Stopping Al-Qaeda in Africa requires united support for Ethiopia –
As terrorist groups, including Al-Qaeda, continue to advance across Africa, the international community must help the Ethiopian government restore stability in the country.
Too often in the history of foreign and strategic policy, new dangers emerge and spread as the world looks the other way.
A series of global expert analyses, from organizations such as the European Parliament, the Brookings Institution, the Atlantic Council, the French Ministry of Defense and the Crisis Group, have highlighted the growing danger of expansion and infiltration of Al-Qaeda terrorist cells across the sub-region. Saharan Africa. Their activity is spurred by a sense that the rest of the world is occupied by Ukraine, and the mix of weak governance, local poverty and immense mineral wealth makes countries like the Central African Republic, Sudan and Mali targets. favored for violent subversion and takeover by terrorists. The Islamic State may well seek to violently impose a new caliphate on Africa to replace the one that was finally pushed back in the Middle East.
For some, this whole issue can be seen simply as a diversion from the main defensive commitment – that of thwarting the naked aggression of an authoritarian Russia against a democratic and sovereign Ukraine.
Unfortunately, there is a clear and tactical way to connect these two different theaters of armed conflict.
The Wagner Group, a private Russian mercenary army led by a close associate of President Vladimir Putin, has previously deployed to the Ukrainian battlespace in an effort to shore up the poor performance, strategies and tactics of the regular Russian armed forces.
Regardless of the different forms of governance between the Wagnerian contractors and the Russian regular forces, they are all instruments of the same authoritarian Putin administration.
It should therefore come as no surprise to any balanced observer that the same Wagner group has now been deployed in Africa, often under contract to local governments to help contain, repel or destroy growing al-Qaeda/ISIS forces. Islamic State in the region. Far beyond cash payments that may be demanded under contracts with Wagner, there is also the issue of payment in mining royalties, mineral-rich local lands and other instruments for future Russian influence in Africa. .
It should be clear to anyone who has studied the new doctrine of global imperial Russia, as laid out by Putin, that a dominant Russian position in Africa would fit the plan very well.
When the colonial powers began to withdraw from Africa, it was Soviet agents who supplied much of the armaments necessary for African rebels and democratic insurgency groups to confront and eliminate the colonialists.
While the Wagner Group is a different instrument of influence and infiltration, its supposed independence from the Russian state and Putin’s simultaneous denial of its actions provide Russia with significant tactical and regional options in all of sub-Saharan Africa.
African security expert Martin Ewi recently briefed the UN Security Council on the growing presence of Islamic State in Africa. He warned that the terror group was active in more than 20 African countries and that the region could represent “the future of the caliphate”. Al-Qaeda’s presence persists across the continent, as do major spin-off terrorist groups such as Boko Haram in Nigeria and Al-Shabaab in Somalia. The latter launched its first-ever attack inside Ethiopia’s borders in July, signaling a dangerous new phase in the fight against Islamic extremism in the Horn of Africa, a region that urgently needs leadership to restore stability. Support for constructive peace dialogue, sustained economic and security cooperation, and the fight against terrorism and disinformation in northern Ethiopia has never been more important for intercontinental stability.
Al-Shabaab’s offensive into Ethiopia from southwestern Somalia, which was launched on July 20, began with attacks on four border towns in Somalia. The group claimed to have invaded two of the towns in what turned out to be a diversionary effort to allow around 500 terrorist fighters to cross into Ethiopia, with US assessments suggesting the fighters had penetrated up to 150 km into the country’s Somali regional state.
Ethiopian forces managed to repel the attack. The head of the Ethiopian National Defense Force deployment said more than 800 al-Shabaab fighters, including 24 senior leaders, had been killed in clashes resulting from the offensive. Despite the heavy losses, Al-Shabaab presented the operation as a symbolic victory. But the question the West must ask is: why has the group now chosen to attack Ethiopia?
The answer for those of us who have followed the challenges faced by Ethiopia over the past two years is obvious. Ethiopia has been distracted by domestic unrest inspired by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) in the north and west of the country and, despite desperate efforts to maintain peace, Ethiopia has faced international condemnation and crippling sanctions from the United States and Europe that have weakened the country to such an extent that Al-Shabaab feels it can begin to spread its extreme views and violence .
The Biden administration’s short-term approach has resulted not only in a tense Ethiopia, but also in a more vulnerable Somalia and an increased threat from Islamic terrorism across the region.
This context makes Ethiopia’s vigorous response quite remarkable, given the immense pressures on its forces and population. The deepest is the conflict in the north of the country which began in November 2020 because the TPLF, which lost power in 2018 after 27 years of repressive Marxist rule, launched an offensive on federal military bases and then invaded Afar and Amhara regions. , causing untold misery to the citizens of Tigray, Amhara and Afar, and the destruction of public infrastructure. This human and material destruction is still being felt in these states and in the other regional states of Oromia, Gambella and Benishangul-Gumuz. More recently, in the western region of Oromia, the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA)-Shene group – another brutal insurgency and designated terrorist group with reported ties to Al-Shabaab – has carried out ongoing massacres in ethnic character. The Ethiopian people have done what they do best in times of crisis and have generally united in defending the country’s sovereignty and rejecting the return of the increasingly dictatorial leadership of the TPLF and its OLA-Shene allies. Numerous security issues inevitably strain federal and local forces, and there is crisis fatigue among the population, who just want to start rebuilding their communities.
The reaction of the international community has exacerbated the situation in Ethiopia. The United States was very quick to attack the Ethiopian government for its defensive operations against the TPLF. Several rounds of sanctions followed, including the US State Department cutting off security and economic aid to Ethiopia. The U.S. even went so far as to strip Ethiopia of duty-free trade benefits under the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), costing up to 200,000 jobs, the vast majority owned to women – most often heads of families – working in the textile industry. It’s the kind of decision that fuels the kind of anti-American sentiment Russian leaders revel in.
These US measures were naively designed to defuse the crisis, but instead encouraged the TPLF and OLA-Shene insurgencies to threaten to march on Addis Ababa and plunge thousands into poverty. They also meant that Ethiopia had to make the very difficult decision to withdraw a large number of troops operating under the African Union Transition Mission in Somalia. This limited-horizon approach by the Biden administration has resulted in not only a tense Ethiopia, but also a more vulnerable Somalia and an increased threat of Islamic terrorism across the region.
This should come as no surprise; many experts have warned of this risk. Just days after the TPLF attack in November 2020, Vanda Felbab-Brown, co-director of the Africa Security Initiative, warned, “long-term destabilization of Ethiopia will aggravate many dangerous security trends in Somalia.” She was one of many voices that repeatedly called on the US, EU and others to support Ethiopia in its fight against insurgencies and to restore stability in the country.
Ethiopia had to fight against these violent pressures from the TPLF without the support of the West, which in fact provided Ethiopia with a unique opportunity to demonstrate its national strength and resilience. Al-Shabaab attacks bring new momentum to the Horn of Africa crisis. Supporting Ethiopia is no longer just about helping the country find peace; it is about restoring stability to a fragile region that is home to 233 million people and preventing Islamic extremists from preying on a vulnerable population. This requires a different approach than the one that for years condoned human rights abuses by the TPLF in the name of furthering counterterrorism goals, a position that many U.S. officials now regret and are not inclined to to repeat. Some in the United States may find this an uncomfortable truth, but to counter the malign strategy of the Putin government for Africa and entities such as the Wagner Group, Ethiopia needs the support of the West.
As Africa now represents the new battleground for global power, to face what is to come, the West needs reliable allies. A strong Ethiopia is essential to global security. It is time to ease sanctions, resume economic investment, and bolster the country’s security and defense capabilities.
Professor Ann M. Fitz-Gerald and the Hon. Hugh Segal OC OOnt CD