Excrept from SPECIAL REPORT Ter ror ism in the Hor n of Afr ica
Shifting Terrain: Dissidence versus Terrorism in Eritrea, by Ruth Iyob
“The only way of isolating individual terrorists is to do so politically, by
addressing the issues in which terrorists ‘wrap themselves up.’ Without
addressing the issues there is no way of shifting the terrain of conflict from
the military to the political, and drying up support for political terror.”
State Security Situation
Since 9/11, Eritrea has been included on the list of countries harboring terrorists, due to allegations that the Eritrean Islamic Jihad Movement (EIJM) was linked to al Qaeda. Inside Eritrea, despite the infrequency of what is conventionally understood as acts of terrorism, the term has recently gained currency as a label for political opponents of the regime, led by Issaias Afwerki. The EIJM was founded in 1980, although its genesis can be traced back to 1975 when a number of Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) members were ejected out of the guerrilla movement accused of being unduly religious. By 1993 when the army of the Eritrean Peoples Liberation Front (EPLF) declared the country to be sovereign, the EIJM had already been in existence for over a decade. In 1994 the EPLF reconstituted itself as the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ) and ushered in an era of a gradual consolidation of President Afwerki’s power. In 2001 a number of his old comrades protested what they perceived to be a personalized dictatorship, giving rise to a new opposition group—the EPLF-Democratic Party (EPLFDP). A decade after independence, the Eritrean political arena hosts disparate groups such as the Eritrean National Alliance or ENA (a coalition of 13 ELF factions), the EPLF-DP, and the EIJM—all in opposition to the PFDJ. 11 Somalia will continue to pose a direct security threat mainly as a point of transit through which materiel and people move unchecked into other East African countries. Islam as Social Protest: Dissidents versus Militants The PFDJ, EPLF-DP, and ENA, espouse secular ideologies that range from Afro-Marxism to Maoism and Baa’thism. The EIJM is the only organization that claims to represent Muslim Eritreans’ grievances. It is also the only organization that approximates a conventional terrorist organization, as demonstrated by its claims of responsibility for exploded land mines, kidnappings, and the destruction of state-owned economic enterprises. Although
the majority of EIJM sympathizers do not subscribe to its brand of militant Islam, they resent the PFDJ’s curtailment of Muslim rights to practice their religion as well as the denial of Eritrea’s Afro-Arab heritage. Both the ELF and EPLF leadership(s) rejected Islam as a social identity, which triggered
a backlash from members unwilling to subscribe to their Marxist interpretation of religion as the “opium of the people.” With the defeat of the ELF by the EPLF (aided by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front) in 1981, the majority of practicing Eritrean Muslims found themselves bereft of political representation. Islam as a form of social protest gradually emerged to fill the void created by the secular modernizers. The exodus of Muslim refugees
to Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Sudan also created conditions for the politicization of Eritrean Muslims due to their explosure to more radical forms of Islam.
The EIJM: In Process of Becoming The EIJM’s membership currently includes dissidents from the ELF and the EPLF, social conservatives, defiant Islamic youth, and exiles in the diaspora. Its origins can be traced to the mid-1970s when combatants who objected to anti-religious propaganda were routinely
imprisoned and ostracized by party ideologues. In 1981 the Munezemet Arrewad al Muslimin al Eritrea (Eritrean Pioneer Muslim Organization) was founded by ELF dissidents.
In 1983 the Jebhat Tahrir al Eritrea al Islamiya Wataniya (Eritrean National IslamicLiberation Front) was established in Sudan. In 1988 the two organizations merged withthree smaller groups—Lejnet al Difae al Islami (Islamic Defense Committee), Harekat al Mustedafeen al Eritrea (Movement of Oppressed Eritreans), and al Intifada Islamiya (Islamic Uprising)—to form the EIJM. The EIJM, although an enduring socio-political entity, is far from a stable and monolithic organization. It has been rife with factionalism since its establishment. In 1988, following the merger of the five groups, a radical faction emerged seeking to displace the moderate founding leaders. In 1993, an even more militant faction, led by Mohammed Ahmed (Abu Suhail), with alleged ties to Afghan mujahedin, broke away. The remaining constituency, led by Arefa Ahmed, retained its focus on local and national concerns. In 1996, a third splinter, al Majlis al Islamiya Leddewa wa Islah fi Eritrea (Islamic Council for Reformation), led by Ibrahim Malek, emerged in opposition to the extremism of the Abu
Suhail faction and sought dialogue with the larger political community. In 2004, EIJM remains an ideologically and socially heterogeneous organization whose
members include radical and moderate Muslims, alienated exiles, and secular citizens disillusioned by the justice meted out by the PFDJ. The EIJM’s continuity as an organization is fed by the PFDJ regime’s unwillingness to contemplate real versus virtual political participation of Eritrea’s multicultural citizens. Response by the Government. A culture of impunity has increasingly become visible since 2001, triggering a split within the ruling PFDJ and inaugurating a reformist movement locally known as the G-15. The reformists demanded that the PFDJ cease making arbitrary arrests of hundreds
of political prisoners—including those suspected of being “jihad sympathizers.” This open acknowledgment of the many arbitrary arrests and “disappearance” of Muslim citizens, which until then had only been raised by the EIJM and ENA, provided a new basis
for the realignment of all PFDJ opponents.
12 The EIJM is the only organization that claims to represent Muslim Eritreans’ grievances. It is also the only organization that approximates a conventional
terrorist organization. The EIJM’s continuity as an organization is fed by the PFDJ regime’s unwillingness to contemplate real versus virtual political participation of Eritrea’s multicultural citizens. On September 18, 2001, eleven of the reformists were arrested and joined the ranks
of “the disappeared.” This was followed by a systematic crackdown on all pro-democracy elements and the head-of-state’s adoption of the “Guantanamo” method, that is, the detention of political prisoners deemed to be a risk to the nation (www.awate.com,
September 1, 2002). U.S. Policy toward Eritrea The emergence of a faction of EIJM “linked” with al Qaeda has militarized the earlier U.S.-
Eritrean alliance (1991–2001), which was predicated upon shared objectives of democratizationand development. Eritrea’s inclusion in the “coalition of the willing” threatens to widen the gap between moderate and radical Eritrean Muslims due to the regime’s use of the “war against terrorism” to eliminate all dissent. There is growing resentment at U.S. unwillingness to censure the regime even after the more than two-year internmentof leading Muslim elders. These elders had sought to mediate between President Afwerki and reformist parliamentarians who had demanded more accountability and transparency
from the head-of-state.Current U.S. policy appears to be a “gentlemen’s pact” between top military brass, leaving gross human rights violations to be dealt with by distant political desk officers in the State Department. The outcome of such a policy has been to encourage the PFDJ regime to eliminate political rivals using “the war on terror” as a justification. Outlook and Recommendations The United States fostered democratization and constitutional rule in Eritrea from 1991 to 2001. In 2001, when democratizing Eritreans demanded constitutional governance, the U.S. decision to refrain from taking an unequivocal stand against the systematic elimination of pro-democracy advocates sent the message that only acts of violence and terror—not democratic reform—will bring about change. Current U.S. policy in Eritrea vacillates between two poles: unconditional support for a regime that joined the “war on terror” and episodic signals of disapproval for the regime’s crackdown on dissent. U.S. policy should disengage from the increasing authoritarianism of the current
regime which has alienated the majority of its civilian—secular and non-secular population. Failure to do so may lead to growing support for more militant elements within EIJM and the ENA.