April 27, 2007
By Peter Brookes
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
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
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,
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
Brookes is a senior fellow at The Heritage
Foundation and the author of "A Devil's Triangle: Terrorism, WMD
and Rogue States."
First appeared in Armed Fources Journal
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.
Senior Fellow, National Security Affairs
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