Eritrea’s continuing activities in the coordination of terrorist operations and destabilization in the Horn of Africa


Eritrea’s continuing activities in the coordination of terrorist operations and destabilization in the Horn of Africa

Eritrea’s continuing activities in the coordination of terrorist operations and destabilization in the Horn of Africa


by: Melkamu Selam

March 2014


Eritrea, formally recognized as an independent nation in 1993 after a long and protracted struggle for independence, became embroiled in controversy and conflict with almost all its neighbors almost immediately after achieving international recognition. President Isaias, who consistently refused to accept the reality of the international support provided for the independence struggle in the 1970s and 1980s, was determined from the outset to establish what he believed to be the rightful and paramount role due to Eritrea, and to himself, in the Horn of Africa region. He saw himself taking over Ethiopia`s regional role, and indeed appeared to believe Eritrea was the natural hegemon of the lower Red Sea, and that, as its leader, he personalized that role. 


As part of Isaias` efforts to establish the position of both Eritrea and himself, he sent his troops into Sudan in 1994/5, tried to seize the Hanish Islands from Yemen in 1996, threatened Djibouti the same year and in May 1998 provoked war with Ethiopia by seizing the Ethiopian.Town of Badme. Ethiopia recovered the town within less than a year and with Ethiopian forces poised to overrun southern Eritrea forced Isaias to sue for peace in July 2000.  Under the Algiers peace agreement of December that year, Eritrea agreed that the border should be demarcated by an independent international Boundary Commission and a UN Mission to Eritrea and Ethiopia (UNMEE) should monitor a 25 kilometer-wide Temporary Security Zone (TSZ) along the border inside Eritrea to keep the armies apart and provide security for the Boundary Commission and for eventual demarcation.


Eritrea accepted the Boundary Commission`s decisions as did Ethiopia. Ethiopia, which originally expressed some reservations, however also made it clear that it looked for dialogue for implementation and normalization of relations. It was at this point that Eritrea, refusing discussions on any aspect of the peace agreements, launched its attempts to undermine the Algiers Agreements. It steadily infiltrated troops into the security zone and repeatedly tightened restrictions on UNMEE operations and movements in complete violation of the Algiers Agreements.  The UN was finally forced to withdraw UNMEE from the TSZ, effectively rendering the Agreements null and void.


Eritrea’s continued efforts at destabilization in Sudan included support for various Sudanese opposition movements in Darfur as well as in East Sudan. There it was largely responsible for re-organizing the nearly defunct Beja Congress opposition, pushing it into alliance with the Rashaida ‘Free Lions’ and setting up the Eastern Front. The Front, in effect, was organized, armed, financed and supported by Eritrea but was then forced into an agreement with the Khartoum government as part of the price for Eritrea to improve relations with Sudan. In June 2008, Eritrea made another attack on Djibouti, seizing Ras Doumera before, reluctantly, agreeing to mediation by Qatar, though it has persistently ignored all subsequent efforts to actually implement details of the agreement.


Eritrea’s main activities at regional destabilization, however, have most consistently aimed at Ethiopia both directly or indirectly, especially after Eritrea was forced to sue for peace in 2000 to this end, it continues to support a number of Ethiopian opposition groups which were prepared to be involved in armed

struggle including the so called Oromo Liberation Front and Ogaden National Liberation Front, Ethiopian Peoples’ Patriotic Front, Ginbot 7 and others. It also continued its attempts to use certain Somali factions and groups as a proxy force in its conflict with Ethiopia. An early manifestation of this was an attempt to infiltrate Eritrean-trained opposition forces into southern and eastern Ethiopia through Somalia during the 1998-2000 war, and again in 2006. Eritrea also systematically supported various Somali factions opposed to Ethiopia or which were prepared to oppose Ethiopia’s efforts in support the government in Mogadishu. It provided the Ethiopian opposition forces with arms, training and finance as well as political support and refuge in Asmara, allowing them to open offices there. Many of their leaders were been given Eritrean government passports as were leaders of Somali movements allied to extremist and terrorist organizations including Al-Itihaad al Islamiya and Al-Shabaab. These efforts were less successful than Eritrea hoped, or expected, in part because Eritrean authorities have demonstrated that their support depends upon acquiescence to Eritrean control and orders. 


It was evidence of these activities that led the UN Security Council to impose sanctions on Eritrea for acts and activities which threatened international peace in 2009, under UN Resolution 1907, and specifically because Eritrea was providing support to armed groups engaged in extremist activities in Somalia and in undermining peace and reconciliation efforts as well as regional stability. A whole range of sanctions, including an arms embargo, freezing of assets and a travel ban on selected individuals, was imposed because of Eritrea’s support for the Al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorist organization, Al Shabaab, and for other armed groups in Somalia. Another major reason for the sanctions related to Eritrea’s border dispute with Djibouti. Eritrea totally rejected all calls for negotiation over its unprovoked invasion of Djibouti territory in 2008 and indeed had continued to deny that it has any dispute with Djibouti. 


Successive reports from the UN Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea subsequently detailed the continued and indeed extended destabilization activities by Eritrea. The Security Council subsequently tightened sanctions to include, among other things, coverage of Eritrea's extortion of the 2% ‘tax’ from members of the Eritrean Diaspora, the so-called Diaspora Tax, and the introduction of due diligence reports to avert possible misuse of the resources the government might obtain from the country's developing extractive industries.


The Monitoring Group reports have made it quite clear that the Government of Eritrea has made no effort to change policy or carry out any action that might warrant the lifting of sanctions. It has continued to harbor, finance, and train and support rebel forces of neighboring countries. There has been plenty of evidence to demonstrate the continuing belligerent nature of the regime. UN Resolution 2023, for example, provided details of the failed plot to bomb African Union Summit in January 2011 which was to have been carried out by Ethiopian opposition proxies of the Eritrean government. In April 2012, the Eritrean Government abducted over 100 traditional gold miners from the north western area of Ethiopia along the border with Eritrea; and orchestrated the killing of tourists in the Afar Regional State. Ethiopia's security apparatus has foiled a number of other attempts to carry out cross-border attacks and plots. The UN Monitoring Group and security documents from Ethiopia and elsewhere in the region provide continuing evidence of Eritrean support to movements that have been involved in armed opposition in Ethiopia. Most recently there have been claims by the Government of South Sudan and local

people in Bor that Eritrea has been aiding the SPLM/A-in-Opposition rebels of Riek Machar by providing them with arms and ammunition.


Similarly, Eritrea has made no effort to stop its support for Al-Shabaab and other spoiler networks in Southern Somalia, the raison d'être for the original imposition of UN sanctions. In a striking conclusion to its July 2013 Report, the UN Monitoring Group said “the Monitoring Group has obtained evidence of Eritrea’s support for individuals within this network, in particular to agents and collaborators of Al-Shabaab. As such, Eritrea’s cultivation of these individuals as agents of influence, while purporting to be an act of support to the Federal Government of Somalia, in fact constitutes a threat to peace and security in Somalia. It is also an impediment to the normalization of relations between the Federal Government and its IGAD partners.”


At the beginning of this month (March 2014), AMISOM military intelligence in central Somalia, intercepted an Eritrean attempt to smuggle rockets into Southern Somalia and Ethiopia’s Somali Regional State. A Yemeni boat was picked up off the coast of Puntland and Galmudug apparently aiming to provide these weapons to Eritrean contacts in Southern Somalia who have been previously involved in weapons and human smuggling operations through the ports along the coast. This effort appears to have been a deliberate response to the international pressure on Eritrea to curb its involvement in activities that threaten regional peace and security, and its violations of the arms embargo. Indeed, the UN Monitoring Group in its latest report felt it necessary to emphasize that the Government of Eritrea should take all necessary steps to prevent the use of its ports and airports for activities in connection with technical assistance, training, financial and other aid for military activities in Somalia in violation of Security Council resolutions 733 (1992), 1425 (2002) and 1844 (2008).


The most recent UN Report suggested that Eritrea’s behavior should be viewed in the context of its unresolved border dispute with Ethiopia, a legacy of the 1998-2000 war between the two neighbors, and the resulting “insecurity” felt in Asmara, about Ethiopia’s intentions.  This idea is difficult to accept but it was apparently given some traction by Eritrea’s recent efforts to revitalize diplomatic relationships as part of an effort to persuade some states to support the lifting of sanctions. It led to recent talk of mending Ethio-Eritrean relations from sympathizers of Eritrea. Ideas to break the deadlock over the boundary have included a symbolic handover of land along the border, followed by resumption of talks a few hours later. This simplistic suggestion, of course, ignores the belligerence of the Eritrean Government and its continued efforts to avoid any discussion over the border.


Indeed, it can only be described as rather detached from reality, based as it is on false assumptions about the regime in Asmara which has repeatedly made it very clear it is opposed to any form of dialogue. Ethiopia provided a comprehensive five-point peace plan in 2004 to try to break the deadlock, detailing its acceptance of the Ethio-Eritrea Border Commission's ruling and its call for dialogue to implement the boundary decisions, normalize relations, settle compensation issues and finalize the cessation of hostilities. This has persistently and consistently been ignored by Asmara despite all attempts to persuade it to listen.  In his latest interview earlier this year, President Isaias once again contemptuously and completely dismissed any thought of rapprochement with Ethiopia, making it quite clear he had no intention of

engaging in peaceful and meaningful interaction with Ethiopia, other neighbors or indeed the larger world.


The President’s trademark scorn for his own people was also prominently on display during that interview. Eritrea has been dubbed the largest prison in Africa. National service requirements are harsh. Everyone under the age of 50 is enlisted for an indefinite period. Around one in 20 Eritreans currently live in vast barracks in the desert. They work on reconstruction projects, such as road building, and earn no more than $30 a month. They cannot go to university as there are none; nor can they get a formal job unless they have been officially released from military service. Since conscription became open-ended in 1998, release can depend on the arbitrary whim of a commander, and usually takes years. Its youth have in fact been condemned to serve their national military service for indefinite period; many indeed have been mobilized since 1997! Equally, Eritrea has been repeatedly accused of maltreating its conscripts and forcing them into conditions of work that has been often described, and with reason, as nothing less than slavery.


The Eritrean Government’s contempt for its people is extended to the Eritrean Diaspora. This month, an Eritrean Diaspora, “Team Eritrea” demanded the British Government stopped tolerating collection of the infamous 2% Diaspora tax that the Eritrean Government extorts from all its citizens across the world. This demand for payment is levied under the pretext of providing a “social cushion for the dependents of martyrs of war, disabled war veterans and national reconstruction and development,” but its collection is often conducted unlawfully. All Eritreans in the Diaspora, wherever they live, are forced to pay 2% of their income under threats and intimidation. Refusal means people cannot renew passports, obtain visas to visit their own country or conduct any form of business there. This practice has been almost universally and repeatedly condemned by Eritreans across the world in a series of demonstrations, many held outside Eritrean missions through which the Government of Eritrea collects the tax. Where it has no missions, the government uses members of its ruling People’s Front for Justice and Democracy often employing illegal and coercive tactics.


Its activities are in clear violation of UN Resolution 2023 (May 2011), an extension of an earlier Security Council resolution (1907 of 2009) which condemned the use of the Diaspora tax receipts for acts of destabilization including the Eritrean Government support and arming of Al-Shabaab in Somalia. Resolution 2023 condemned  the use of the Diaspora tax to destabilize the Horn of Africa and Eritrea’s continued violation of other relevant resolutions, including 1844 (2008), 1862 (2009) and 1907 (2009). In this context, the resolution noted that possible purposes included “procuring arms and related materiel for transfer to armed opposition groups or providing any services or financial transfers provided directly or indirectly to such groups”, as outlined by the UN Somalia/Eritrea Monitoring Group in its 18 July 2011 report (S/2011/433). It called on Eritrea to cease all such practices.


Resolution 2023 also decided “that Eritrea shall cease using extortion, threats of violence, fraud and other illicit means to collect taxes outside of Eritrea from its nationals or other individuals of Eritrean descent,” as well as specifying that “States shall undertake appropriate measures to hold accountable, consistent with international law, those individuals on their territory who are acting, officially or unofficially, on behalf of the Eritrean government or the PFDJ contrary to the

prohibitions imposed in this paragraph and the laws of the States concerned”. It called on “States to take such action as may be appropriate consistent with their domestic law and international relevant instruments, including the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations and the 1963 Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, to prevent such individuals from facilitating further violations.”


Since the passing of UN Resolution 2023, the Governments of Germany, the UK and Canada have all requested Eritrea to stop the use of coercive tactics to collect the Diaspora Tax. In Canada, when the Eritrean authorities persisted in their behavior, the Government took the matter further and expelled the Eritrean consul in Toronto in May 2013, after he had ignored demands to stop collecting the tax, despite repeatedly giving false assurances that he would do so. The UK Government also warned the Eritrean embassy in the UK that some aspects of the collection of the tax levied on Eritreans living in the UK were unlawful and in breach of the Vienna Conventions on Diplomatic and Consular Relations. The UK Government had notified the Eritrean authorities that aspects of the collection of the two per cent tax might be unlawful and in breach of the Vienna Conventions and therefore demanded the Eritrean embassy suspend, immediately all activities relating to the collection of the tax. Foreign Office officials said that “the UK supported UN Security Council Resolution 2023 which condemned Eritrea’s use of the Diasporas tax to destabilize the Horn of Africa region and decided that Eritrea should cease using illicit means to collect the tax.” The Foreign Office also said it was “aware of allegations over the use of harassment to collect revenue from members of the Eritrean Diaspora in the UK.”


In June 2012, the UK Government introduced its Eritrea Asset Freezing Regulation to enable it to discharge its duties as a member state of the UN in enforcing Resolution 2023. The UK Foreign Office reportedly raised the issue with the Eritrean embassy again last December, reminding the Ambassador of UN resolution 2023 and telling him to stop such activity. However, it appears that the Eritrean authorities have continued to ignore all warnings. In fact, the regime, systematically failing to follow any of the established customs and rules of international diplomacy, still continues to blackmail its own nationals over basic human rights in order to continue to obtain minimal amounts of hard-earned foreign exchange.


The latest evidence of Eritrean Government’s continued extortions in defiance of Security Council resolution 2023 underline the need for UN member states to undertake close scrutiny of Eritrean Missions and effectively implement this resolution to put an end to its forced extraterritorial extortion. This is particularly important as implementation of effective mechanisms to stop Eritreans in the Diaspora from harassment and undue fiscal burdens are also linked to the Eritrean Government activities over security in the Horn of Africa. There is no doubt that monies collected through Diaspora Tax have been, and still are, used to finance terrorist and extremist activity in support of the Eritrean Government’s regional destabilization efforts. It must now be incumbent on countries that host Eritreans in the Diaspora to uphold United Nations Security Council resolutions and ensure that the Eritrean regime cannot use its diplomatic presence to extort monies illegally and in defiance of the Vienna Conventions. In these circumstances it is hardly surprising that so many regard Eritrea as a pariah state not is it surprising that the campaigners of “Team Eritrea” have called urgently for the British Government to implement resolution 2023 fully, and indeed follow the example of Canada in expelling those responsible for these extortionate and illegal practices. 


This must reinforce the view that any plea for the lifting of sanctions can only be no more than a mockery of justice and international law. The UN Monitoring Group‘s reports clearly reveal that the only thing consistent element in Eritrea’s behavior is the way it has continued to attempt to carry out the destabilization of others in the IGAD region throughout the period of the sanctions' regime. Nor is it new to hear allegations that the Government of Eritrea's destabilizing role has gone well beyond the IGAD region, to reach into the Democratic Republic of Congo and Central African Republic. While Eritrea continues to ignore the demands of the UN Security Council and all norms of international diplomacy and international relations, it continues to make repeated efforts to negate regional peace efforts, through alliances with, and support for, with spoiler groups in Somalia, South Sudan and elsewhere. Eritrea has consistently shown its disrespect to all peace efforts in Somalia, rejecting the Djibouti process and then repeatedly trying to undermine the Federal Government of Somalia.


Its latest efforts to try to dupe the UN Security Council are no more than a nefarious attempt to whitewash an extensive, continuing and depressing record of regional, and wider, destabilization. It is very clear the call for the lifting of sanctions on the basis of an improvement in Eritrea’s behavior bears no relationship to any reality to current activities on the ground. There is simply no evidence that Eritrea’s calls for the lifting of sanctions have been accompanied by any change of behavior, genuine or otherwise. The regime in Asmara continues to reject and all ideas of dialogue with Ethiopia or with Djibouti. There is no evidence that it has decided to abandon its mission of destabilization or put an end to its support for terrorists, extremists and armed opposition movements across the region. Nor has there been any sign of any indication that Eritrea wants to accept the norms of international law and behavior. Indeed, the reverse appears to be the case. Eritrea remains entirely contemptuous of any ideas of good neighborliness or of respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of other countries.


In these circumstances it is hardly the time to consider lifting sanctions. Indeed, it is rather the case that the Security Council should continue to be wary of the deceptions of the Eritrean Government. Unless Eritrea calls a halt to all these activities, the international community should be prepared to take additional and necessary measures to tighten sanctions and provide for much more serious effective implementation of the mechanisms already imposed. 



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