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Stopping Al-Qa’ida in Africa Requires United Support for Ethiopia

As terrorist groups including Al-Qa’ida continue to advance across Africa, the international community needs to support the Ethiopian government in restoring stability to the country.

Surging threat: Al-Shabaab militants on the move in Somalia. The group recently launched its first ever attack into Ethiopian territory. Image: Reuters / Alamy

Too frequently in foreign and strategic policy history, new dangers emerge and expand while the world is looking elsewhere.

A series of expert global analyses, from organisations including the European Parliament, the Brookings Institution, the Atlantic Council, the French Ministry of Defence and the Crisis Group have underlined the growing danger of Al-Qa’ida terrorist cells expanding and infiltrating through sub-Saharan Africa. Their activity is spurred by a sense that the rest of the world is busy with Ukraine, and the mix of weak governance, local poverty and immense mineral wealth makes countries like the Central African Republic, Sudan and Mali outstanding targets for violent subversion and takeover by terrorists. Islamic State may well be seeking to violently impose on Africa a new Caliphate to replace that which was ultimately repelled in the Middle East.

For some, this entire issue may be seen simply as a diversion from the main defensive engagement – that of thwarting the naked aggression of an authoritarian Russia against a democratic and sovereign Ukraine.

Sadly, there is a clear and tactical way in which these two different theatres of armed conflict are connected.

The Wagner group, a Russian private mercenary army fronted by a close associate of President Vladimir Putin, has already deployed to the Ukraine battlespace in an effort to shore up the poor performance, strategy and tactics of the regular Russian Armed Forces.

Whatever the differing forms of governance between the Wagner contractors and the regular Russian forces, they are all instruments of the same authoritarian Putin administration.

It should therefore not be a surprise to any balanced observer that the same Wagner group has now been deployed to Africa, often under contract with local governments to help constrain, repel or destroy the growing Al-Qa’ida/Islamic State forces in the region. Well beyond whatever cash payments may be required under the contracts with Wagner, there is also the question of payment in mineral royalties, local mineral-rich land, and other instruments for future Russian influence in Africa.

Support for constructive peace dialogue, sustained economic and security cooperation, and the fight against terrorism and disinformation in northern Ethiopia has never been so important for cross-continental stability

It should be clear to anyone who has studied the new imperial global Russia doctrine, as articulated by Putin, that a dominant Russian position in Africa would very much fit the plan.

As colonial powers began to withdraw from Africa, it was Soviet agents who provided much of the armaments needed by Africa's rebel and democratic insurgency groups to confront and dispatch the colonialists.

While the Wagner group is a different instrument of influence and infiltration, its alleged independence from the Russian state, and concurrent espoused deniability by Putin of its actions, afford Russia meaningful tactical and regional options throughout sub-Saharan Africa.

African security expert Martin Ewi recently briefed the UN Security Council on the increasing presence of Islamic State in Africa. He warned that the terrorist group was active in more than 20 African countries, and that the region may represent ‘the future of the Caliphate’. Al-Qa’ida’s presence persists across the continent, as do large offshoot terror groups such as Boko Haram in Nigeria and Al-Shabaab in Somalia. The latter launched its first ever attack within Ethiopia’s borders in July, signalling 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 so important for cross-continental stability.

Al-Shabaab’s offensive into Ethiopia from southwestern Somalia, which was launched on 20 July, began with attacks on four border towns in Somalia. The group claimed to have overrun two of the towns, which proved to be a diversionary effort to allow approximately 500 terrorist fighters to drive into Ethiopia, with US assessments suggesting the fighters may have penetrated as far as 150 km into the country’s Somali Regional State.

Ethiopian forces were successful in repelling the attack. The head of deployment for Ethiopia's national defence forces said that more than 800 Al-Shabaab fighters, including 24 top leaders, were killed in clashes resulting from the offensive. Despite the heavy losses, Al-Shabaab has touted the operation as a symbolic victory. But the question the West needs to ask is: why did the group now choose to attack Ethiopia?

The answer for those of us who have been following the challenges faced by Ethiopia over the last two years is obvious. Ethiopia has been distracted by domestic Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF)-inspired turmoil 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 US and Europe that have weakened the country to such a point that Al-Shabaab feel they can begin spreading their extreme views and violence.

The Biden administration's limited-horizon approach has resulted in not only a strained Ethiopia, but also a more vulnerable Somalia and an increased threat from Islamic terrorism across the entire region

This context makes Ethiopia’s robust response fairly remarkable, given the immense pressures on its forces and population. The most profound 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 later invaded the regions of Afar and Amhara, causing untold misery to citizens in Tigray, Amhara and Afar, and the destruction of public infrastructure. This human and material destruction is still being felt in these and 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 links to Al-Shabaab – has been carrying out continuous ethnic-based massacres. The Ethiopian people have done what they do best in times of crisis and generally united to defend the sovereignty of the country and reject the return of the increasingly dictatorial TPLF leadership and its OLA-Shene allies. Numerous security challenges are inevitably straining federal and local forces, and there is crisis fatigue among the population, who just want to start rebuilding their communities.

The response by the international community has exacerbated Ethiopia’s situation. The US 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 security and economic assistance to Ethiopia. The US even went as far as removing Ethiopia from the tariff-free trade benefits set out within the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), costing up to 200,000 jobs, the vast majority belonging to females – most often the heads of families – working in the textile industry. This is the type of decision that fuels the kind of anti-American sentiment the Russian leadership delight at.

These US moves were naively designed to de-escalate the crisis, but instead encouraged the TPLF and OLA-Shene insurgencies to threaten a march on Addis Ababa and plunged 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 strained Ethiopia, but also a more vulnerable Somalia and an increased threat from Islamic terrorism across the entire region.

This should come as no surprise; many experts warned of this risk. Just days after the TPLF’s attack in November 2020, Vanda Felbab-Brown, Co-Director of the Africa Security Initiative, warned: ‘a long-term destabilisation of Ethiopia will worsen many dangerous security trends in Somalia’. She was one of many voices who have repeatedly called on the US, the EU and others to support Ethiopia in its fight against the insurgencies and restore stability to the country.

Ethiopia has had to wrestle against these violent TPLF pressures without the support of the West, which has actually provided Ethiopia with a unique opportunity to demonstrate its strength and national resilience. The attacks by Al-Shabaab bring new dynamics to the Horn of Africa crisis. Supporting Ethiopia is no longer just about helping the country return to peace; it is about restoring stability in a fragile region home to 233 million people, and preventing Islamic extremists from preying on a vulnerable population. This requires a different approach to one which, for years, condoned human rights abuses by the TPLF for the sake of promoting counterterrorism objectives, a posture which many US officials now regret and are not inclined to repeat. Some in the US may find it an uncomfortable truth, but to counter the Putin government’s malign strategy for Africa and entities such as the Wagner Group, Ethiopia needs Western backing.

As Africa now represents the new battleground for global power, to confront what is coming, the West needs allies that are reliable. A strong Ethiopia is essential to global security. It’s time to ease sanctions, resume economic investment and support the country’s security and defence capabilities.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the authors’, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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