Eritrea Plays With Fire It Can’t Control

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The US and the African Union blame the Eritrean government for fanning the carnage by arming and funding Al-Shabab and other radical Islamist groups in Somalia. Eritrea denies the charges.

[Global: Africa]

Eritrea’s Horn of Africa neighbors have again called for international action against the Asmara government in the face of increased violence in lawless Somalia.

Last Thursday, Al Shabab suicide bombers, using four UN marked vehicles, killed 17 African Peacekeepers inside their Mogadishu base.  The Deputy Commander of the African Union force was among those killed. Al Shabab said it was avenging the assassination of a senior Al-Qaeda operative by US commandos early last week in southern Somalia. 

The US and the African Union blame the Eritrean government for fanning the carnage by arming and funding Al-Shabab and other radical Islamist groups in Somalia. Eritrea denies the charges.

But US and UN officials say they have sufficient evidence that in addition to financial support, secular Eritrea has funneling weapons to Al-Shabab including missiles and suicide vests. Meanwhile, the UN thinks the vehicles used in last week's suicide bombing in Mogadishu may have been from former Eritrean peacekeeping mission.

Eritrea wants the UN-backed Somali government removed by force clearing the way for the creation of a militant caliphate state under Al-Shabab. As a radical force, Al-Shabab can only rule through brute force and terror, if it came to power. Al-Shabab’s puritan Islamist politics are alien to most Somalis. It is unlikely that the group will bring lasting peace and stability to the nation.

In this precarious state of affairs, the world is baffled by Eritrea’s untenable and opportunistic policies toward Somalia mainly because it wants to undermine its arch-enemy, Ethiopia and anger its American and European allies. In the early 1990s Eritrea itself had to deal with Islamic extremism within its borders. It had to fight and defeat armed Eritrean Jihadist forces that crossed the Sudanese border into Eritrea backed by foreign Islamist fighters. They were inspired and supported by Sudanese Islamist leader Hassan al-Turabi before he expelled them in 1996.

Eritrean leaders have apparently never tolerated religious radicalism as a matter of social or political principle. But a principle is not a principle unless it is consistently upheld even when there are political inconveniences.

No one can blame Eritrea for exposing what it sees as intransigent and self-centered policies of other nations. But its aliment with terrorist entities, forgetting its own violent experience with radical movements in the past, is shortsighted and has to stop.

Religious extremism is an international problem. Encouraging or condoning Al-Qaeda or Al-Shabab type of ideological extremism threatens the stability and progress of all countries in the Horn of Africa including that of Eritrea whose population is made up of roughly half Moslem and half Christian.

The absence of constitutional democracy and lack of rule of law and respect for human rights are causing serious tensions within the Eritrean society. It is feared that Eritrea’s dictatorial rule will particularly lead to Islamist extremism.

To be sure, the Eritrean government has stopped its anti-American rhetoric apparently heeding repeated US threats of military action. In early August, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned that the US would take appropriate measures unless Eritrea “seized and desisted its support for Al-Al-Shabab.”  Since then, the Eritrean government has made no direct references to US activities and interests in Somalia.  

This is a positive step but there is yet a long way to go. Eritrea’s name is very much intertwined with terrorism and extremism in Somalia. When the FBI received intelligence information that Al-Shabab members had plans to stage a suicide attack on President Barack Obama’s January inauguration, Washington warned the Eritrean government that it “could suffer the same fate as Taliban-controlled Afghanistan—if the plot was carried out.”

Fingers were also pointed at Eritrea when Australian authorities arrested three Somalis for an alleged plan to carry out a suicide attack in the capital, Sydney.  

African leaders are also adamant. The East African economic group, IGAD, has called for international sanctions in connection with the slaying of 17 AU peacekeepers by Al-Shabab. Eritrea has not responded.

Over the past two years, more threats have come from Washington. Only token measures have so far been taken with the hope that Eritrea would change course and work for the normalization of relations with the US. It is hard to know how much influence Eritrea has on Al-Shabab, if any. Perhaps none. One thing is definite:  Al-Shabab is not ready to stop targeting African, US or other Western interests.

No one is impressed with the government’s relentless denials of its support for Al-Shabab. It is time for Eritrea to publically renounce Al-Shabab’s radical and violent agenda and start making amends with the US.

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