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Another Crisis in the Horn?

23rd January 2013 - FDD Policy Brief

Reports coming from the Eritrean capital of Asmara on Monday indicated that rebels had thrown the small country, northwest of the Horn of Africa, into chaos. The rebel troops had captured the Ministry of Information and then used the state television service to demand the release of political prisoners. For the moment, however, it seems the attempt has failed, with sources from Asmara reporting that President Isaias Afwerki remains in control. But the situation, according to the State Department, remains “fluid,” and there are those who suspect that elements within Ethiopia played a role in the attempted takeover. There is fear, also, that tension with Ethiopia – with which Eritrea has been in a formal state of war since 1991 -- could escalate.

Stability in Eritrea is crucial to the region. So far, the government seems to have resisted growing pressure from Islamists in Yemen and Saudi Arabia to radicalize Eritrea, the only non-Arab country along the Red Sea coast. But as the Horn of Africa, Gulf of Guinea and the porous borders of Northern Africa become a preferred routes for arms smuggling, the future of the country remains uncertain. Internal political disarray and tensions with Ethiopia could make Eritrea especially vulnerable to the Islamist influences exerting pressures in an increasing number of African countries.  Iran is rumored to have established a military base along the coast, although there has been no confirmation of such reports from Washington, Jerusalem, or Tehran. Eritrea has denied the existence of such a base. 

As last October’s conflict between Israel and Hamas indicated – with Iranian missiles delivered to Gaza via Sudan -- an Iranian presence in the region can only increase tensions and escalate conflicts.

Eritrea faces UN sanctions for its support of Islamist militants in Somalia.  Eritrea continues to deny any such involvement. If Eritrea is supporting al Shabab, an al-Qaeda linked group, Ethiopia’s intervention against Jihadists in Somalia could be a large part of the reason. 

US policy in the region is currently to “[encourage] Eritrea to contribute to regional stability, [reconcile] ongoing disputes with Ethiopia and Djibouti… [urge] progress toward a democratic political culture, and [cite] and [address] human rights issues.”

So far, the US has made small steps toward fulfilling these goals. Increased surveillance in the Red Sea and the surrounding area has reduced the number of maritime crimes in the region and brought greater stability. But Western governments and those within the region should further boost efforts to maintain the security of the Red Sea from piracy, illegal firearms trafficking, and the movement of Jihadists to the hinterlands of Africa. Such efforts could prevent Eritrea from succumbing to Islamist terrorist elements and throwing Africa into further disarray. 

Dawit Giorgis is a visiting fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies focusing on Africa.


africa, al-shabaab, coup-d'etat, eritrea, ethiopia, islamist, somalia