May 1, 2007  

Horn hotbed

East Africa could be the next haven for extremists

Since the early 1990s, the Horn of Africa — the descriptive name for the East African countries of Kenya, Ethiopia, Djibouti, Somalia, Eritrea and Sudan — has been considered by many a major source of Islamic terrorism, radicalism and political instability. Unfortunately, that conclusion is accurate.

In 1993, 18 American GIs on a humanitarian stabilization mission, dubbed Operation Restore Hope, were killed by Somali militants (with suspected al-Qaida ties) during a bloody engagement in Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu. This ultimately led to a 1994 American withdrawal that some terrorists still cite as proof that the almighty Uncle Sam is nothing but a “paper tiger” — complete with a weak stomach for casualties.

Until he decamped for Afghanistan in 1996, Sudan was home to, and early operating base for, Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida followers for five years. In 1998, al-Qaida struck the U.S. embassy in Nairobi, Kenya, killing over 250 and injuring more than 4,000, mostly Africans. (Al-Qaida also car-bombed the U.S. Embassy in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, the same day). The destroyer Cole was attacked in Aden, Yemen, in 2000 by an al-Qaida suicide boat based on a plot hatched in Sudan.

And in 2002, suspected al-Qaida operatives bombed a Mombassa hotel, and nearly downed an Israeli airliner taking off from the city’s airport with a surface-to-air missile, smuggled in from neighboring Somalia. At the moment, there is likely more al-Qaida in “the Horn” than anywhere else on the African continent.

Today, the Horn of Africa is a hotbed of weak and failed states, sectarian and ethnic violence, civil wars, ungoverned territory and humanitarian disasters that have the potential, if unchecked, to spark a major regional war — or become the next Afghanistan-like safe haven for Islamic extremists and terrorists.

Simmering in Somalia

When most Americans think of Somalia — if they ever think of it — they probably think of the 2001 Hollywood blockbuster “Black Hawk Down.” The flick, set in the capital city of Mogadishu in 1993, tells the tragic story of U.S. peacekeeping forces getting sucker-punched by clan-based Islamic militants, with probable support from al-Qaida. Before the battle was done, the U.S. suffered more than 90 casualties and lost two helicopters.

The situation did not get any better after that. In 1998, the al-Qaida plots that led to the attacks against the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were planned in Somalia. Not surprisingly, after the Sept. 11 attacks, Somalia gained greater attention as a likely hot spot for international terrorism due to its failed state status, continuing lawlessness, the presence of the al-Qaida-associated terrorist group al Ittihad al Islamiya (AIAI), a large, poor Muslim population of 8 million and its long, porous land and maritime borders.

Today, Somalia is one of the most troubling spots in Africa. Due to its strategic location — at the crossroads of Africa and the Middle East — Somalia plays a key role in both regional stability and fighting terrorism. Unfortunately, the country, which has more coastline than the eastern U.S., has been without a functioning central government since 1991 due to a power struggle between clan- and subclan-based militias — despite well more than a dozen attempts at national political reconciliation. Law and order and basic services for the population are nonexistent. The situation is so bad the U.S. does not even have a diplomatic presence there (the American embassy in Kenya is responsible for Somalia).

The situation became worse — if that is imaginable — when the hard-line Council of Islamic Courts (CIC), believed to have terrorist ties, routed a U.S.-backed warlord coalition, the Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism, last June (the CIC is synonymous with the Islamic Courts Union). With the exceptions of de facto independent Somaliland and autonomous Puntland in the north-central Somalia, — the capitol city and south-central Somalia had, in essence, fallen into Islamist hands.

Shortly thereafter, the CIC and its assorted allies engaged in some celebratory, but openly hostile, rhetoric, conflating their ideals of establishing an Islamic state under repressive sharia law with broadly appealing Somali nationalism. They began threatening to march on Baidoa, home of the secular, U.N.-recognized Transitional Federal Government (TFG), as well as wage jihad against neighboring Ethiopia.

The CIC also embraced Ethiopian rival Eritrea and made irredentist claims on Ethiopian lands (in 1977-78, Somalia and Ethiopia fought a bloody war over the largely Somali-inhabited province of Ogaden, ruled by Addis Ababa since the British evacuated in 1948). A 2006 U.N. report claimed a high volume of weapons was flowing into Somalia in violation of an existing arms embargo.

Ethiopia acted pre-emptively in December against the gathering storm in Somalia, led by the CIC. More than the CIC’s Islamist ideology or their alleged ties to al-Qaida, Addis Ababa moved to support the TFG, end safe haven for Ethiopian rebel groups and oppose Somali claims on Ethiopian land.

The operation was a surprising success, quietly supported by U.S. advisers on the ground, while AC-130 Spectre gunships conducted not-so-quiet strikes on CIC and al-Qaida forces (including the ringleaders of the 1998 Kenya and Tanzania embassy bombings), fleeing south from Mogadishu toward Kismayo and the Kenyan border. In the aftermath, top al-Qaida leaders, including bin Laden’s No. 2, Ayman al Zawahiri, have rhetorically weighed in on the conflict by calling for jihad against Ethiopia.

Somalia’s TFG, headed by interim president Abdullahi Yusuf, is attempting to establish its political legitimacy and provide security and governance in Mogadishu. Somali insurgent militias, such as the powerful Mogadishu-based Hawiye clan, and CIC rump elements are fighting to prevent the TFG from taking power. They are also trying to drive out a recently arrived small African Union (AU) “green helmets” peacekeeping operation, as well as remaining Ethiopian forces. Al-Qaida cells may also be in the mix.

While not anxious to remain, some Ethiopian forces will likely stay in Somalia until the situation has stabilized, which could be awhile — if ever. A wide variety of violence is likely to continue in Mogadishu. Unpopular Ethiopian, AU and TFG forces, which some Somalis see as nothing more than foreign occupiers, are struggling to contain the fighting, prevent a security vacuum, manage dynamic clan rivalries and forestall an Iraq-like insurgency by clan militias and Somali and foreign jihadists. Al-Qaida will undoubtedly attempt to exploit the chaos for its own purposes, too.

Much depends on the success of a national conciliation process planned for this spring among the TFG, clans, warlords and moderate Islamists (hard-liners such as the CIC are expected to be excluded) that might restore some semblance of order to Mogadishu, long the center of gravity for Somali stability.

Sudan’s slaughter

In Sudan, a 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement that ended a 21-year civil war — the second-deadliest conflict since World War II — between the north and south. But now violence and human insecurity in the western region of Darfur are arguably worse than at any time since the conflict began in 2003. The Islamist government, led by former Gen. Omar al Bashir, in Khartoum is pursuing a military solution to put down the restive situation in Darfur — a region the size of France.

He is using government forces and Arab Muslim “Janjaweed” militias against as many as a dozen Darfuri rebel groups such as the Sudan Liberation Movement, Sudanese Liberation Army, Justice and Equality Movement and National Redemption Front — and local African Muslim civilians. Darfuris are pressing for less neglect and discrimination, more power and wealth-sharing by the Arab-dominated government in Khartoum, and the disarmament of the marauding Janjaweed.

As a result, since 2003, conservative estimates indicate more than 200,000 have been killed in an “ethnic cleansing” campaign many are calling the 21st century’s first genocide. Nearly 2 million Darfuris have been displaced, including as many as 200,000 seeking refuge in neighboring Chad and Central African Republic. Cross-border Janjaweed raids have spilled the conflict and violence over into these already fragile states, further inflaming ethnic and political tensions. As many as 4 million are now dependent on international assistance.

The AU has a small military contingent, numbering 7,000 troops in Darfur, but it lacks the capacity and a robust mandate to keep the peace, much less make it. In fact, both AU forces and aid workers have been targeted for criminal and political violence, causing some nongovernmental organizations to pull out of Darfur. Khartoum has thwarted efforts at establishing a hybrid 20,000-troop AU-U.N. force to end the violence and forge a political settlement based on the 2006 Darfur Peace Agreement.

Bashir insists a larger outside force in Darfur would undermine Sudan’s sovereignty and cause more violence, possibly leading to further disintegration of the country — the Arab world’s and Africa’s largest country by area. Some nations, including the United Kingdom, have suggested a “no-fly zone” over Darfur to limit Sudanese use of fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters in attacking Darfuri rebels and villages.

Unfortunately, Khartoum has been able to resist international pressure because of significant profits from its large oil reserves (the world’s 13th largest), which it uses to arm the Janjaweed. Khartoum also receives support at the U.N. Security Council from Beijing, which has $3 billion invested in Sudan’s energy sector. (China has also been accused of helping Sudan skirt an international arms embargo against it through direct arms sales and assistance with building weapons factories.) Al-Qaida has also warned against intervention, promising to attack U.N. or NATO peacekeepers if they deploy to Darfur — likely giving pause to some possible peacekeeping operation participants.

Although still on the State Department’s State Sponsor of Terror list, Sudan has not been implicated in supporting international terrorism since 2001. With the arguable exception of Darfur, Khartoum has been cooperative in countering terrorism activities in Sudan or by Sudanese, according to the U.S. government. Despite this, Sudan has been implicated in directly — or indirectly — supporting anti-Ethiopian, anti-Chadian and anti-Ugandan rebel groups using its territory.

Ethiopia-Eritrea eruption?

Another potential flashpoint in the region is the rivalry between Ethiopia, Africa’s second-most-populous country, and its former province of Eritrea, Africa’s newest state (Eritrea became independent in 1993). Not only is there an unresolved border dispute between Addis Ababa’s Christian-led government and Asmara’s Islamist regime, resulting in a bloody 1998-2000 war, both sides have been playing an active role in the Somali conflict — supporting opposite sides, naturally.

The Ethiopian government, a U.S. ally under Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, supports the Somali TFG. Eritrea, a highly repressive state ruled by President Isaias Afewerki, supports the CIC and other foreign jihadists — possibly among them al-Qaida and a number of anti-Ethiopian government rebel groups, such as the Oromo Liberation Front and the Ogaden National Liberation Front, which have found safe haven in Somalia. In 2006, the U.N. reported Eritrea was training and arming the CIC and anti-Ethiopian forces in Somalia.

Beyond Somalia, the intense competition between Addis Ababa and Asmara even extends to bids of support from Khartoum, not to mention Ethiopian support of Eritrean opposition groups. While another Ethiopian-Eritrean war — which could lead to a wider regional conflagration — is not imminent, the potential for conflict is ever-present, especially as Ethiopian troops are exposed to deadly Eritrean-backed forces in a dangerous rivalry being played out next door in Somalia.

Caution in Kenya

While Kenya has not been considered a cauldron of radical Islamic activity, it has certainly been a preferred target for Islamic terrorism, as evidenced by the 1998 and 2002 attacks in Nairobi and Mombassa. Moreover, in May 2003, the Kenyan government revealed an al-Qaida terrorist network was plotting an attack on western targets, confirming al-Qaida’s continuing presence in Kenya. Al-Qaida likely still considers Kenya a potential target, with an array of soft targets.

Frequently criticized for weak border control and immigration laws, Nairobi played an important role in detaining as many as 70 CIC members caught at the Somali border or in Kenya, fleeing south from Ethiopian forces (al-Qaida operatives may have been apprehended as well). Kenya has also played a positive role by trying to help resolve some of the region’s intractable problems, such as the civil war in Sudan and establishing a functioning central government in Somalia.

Djibouti’s importance to terrorists derives from its position as an important transit and entry point for the Horn of Africa rather than its potential as a base for international terrorists, especially considering the presence of Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA) at Camp Lemonier since 2002. In fact, Djibouti hosts the only U.S. military base in the sub-Sahara, which is critical to American counterterrorism initiatives and intelligence programs against terrorism targets.

Finally — and fortunately — acknowledging the importance of Africa and the threat posed by weak and failing states, Congress has approved the establishment of an African Command (AFRICOM), to be carved out of the three combatant commands responsible for the continent: European Command, Central Command and Pacific Command. While CJTF-HOA is currently in Djibouti, as many as 10 countries are being looked at for AFRICOM, which will stand up initially in Germany at European Command this fall, and become fully established by late 2008 somewhere in Africa once a host nation is found. At the moment, only Kenya is being considered in the Horn of Africa for AFRICOM’s main base.

AFRICOM is expected to be light in number of troops, perhaps in the range of the 1,800 currently assigned to CJTF-HOA. The thrust of AFRICOM will be civil-military access and presence. Think places, not bases, although regional offices around Africa are expected. Considering their colonial past, many Africans are understandably sensitive to a foreign troop presence, but AFRICOM will play an important role in strengthening security cooperation, counterterrorism capacity, and civil-military and humanitarian outreach across the continent, especially in places such as the volatile Horn of Africa.

dangerous uncertainty

From Somalia to Sudan to Ethiopia and Eritrea, the Horn of Africa is filled with uncertainty of the most dangerous kind. Failed and weak states and instability afford unwelcome freedom of action and safe haven to terrorists and Islamic extremists that run counter to U.S. interests and national security.

In the post-Sept. 11 world, Africa can no longer be a strategic backwater for the U.S. While the idea of finding African solutions to African problems is a useful guideline, it is not always pragmatic, considering shortfalls in capacity on the continent. Effective U.S. responses to instability, Islamic radicalism and terrorist threats in the Horn of Africa must bring resources to bear, using defense, diplomacy and developmental tools to build the capability and capacity of regional partners, which will shape the security environment to advance both American and African interests.