It is unusual for the normally cautious bureaucrats at UN headquarters in New York to label one of its members a terrorist state.
But that’s what they have just done, and their disclosures about what is going on in the rogue Red Sea nation of Eritrea, in the heart of one of the world’s most troubled yet strategically important regions — particularly in relation to shipping lanes — is likely to have far-reaching consequences.
For what the UN report has revealed is a conspiracy by the Eritrean government — “conceived, planned, supported and directed by the external operations directorate of the government of Eritrea,” as it puts it — to launch a series of car-bomb and other attacks in Addis Ababa, the capital of neighbouring Ethiopia.
The attacks, three years in the making, according to the UN, were designed to cause “mass civilian casualties” to coincide with a meeting in Addis Ababa a few months ago attended by scores of African heads of state and government as well as other world leaders, including UN officials.
The scenario disclosed in the 415-page report is astounding. It is the sort of madness that might be expected from that other sponsor of state terrorism, North Korea, to which Eritrea’s ruling Marxist regime has been compared.
The goal, the UN says, was to bomb a range of civilian and government targets in Addis Ababa and make the city “like Baghdad”. The headquarters of the African Union; the Merkato, Africa’s largest open-air market; official buildings; and top hotels where international delegates attending the summit were staying were all to be targeted.
The planned onslaught, happily, failed. Ethiopian security forces thwarted it. Several arrests were made. But the audacity of the conspiracy hatched in Asmara, Eritrea’s capital, and its potential to cause “mass casualties”, has astounded even those familiar with terrorist actions around the world and served to focus on what is one of Africa’s most opaque and sinister regimes. The bare-footed bush fighters of the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front won independence in 1991 after a 30-year, David and Goliath battle against neighbour Ethiopia.
It is a reflection of how things have gone awry since then, however, that ill-tempered Eritrea has fallen out with just about all its neighbours, fighting directly or indirectly with Ethiopia, Yemen, Djibouti and Sudan and involving itself in conflict in eastern Sudan, Darfur and Somalia.
What the International Crisis Group describes as “an authoritarian, militarised regime has . . . tolerated neither opposition nor dissent” and Eritrea, under the rule of eccentric president Isaias Afewerki, a former freedom fighter, has turned a small country born with overwhelming international goodwill into “a siege state whose government is suspicious of its own population, neighbours and the wider world”.
Afewerki has crushed all opposition among Eritrea’s 5 million people. More than a million have fled abroad.
Hopes that Eritrea and Ethiopia could live peacefully as neighbours have been dashed. They’ve fought a bitter war. What the ICG describes as the “small cohort of ex-fighters” surrounding Afewerki, seem hell-bent on revenge.
Hence the three-year conspiracy to launch the Addis Ababa terrorist attack. But the malign intent of the regime in Asmara doesn’t stop there. Eritrea has already been condemned by the UN for financing hardline Islamist al-Shabab jihadists in Somalia, helping them in their terrorist onslaughts and, especially, in their attacks on what passes for a government in Mogadishu, which is supported by Ethiopia. Now the UN, in disclosing details of the bomb onslaught planned against Addis Ababa, has warned of the rising threat of “large-scale” terrorist attacks elsewhere in Africa.
The regime in Asmara denies it all but the evidence produced by the UN is compelling.
The details of the conspiracy uncovered by UN investigators is worrying, especially for African countries in a volatile region. But it’s worrying beyond Africa, too, for just as the rogue regime in Asmara seems hell-bent on terrorism in its immediate neighbourhood, it has also shown itself willing to provide a safe haven for terrorists from elsewhere.
The ICG’s report issued a few months ago speaks of “militarised politics having spilled into foreign policy, the latter frequently involving armed responses and aggressive adventurism at the expense of conventional diplomacy”.