.

Muslim-Christian relations are surprisingly good in a nation that has historically experienced several Islamic invasions. There are recent indications, however, that the environment has become more problematic.

The situation is further complicated because the largest ethnic group, the Oromo, who constitute about 40 percent of the population, is 55 to 60 percent Muslim. Many of them have aspirations for greater autonomy or control of the Ethiopian government.

The Oromo live in a large swath of Ethiopia that cuts through its heartland. The OLF has not shirked in the past from using terrorist tactics inside Ethiopia to achieve its goals.

The militant wing of the Somali ONLF and the now quiescent Islamic Front for the Liberation of Oromia have also used terrorism as a weapon.

It will be difficult for Ethiopia to end completely the use of terrorist tactics by indigenous dissident groups.

It is imperative, however, that Ethiopia put at the top of its agenda equal opportunity for the Muslim community in order to reduce the temptation by Islamic malcontents to join forces with external Islamic terrorist organizations.

Although Ethiopia has a tough and effective security apparatus, it also offers to international terrorist groups a large number of attractive Western targets.

Ethiopia focuses its counter-terrorist efforts against AIAI, the OLF, and the militant wing of the ONLF. The Somali groups pose a special, political problem for Ethiopia and the future of its counter-terrorism cooperation with the US.

Ethiopia believes that AIAI is linked to al-Qaeda. Most Somalis, on the other hand, deny that AIAI is a terrorist organization and, even if it once engaged in terrorist acts against Ethiopia, they argue that it has terminated this practice.

Close monitoring

Eritrea, due to its Muslim-Christian split and location across the Red Sea from Yemen also requires close monitoring. Perhaps the major surprise is the fact that terrorism has not become a serious problem.

Although it did not provide material support, Eritrea joined the coalition of the willing against Iraq. Like Ethiopia, it seeks close collaboration with the US on counter-terrorism.

Having lost the war to Ethiopia, it especially wants the border demarcation to go forward as determined and announced by the international arbitration panel. The conflict broke out in 1998 in a small section of the border known as Badme, which the arbitration panel awarded to Eritrea.

Ethiopia says this is unacceptable. As a result, the experts have not yet begun border demarcation and the situation remains tense.

Both Ethiopia, earlier with Sudanese backing, and Eritrea engage in tit for tat support of groups hostile to the other country.

Early in 2003 the EIJ, probably operating out of Sudan, planted land mines that killed five Eritrean militia.

For its part, Asmara remains the headquarters for a northern Sudanese opposition group known as the National Democratic Alliance, assists the SPLA against Sudan, and supports the OLF against Ethiopia.

Tiny, Muslim Djibouti is located across from Yemen and near the Strait of Bab el Mandeb, a critical chokepoint where the Red Sea meets the Gulf of Aden.

Djibouti became in 2002 the headquarters for the Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA). This unit coordinates coalition counter-terrorism operations in the total airspace and land area of Somalia, Kenya, Sudan, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Djibouti, and Yemen.

It emphasizes the denial of safe havens, external support, and material assistance for terrorist activity. CJTF-HOA also provides security assistance in support of civil-military operations and supports international organizations working to enhance long-term stability in the region.

Djibouti is the only US military base in sub-Saharan Africa. As a result, Djibouti has become more important to the US than at any time in history. In addition to CJTF-HOA, some 3,200 French military personnel are stationed in Djibouti.

Somalia is another special case because it has been without an effective national government since the fall of the Siad Barre regime in 1991. The former Northern Province, Somaliland, declared its independence from Somalia in 1991.

Although recognized by no country, it is now generally peaceful and not subject to the terrorist concerns presented by the situation in Somalia. The organization of most concern, AIAI, follows Wahhabi doctrine that emanates from Saudi Arabia.

Wahhabism constitutes a strict form of Islam similar to the Taliban. Its goal is to create a Somali Islamic state that incorporates those Somalis living in Ethiopia. AIAI conducted terrorist attacks from Somalia against Ethiopia in the 1990s.

Ethiopia retaliated on several occasions against AIAI inside Somalia. AIAI seems to have changed tactics in recent years by dispersing its followers and focusing on support for Islamic schools and social programs. The US placed AIAI on its Terrorist Exclusion List in 2001.

AIAI’s links to al-Qaeda are unclear. The British government announced in 2001 that Mohamed Atef, now deceased and whose al-Qaeda duties included training and organizing military and terrorist operations, traveled to Somalia in 1992 and 1993 to encourage attacks against US and UN forces.

A failed state, Somalia continues to be governed as a series of fiefdoms supported largely by the business class and the militias they finance. There is some evidence that AIAI has infiltrated elements of the business community.

Islamic charities, especially al-Islah, provide considerable aid to Somalis and may be susceptible to penetration by terrorists. The situation in Somalia raises serious concerns and could attract terrorists chased from other areas such as Afghanistan.

While terrorists from al-Qaeda or other external groups probably transit Somalia from time to time, now it has become a base of operation.

Counter terrorism

Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania are well aware of the dangers of international terrorism. All three governments cooperate with the US on counter-terrorism programs.

Kenya has been especially forthcoming and participates in the US Terrorist Interdiction Program. It is one of only two countries in Sub-Saharan Africa to have a military access agreement with the US.

Tanzania cooperated later on civil aviation security, anti-money-laundering initiatives, border control, and police training. Uganda joined the coalition of the willing against Iraq, albeit without offering material support.

Tanzania and Kenya are easily accessible surreptitiously by sea and both have a small, radicalized Islamic element that has assisted outside terrorist groups. Kenya has a particularly porous border with ungoverned Somalia.

The Kenyan government has long been concerned about the activities of the Islamic Party of Kenya, an unregistered organization with significant strength on Kenya’s Swahili coast and one that has had frosty relations with the US.

A support network for terrorists has developed along the coast where persons coming from the Gulf States, Pakistan, Somalia, and the Comoro Islands can blend in with ease.

Pervasive corruption among Kenyan immigration personnel makes it possible for these individuals to obtain citizenship and engage in legitimate cover businesses. Once all the facts are known, it may well be that al-Qaeda has stronger links along the Swahili coast than it does in Somalia.

However, foreign elements encourage Islamic militancy in Tanzania under cover of providing funds to build new mosques and by infiltrating legitimate businesses such as banking.

Tanzania is slowly beginning to take the threat more seriously. Several Tanzanian banks recently froze the accounts of some individuals and organizations suspected of funding terrorism in the country.

Uganda hosts two organizations-the ADF and LRA- that the US added to its Terrorist Exclusion List in 2001. There have been numerous attacks by the Christian LRA against civilian targets in northern Uganda over the past two years.

Although Uganda’s Islamic community is relatively small, it is still capable of being radicalized. A recent Pew Research Center poll in Uganda determined that more than one-quarter of Ugandans thought suicide bombing and other forms of violence against civilian targets are justified in defense of Islam.

The US has identified East Africa and the Horn as the priority region in Africa for counter-terrorism cooperation because of its past history of terrorist acts. It has created a fund of nearly $100 million to increase the capacity of the countries in the region to combat terrorism.

The key countries in this effort are Kenya, Ethiopia, and Djibouti. Training is already well advanced in Ethiopia and Kenya while Djibouti hosts the CJTF-HOA. Smaller training programs will take place in Tanzania, Uganda, and Eritrea.

In the final analysis, helping to eliminate the conditions that give rise to the alienation of groups that use terrorism, better intelligence on those that persist anyway, and carefully designed counter-terrorism programs are the most effective ways to deal with the threat in East Africa and the Horn.

(The author works with Milton F Gregg Centre for the Study of War and Society)