Opposition Group Promises Attacks Following Sanctions on Eritrea for Support of Terrorism

Andrew McGregor

January 7, 2010

Tensions continue to rise in the volatile Horn of Africa as Eritrean insurgent groups promise a new wave of political violence following the imposition of UN sanctions against Eritrea for its alleged support of terrorism in the region. Eritrea is strategically located on the Red Sea, sharing borders with Sudan, Ethiopia and Djibouti. A former Italian colony, Eritrea was annexed by Ethiopia in 1962, sparking a long and bitter struggle for independence that concluded in 1991 with the expulsion of Ethiopian forces. According to the 1997 constitution, Eritrea is supposed to be a parliamentary democracy with an elected president, but the constitution has not been implemented and elections have never been held. In practice, Eritrea is a one party state, ruled by the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ) under President Isaias Afewerki, an Orthodox Christian and former leader of the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF). Afewerki has been the nation’s sole president since 1993.

Eritrea 1Ethnic Map of Eritrea

The Security Council Sanctions

The text of the December 23 Security Council resolution accuses Eritrea of “efforts to destabilize or overthrow” the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) of Somalia. The resolution also calls on Eritrea to withdraw its troops from the border with Djibouti, where they are deployed to pressure Djibouti in a longstanding territorial dispute, calling their deployment “a threat to international security.”  Resolution 1907 was approved with 13 votes in favor, one vote against (Libya), and one abstention (China). The sanctions provide for travel restrictions for Eritrean political and military leaders, the freezing of Eritrean assets abroad and an arms embargo on Eritrea. An earlier Security Council resolution, no. 1862, followed fighting between Eritrean and Djiboutian forces in June 2008 and called on Asmara to withdraw its forces from the disputed region along the border, but no action was taken by Eritrean military forces to comply.

The new resolution was drafted by the Ugandan government. Uganda is the main source of troops for the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), which is now nearly the only armed support of consequence for the TFG. Isaac Musumba, the Ugandan Minister for Regional Cooperation, said Eritrea “provided sanctuary to international criminals. It is a rogue state” (New Vision [Kampala], December 29).

According to Dr. Ilmi Ahmad Du’alem, the UN envoy to Somalia, the sanctions were based “on proof that Eritrea supports terrorism… Eritrea supports [terrorist groups opposed to the Somali government]. Arms, material and moral support to these groups are delivered through Eritrea. Eritrea is the headquarters, and most of the [Somali] opposition is still in Eritrea… There were resolutions before the current one, warning Eritrea to end these actions” (Radio HornAfrik, December 29, 2009).

Eritrea’s Role in Somalia

Islamist opposition group Hizb al-Islam (composed largely of the Asmara-based Alliance for the Re-Liberation of Somalia led by Shaykh Hassan Dahir Aweys), a former partner of al-Shabaab, condemned the sanctions, noting that while other countries were intervening in Somalia, no sanctions had been imposed on them (Mareeg.com., December 24, 2009).

An Ethiopian government spokesman suggested the “international delinquent state of Eritrea” was “promoting and abetting terrorist forces in the region.” A statement from the Eritrean Foreign Ministry described the resolution as a “brazen act” based neither “on fact nor on the provisions of international law. It constitutes a travesty of justice and amplifies the dangers inherent in a unipolar world.” The statement identified Britain, the United States and Uganda as the principal forces behind the resolution:

“It must be stressed that the accusations against Eritrea for involvement in Somalia have never been substantiated or verified… Indeed, how can Eritrea provide logistical support to armed groups in Somalia when it does not have a contiguous border with that country? Eritrea has neither the political will nor the financial clout to bankroll armed groups in Somalia… The United States has simply employed its preponderant influence to ram through unjustifiable sanctions against a small country” (Shabait.com, December 23, 2009).

The Eritrean ambassador to the UN, Araya Desta, said, “The Security Council has decided to impose sanctions on Eritrea based on fabricated lies, mainly concocted by the Ethiopian regime and the US administration” (New Vision [Kampala], December 28).

Strangely enough, the sanctions imposed on Eritrea for supporting al-Shabaab came after senior Shabaab member Shaykh Mukhtar Robow “Abu Mansur” issued a threat to Asmara in October, saying Eritrea opposed the implementation of Shari’a law in Somalia because its leaders were not Muslims. The shaykh added that the non-Muslim regime was ruling the Muslim majority in Eritrea by force (AllPuntland.com, October 31, 2009). It is difficult to assess the reasoning behind this threat, though there are several possibilities:

• Eritrea has ended its support to al-Shabaab in favor of rival Islamist group Hizb al-Islam.

• Al-Shabaab may be doing a favor to the Eritrean regime by publicly denouncing it before the sanctions proposal could be introduced at the UN Security Council.

• The threat may be yet another in a series of self-defeating moves by the increasingly fanatic Shabaab movement.

Eritrea’s envoy to the United Nations described the allegations of military support for groups fighting in Somalia as “lies and propaganda,” indicating that it is archrival Ethiopia that is responsible for fueling the conflict in Somalia, as well as causing instability in the region by occupying lands belonging to its neighbors, including Eritrea (Dayniile, December 20; AllPuntland, December 2, 2009).

Eritrea 2DMLEK Leader Cornelius Osman

Eritrea’s Armed Opposition Threatens the Regime

One of the many Eritrean opposition groups saw an opening in the UNSC sanctions. Cornelius Osman, leader of the Democratic Movement for the Liberation of the Eritrean Kunama (DMLEK) said, “This is a good opportunity for us. We are preparing our military forces to launch more attacks. We are inside Eritrea and will hit selected targets and institutions.” The DMLEK chief added that the freeze on foreign assets and travel ban on Eritrean political and military leaders would isolate the regime and “deter it from receiving the hundreds of millions of dollars it gets” annually from the Eritrean diaspora (AFP, December 29, 2009).

DMLEK is a member of the Eritrean Democratic Alliance (EDA), an opposition umbrella group based in Ethiopia. The movement, based on the Kunama people, was formed after Eritrea gained its independence from Ethiopia in 1991.The Kunama are a Nilotic people related to the Nilotic tribes of South Sudan, but in Eritrea they represent only 2% of the population. The Kunama live near the Ethiopian border between the Gash and Setit rivers, an area that has placed them between opposing Eritrean and Ethiopian forces. Another even smaller Nilotic group known as the Nara has formed its own opposition movement – the Eritrean Democratic Resistance Movement Gash-Setit, under Ismael Nada.

DMLEK has claimed a number of small attacks against Eritrean government forces or facilities. Some sense of the scale of these attacks can be gained from examining DMLEK statements:

• In November 2007, DMLEK forces attacked a military outpost at Melezanai, claiming to have killed 15 soldiers and wounding five others. An administrative office at Shambaco was struck by a rocket-propelled grenade (DMLEK Military communiqué, November 8, 2007).

• In January 2008, DMLEK claimed to have destroyed the government’s agricultural office in the town of Binbilina along with goods stored in a warehouse. In the same operation, a water truck and tanker were set ablaze in the town of Barentu (Walta Information Center, January 30, 2008).

• In March 2009, DMLEK claimed to have destroyed a military hospital in the southwest region of Gash-Barka with RPGs, hand grenades and small arms (Sudan Tribune, March 23, 2009).

A North American-based Kunama group has undertaken a campaign to depose Cornelius Osman as the movement’s leader. The group accuses Osman of “kidnapping, imprisoning, torturing and killing a lot of innocent, educated and knowledgeable Kunama” and acting as an agent of the Eritrean government. They claim many Kunama fighters have deserted the organization. [1] Osman addressed the accusations in a Paltalk discussion with members of the Eritrean diaspora. While he did not deny the extra-judicial killings, he identified the victims as “rogue elements” working for the PFDJ regime to sabotage the Kunama movement (Awate.com, November 8, 2009).

The Armed Opposition

There are strong regional, religious, cultural and linguistic divisions in Eritrea. This situation is reflected in the many national and diaspora opposition groups. The Eritrean regime is dominated by members of the Tigrinya ethnic group, who form 50% of the population in Eritrea. Most Tigrinya are Christians, though a minority are Muslims. Many of the opposition groups are based on ethnic minorities that feel excluded from the Eritrean power structure, such as the Afar, the Kunama and the Nara. Regardless of the extent of their military activities, all such opposition groups are termed “terrorists” by the Asmara regime. Most opposition groups oppose what they regard as the “Tigrinization” of the country as well as the nationalization of lands traditionally held by ethnic minority groups.

The large number of opposition groups has so far prevented the emergence of an effective armed opposition to the Asmara regime, but lately this problem has been addressed by the formation of three larger coalitions (Gedab News/Awate.com, February 25, 2007). Last June, DMLEK joined the Red Sea Afar Democratic Organization (RSADO) to form the Democratic Front of Eritrean Nationalities (DFEN). At the conclusion of a two-day congress, DFEN declared its intention to work under the umbrella of the Eritrean Democratic Alliance (EDA) and called on all of Eritrea’s armed opposition groups to coordinate their efforts. The new alliance also called on Eritrea’s Tigrinya to turn against the regime (Gedab News/Awate.com, June 19, 2009). The three main opposition coalitions are preparing a unity conference in Addis Ababa with the intention of forming a single armed opposition front with the aid of Ethiopian authorities (Nharnet, December 25, 2009; Sudan Tribune, December 30, 2009).

Eritrea maintains a massive defense establishment at considerable cost. Universal conscription of both men and women is used to provide the numbers that the government feels necessary to maintain in expectation of a further conflict with Ethiopia. Nevertheless, conscription is unpopular and desertion is common. DMLEK maintains that the Eritrean Defense Forces (EDF) have been “weakened by the economic and political crisis in the country as well as internal resistance” and are fleeing to neighboring countries whenever they get the chance (Walta Information Center, November 21, 2007). There are roughly 180,000 Eritrean refugees living in Sudan, which occasionally sends some asylum seekers back to Eritrea (Sudan Tribune, September 25, 2008).


Opponents of the government make regular efforts to tie the regime to Iran and its alleged support for terrorism in an effort to depict Eritrea as a regional threat (see Terrorism Monitor, April 3, 2009).  Typical of this is a recent and unconfirmed story carried on an Arabic-language opposition website that described the offloading of a weapons cargo from an Iranian ship in the port of Massawa under the supervision of representatives of al-Shabaab, the Houthist rebels of northern Yemen and an unnamed Djiboutian insurgent group (Adoulis, December 24). Such efforts are likely to increase as the opposition seeks international support beyond the usual support it receives from Addis Ababa.

For the moment, none of the Eritrean insurgent groups or coalitions appear strong enough to topple the PFDJ government, which has built a strong security structure to ensure its survival. If the opposition succeeds in forming a single front, it may receive military and financial support from the many enemies of the Eritrean government. An outbreak of political violence and even civil war in Eritrea has the potential to drag in Eritrea’s neighbors (particularly Ethiopia) and further inflame the conflict in Somalia and the low-level Afar insurgency in Djibouti, the site of a major American military base.

This article first appeared in the January 7, 2010 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor

Strange Days on the Red Sea Coast: A New Theater for the Israel-Iran Conflict?

Andrew McGregor

April 3, 2009

Over the last few months, the strategically important African Red Sea coast has suddenly become the focal point of rumors involving troop-carrying submarines, ballistic missile installations, desert-dwelling arms smugglers, mysterious airstrikes and unlikely alliances. None of the parties alleged to be involved (including Iran, Israel, Eritrea, Egypt, Sudan, France, Djibouti, Gaza and the United States) have been forthcoming with many details, leaving observers to ponder a tangled web of reality and fantasy. What does appear certain, however, is that the regional power struggle between Israel and Iran has the potential to spread to Africa, unleashing a new wave of political violence in an area already consumed with its own deadly conflicts.

Red SeaIsraeli Air Force F-16I Sufa (Storm)

Airstrike in the Desert

Though an airstrike on a column of 23 vehicles was carried out on January 27 near Mt. Alcanon, in the desert northwest of Port Sudan, news of the attack first emerged in a little-noticed interview carried on March 23 in the Arabic-language Al-Mustaqillah newspaper (see https://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=1854). In the interview, Sudanese Transportation Minister Dr. Mabruk Mubarak Salim, the former leader of the Free Lions resistance movement in eastern Sudan, said that aircraft he believed to be French and American had attacked a column of vehicles in Sudan eastern desert after receiving intelligence indicating a group of arms smugglers was transporting arms to Gaza. Dr. Salim’s Free Lions Movement was based on the Rasha’ida Arabs of east Sudan, a nomadic group believed to control smuggling activities along the eastern Egypt-Sudan border.

On March 26, Dr. Salim told al-Jazeera there had been at least two airstrikes, carried out by U.S. warplanes launched from American warships operating in the Red Sea. There was no further mention of the French, who maintain an airbase in nearby Djibouti. After the news broke in the media, Sudanese foreign ministry spokesman Ali al-Sadig issued some clarifications:

The first thought was that it was the Americans that did it. We contacted the Americans and they categorically denied they were involved… We are still trying to verify it. Most probably it involved Israel… We didn’t know about the first attack until after the second one. They were in an area close to the border with Egypt, a remote area, desert, with no towns, no people (Al-Jazeera, March 27).

With the Americans out of the way, suspicion fell on Israel as the source of the attack.

Sudanese authorities later claimed the convoy was carrying not arms, but a large number of migrants from a number of African countries, particularly Eritrea (Al-Sharq al-Awsat, March 27; Sudan Tribune, March 28). According to Foreign Minister Ali al-Sadig; “it is clear that [the attackers] were acting on bad information that the vehicles were carrying arms” (Haaretz, March 27). Dr. Salim claimed the death toll was 800 people, contradicting his earlier claim that the convoy consisted of small trucks carrying arms and that most of those killed were Sudanese, Ethiopians and Eritreans (al-Jazeera, March 26). There was also some confusion about the number of attacks, with initial claims of a further strike on February 11 and a third undated strike on an Iranian freighter in the Red Sea. The latter rumor may have had its source in Dr. Salim’s suggestion that several Rasha’ida fishing boats had been attacked by U.S. and French warplanes. Otherwise, no evidence has been provided to substantiate these claims.

A Hamas leader, Salah al-Bardawil, denied his movement had any knowledge of such arms shipments, pointing to the lack of a common border between Gaza and Sudan as proof “these are false claims” (Al-Jazeera, March 27).

A Smuggling Route to Sinai?

The alleged smuggling route, beginning at Port Sudan, would take the smugglers through 150 miles of rough and notoriously waterless terrain to the Egyptian border and the disputed territory of Hala’ib, currently under Egyptian occupation. From there the route would pass roughly 600 miles through Egypt’s Eastern Desert, a rocky and frequently mountainous wasteland. Criss-crossing the terrain to find a suitable way through could add considerably to the total distance. North of the Egyptian border the Sudanese smugglers would be crossing hundreds of miles of unfamiliar and roadless territory. The alternatives would involve offloading the arms near the border to an Egyptian convoy or making a change of drivers. Anonymous “defense sources” cited by the Times claimed local Egyptian smugglers were engaged to take over the convoy at the Egyptian border “for a fat fee” (The Times, March 29).

Use of the well-patrolled coastal road would obviously be impossible without official Egyptian approval. The other option for the smugglers would be to cut west to the Nile road which passes through hundreds of settled areas and a large number of security checkpoints. The convoy would need to continually avoid security patrols along the border and numerous restricted military zones along the coast. Either Egyptian guides or covert assistance from Egyptian security services would be needed for a 23 vehicle convoy to reach Sinai from the Egyptian border without interference. Once in the Sinai there is little alternative to taking the coastal route to Gaza, passing through one of Egypt’s most militarily sensitive areas, to reach the smuggling tunnels near the border with Gaza.

Water, gasoline, spare parts and other supplies would take up considerable space in the trucks. Provisions would have to be made for securing and transporting the loads of disabled trucks that proved irreparable, particularly if their loads included parts for the Fajr-3 rockets the convoy was alleged to be carrying, without which the other loads might prove unusable. Freeing the trucks from sand (a problem worsened by carrying a heavy load of arms) and making repairs could add days to the trip. The alleged inclusion of Iranian members of the Revolutionary Guard in the convoy would be highly risky – if stopped by Egyptian security forces, every member of the arms convoy would be detained and interrogated (Israeli sources claimed several Iranians were killed in the raid). It would not take long to separate the Iranians from the Arabs, with all the consequences that would follow from the exposure of an Iranian intelligence operation on Egyptian soil.

Of course most of these problems would disappear if Egypt was giving its approval to the arms shipments. But if this was the case, why not send the arms through Syria and by ship to a port near the Gaza border? Ships are the normal vehicle for arms deliveries as massive quantities of arms are usually required to change the military balance in any situation.

Israel’s Haaretz newspaper reported that the arms were “apparently transferred from Iran through the Persian Gulf to Yemen, from there to Sudan and then to Egypt through Sinai and the tunnels under the Egypt Gaza border” and included “various types of missiles, rockets, guns and high-quality explosives” (Haaretz, March 29). The Yemen stage is unexplained; Iranian ships can easily reach Port Sudan without a needless overland transfer of their cargos in Yemen before being reloaded onto ships going to Port Sudan. Looking at this route (the simplest of several proposed by Israeli sources), one can only assume Hamas was in no rush to obtain its weapons.

Reserves Major General Giyora Eiland, a former head of Israel’s National Security Council, alleged the involvement of a number of parties in the Sinai to Gaza arms trade, including “Bedouin and Egyptian army officers who are benefiting from the smuggling.” He then turned to the possibility of arms being shipped through Sudan to Gaza; “Almost all of the weapons are smuggled into Gaza through the Sinai, and some probably by sea. Little comes along this long [Sudan to Gaza] route” (Voice of Israel Network, March 27).

Video footage of the burned-out convoy was supplied to al-Jazeera by Sudanese intelligence sources. The footage shows only small pick-up trucks, largely unsuitable for transporting heavy arms payloads. If Fajr-3 missiles broken down into parts were included in the shipment, there would be little room for other arms (each Fajr-3 missile weighs at least 550 kilograms). Sudanese authorities described finding a quantity of ammunition, several C-4 and AK-47 rifles and a number of mobile phones used for communications by the smugglers. There was no mention of missile parts (El-Shorouk [Cairo], March 24). No evidence has been produced by any party to confirm the origin of the arms allegedly carried by the smugglers’ convoy.

Assessing Responsibility

Citing anonymous “defense sources,” the Times claimed the convoys had been tracked by Mossad, enabling an aerial force of satellite-controlled UAVs to kill “at least 50 smugglers and their Iranian escorts” (The Times [London], March 29). American officials also reported that at least one operative from Iran’s Revolutionary Guards had gone to Sudan to organize the weapons convoy (Haaretz/Reuters, March 27). According to the Times’ sources, the convoy attacks were carried out by Hermes 450 and Eitan model UAVs in what would have been an aviation first – a long distance attack against a moving target carried out solely by a squadron of remote control drones.

U.S.-based Time Magazine entered the fray on March 30 with a report based on information provided by “two highly-placed Israeli security sources.” According to these sources, the United States was informed of the operation in advance but was otherwise uninvolved. Dozens of aircraft were involved in the 1,750 mile mission, refuelling in midair over the Red Sea. Once the target was reached, F15I fighters provided air cover against other aircraft while F16I fighters carried out two runs on the convoy. Drones with high-resolution cameras were used to assess damage to the vehicles.

The American-made F16I “Sufa” aircraft were first obtained by the IAF in 2004. They carry Israeli-made conformal fuel tanks to increase the range of the aircraft and use synthetic aperture radar that enables the aircraft to track ground targets day or night. The older F15I “Ra’am” is an older but versatile model, modified to Israeli specifications.

The entire operation, according to the Israeli sources used by Time, was planned in less than a week to act on Mossad information that Iran was planning to deliver 120 tons of arms and explosives to Gaza, “including anti-tank rockets and Fajr rockets with a 25 mile range” in a 23 truck convoy (though this shipment seems impossibly large for 23 pick-up trucks with a maximum payload capacity of one ton or less – on paved roads). The Israeli sources added that this was the first time the smuggling route through Sudan had been used.

Israeli officials claimed anonymously that the convoy was carrying Fajr-3 rockets capable of reaching Tel Aviv (Sunday Times, March 29; Jerusalem Post, March 29). The Fajr-3 MLRS is basically an updated Katyusha rocket that loses accuracy as it approaches the limit of its 45km range and carries only a small warhead of conventional explosives. It has been suggested that the missiles carried by the convoy “could have changed the game in the conflict between Israel and Palestinian militants,” thus making the attack an imperative for Israel (BBC, March 26). Yet far from being “a game-changer,” the Fajr-3 was already used against Israel by Hezbollah in 2006. It has also been claimed that the Fajr-3 rockets could be used against Israel’s nuclear installation at Dimona, but Israeli officials reported at the start of the year that Hamas already possessed dozens of Fajr-3 rockets (Sunday Times, January 2). Some media accounts have confused the Fajr-3 Multiple Launch Rocket System (MLRS), which would seem to be the weapon in question, with the much larger Fajr-3 medium-range ballistic missile.

Reports of the complete destruction of the entire convoy and all its personnel raise further questions. Desert convoys tend to be long, strung out affairs, not least because it is nearly impossible to drive in the dust of the vehicle ahead. Could an airstrike really kill every single person involved in a strung out convoy without a ground force going in to mop up? UAVs with heat sensors and night vision equipment might have remained in the area to eliminate all survivors, but this seems unnecessary if the arms had already been destroyed. The political risk of leaving Israeli aircraft in the area after the conclusion of a successful attack would not equal the benefit of killing a few drivers and mechanics.

What role did Khartoum play in these events? A pan-Arab daily reported that the United States warned the Sudanese government before the Israeli airstrike that a “third party” was monitoring the arms-smuggling route to Gaza and that such shipments needed to stop immediately (Al-Sharq al-Awsat, March 30). Despite state-level disagreements, U.S. and Sudanese intelligence agencies continue to enjoy a close relationship.

With Sudan under international pressure as a result of the Darfur conflict, Khartoum has sought to renew its relations with Iran. Less than two weeks before the airstrike, Sudanese Defense Minister Abdalrahim Hussein concluded a visit to Tehran to discuss arms sales and training for Sudanese security forces. An Iranian source reported missiles, UAVs, RPGs and other equipment were sought by Sudan (Sudan Tribune, January 20).

An Iranian Base on the Red Sea?

As tensions rise in the region, wild allegations have emerged surrounding the creation of a major Iranian military and naval base in the Eritrean town of Assab on the Red Sea coast. Assab is a small port city of 100,000 people. A small Soviet-built oil refinery at Assab was shut down in 1997. Last November an Eritrean opposition group, the Eritrean Democratic Party, published a report on their website claiming Iran had agreed to revamp the small refinery, adding (without any substantiation) that Iran and Eritrea’s President Isayas Afewerki were planning to control the strategic Bab al-Mandab Straits at the southern entrance to the Red Sea (selfi-democracy.com, November 25, 2008).

Red Sea 2Main Street in Assab: New Iranian Military Base?

A short time later, another Eritrean opposition website elaborated on the original report of a refinery renovation, adding lurid details of Iranian ships and submarines deploying troops and long-range ballistic missiles at a new Iranian military base at Assab. Security was allegedly provided by Iranian UAVs that patrolled the area (EritreaDaily.net, December 10, 2008).

The Israeli MEMRI website then reported that “Eritrea has granted Iran total control of the Red Sea port of Assab,” adding that Iranian submarines had “deployed troops, weapons and long-range missiles… under the pretext of defending the local oil refinery” (MEMRI, December 1, 2008).

The story was further elaborated on by Ethiopian sources (Ethiopia and Eritrea are intense rivals and political enemies). According to one Ethiopian report, Iranian frigates were using Assab as a naval base (Gedab News, January 28). An Ethiopian-based journalist contributed an article to Sudan Tribune in which he again claimed Iranian submarines were delivering troops and long-range missiles to Assab, basing his account on the original report on selfi-democracy.com, which made no such claims (Sudan Tribune, March 30). Israel’s Haaretz noted that Addis Ababa is “a key Mossad base for operations against extremist Islamic groups” in the region, adding that some of the weapons destroyed in the convoy had “reportedly passed through Ethiopia and Eritrea first” (Haaretz, March 27).

Only days ago, a mainstream Tel Aviv newspaper reported that Iran has already finished building a naval base at Assab and had “transferred to this base – by means of ships and submarines – troops, military equipment and long range-ballistic missiles… that can strike Israel.” The newspaper claimed its information was based on reports from Eritrean opposition members, diplomats and aid organizations, without giving any specifics (Ma’ariv [Tel Aviv], March 29). On March 19, Israel’s ambassador to Ethiopia accused Eritrea of trying to sabotage the peace process in the region by serving as a safe haven for terrorist groups (Walta Information Center [Addis Abbab], March 19). In only four months, a minor refinery renovation was transformed into a strategic threat to the entire Middle East.


Questions remain as to how the moving convoy was found by its attackers. Did Mossad have inside intelligence? Did the Israelis use satellite imagery from U.S. surveillance satellites as part of the agreement they signed in January on the prevention of arms smuggling to Gaza, or did they use their own Ofeq-series surveillance satellites? Was an Israeli UAV already in place when the convoy left Port Sudan? A retired Israeli Air Force general, Yitzhak Ben-Israel, recognized the difficulty involved in finding and striking the convoy by noting; “The main innovation in the attack on Sudan… was the ability to hit a moving target at such a distance. The fact that Israel has the technical ability to do such a thing proves even more what we are capable of in Iran” (Haaretz, March 27).

The two-month silence on the attacks from other parties is also notable – it is unlikely U.S. and French radar facilities in Djibouti would have missed squadrons of Israeli jets and UAVs attacking a target in nearby East Sudan. If the Israelis took the shortest route through the Gulf of Aqaba and down the Red Sea they would likely be detected by Egyptian and Saudi radar on their way out and on their way back. According to former IAF commander Eitan Ben-Eliyahu, the attack would require precise intelligence and a two and a half hour flight along the Red Sea coast, keeping low to evade Egyptian and Saudi radar. The aircraft would also require aerial refuelling (Haaretz, March 27).

Even if the aircraft evaded radar, their low flight paths would have exposed them to visual observation in the narrow shipping lanes of the Red Sea.  Israeli aircraft would almost certainly have been tracked by the Combined Task Force-150, an allied fleet patrolling the Red Sea. All other routes would have taken the aircraft through unfriendly airspace. By March 27, an Egyptian official admitted that Egypt had indeed known of the airstrike at the time, but added the Israelis had not crossed into Egyptian airspace (Al-Sharq al-Awsat, March 27).

If Tehran was involved in this remarkably complicated smuggling operation, it will now be taking its entire local intelligence infrastructure apart to find the source of the leak. Egypt is reported to have deployed additional security personnel along the border with Sudan, effectively closing the alleged smuggling route (Haaretz, March 29). As Sudan revives its defense relationship with Iran it is very likely rumors and allegations will continue to proliferate regarding an Iranian presence on the Red Sea.


This article first appeared in the April 3, 2009 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor

Accuracy of New UN Report on Somalia Doubtful

Andrew McGregor

November 21, 2006

A report by the UN Monitoring Group on Somalia leaked to the Washington Post on November 14 has set off a wave of denials and denunciations from various countries alleged to be fueling the conflict in Somalia. Djibouti, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Libya, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Uganda, Iran, Syria and Lebanon’s Hezbollah are all cited as supplying arms, troops or other military materials to the warring sides in Somalia, which consist of the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and the coalition of Islamist rebels known as the Islamic Courts Union (ICU). The report also warns of the adoption of Iraq-style tactics by the ICU, including suicide bombers, assassinations and other types of terrorist activities. The Monitoring Group intelligence team responsible for the report consists of a Colombian finance expert, a Kenyan maritime expert and arms experts from Belgium and the United States. Their 86-page document is based on interviews, investigations and information supplied by various embassies in Nairobi.

Somali armsThe report accurately describes the leading roles of Ethiopia and Eritrea in arming Somalia’s militias. Ethiopia already has as many as 6,000 troops in Somalia supporting the TFG and has supplied TFG militias with a variety of arms. Eritrea is accused of supplying 2,000 troops and arms to the ICU, including portable surface-to-air missiles. Surprisingly, the report does not even mention allegations (widely accepted as reality within Somalia) that the United States was the chief supplier of arms and cash to the ill-fated “Anti-Terrorist Coalition” of anti-ICU warlords. Eritrea’s information minister suggested a political bias to the document: “We know these statements are coming from Washington” (Gulf News, November 15).

Iran is alleged to have sent three payloads of medicine, physicians, ammunition and arms, including surface-to-air missiles, M-79 rocket-launchers, machine guns and landmines. They are also said to have supplied an aircraft to carry 40 wounded Somalis back to Somalia from Lebanon. Iran said such reports were “in line with the wishes of hostile enemies” (IRNA, November 17).

Egypt was accused of offering military training to the Somali Islamists. An Egyptian denial expressed “great surprise and anguish” at the report, saying that it was prepared by “Western experts whose political affiliations are not known” (Associated Press, November 17). Egypt is deeply involved in diplomatic efforts to avert war in the Horn region. The report also described Libyan arms supplies to the ICU, training for 100 fighters and financial aid. A Libyan Foreign Ministry spokesman described the allegations as “incredible” (Reuters, November 17). Syria has also denied sending an air shipment of arms to the ICU.

Uganda was said to have provided military materials and an unspecified number of soldiers in support of the TFG. Ugandan Defense Minister Chrispus Kiyonga announced that Uganda will complain to the United Nations over the report, describing it as “trash” (Reuters, November 17).

The most startling revelation in the report deals with 720 Somali fighters who are alleged to have traveled to Lebanon to join the fighting against the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) last July. There were no reports from the IDF during or after the war regarding any “Africans” observed, captured or killed in the fighting. UN observers and journalists also failed to mention Somali fighters. In exchange for the fighters, Hezbollah is said to have shipped arms to Somalia and arranged for further supplies from Syria and Iran.

The fighters were allegedly chosen by Adan Hashi Ayro, the right-hand man to ICU leader Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys. Presumably, they were from Ayro’s own command, as it is hard to see him being able to separate another coalition leader from his fighters in the middle of an intensifying conflict. With an estimated 2,000 to 3,000 trained fighters in the ICU, the decision to send fighters to Lebanon would have stripped the Somali Islamists of nearly a third of their best men. Hezbollah did not even commit its reserves during the fighting with Israel, yet according to the report, Hezbollah shipped arms, which it needed in the middle of a war, to Somalia in exchange for foreign fighters that it did not need. According to the UN document, 600 Somali fighters remained in Lebanon and Syria for further training, while five Hezbollah military advisers went to Somalia to help the ICU. A Hezbollah representative described the allegations as “incorrect and silly” (Daily Star [Beirut], November 16). After several days of silence on the matter, Israel’s ambassador to the UN, Dan Gillerman, issued a surprising statement claiming that Israel “had been aware” of 700 Somali fighters in Lebanon (Israel Insider, November 18).

Hezbollah’s effectiveness is in large part due to its own security and intelligence network, based on intimate knowledge of its members. While Palestinian movements are riddled with informers, Israeli intelligence has had great difficulty penetrating Hezbollah. It is unlikely that Hezbollah would attempt to integrate 700 unknown Somalis in the midst of military operations against Israel.

One of the report’s additional surprising claims concerns Iranian attempts to secure Somali uranium in exchange for arms. Somalia is estimated to have 6,600 tons of recoverable uranium, which is difficult and expensive to extract. In 1984, a Brazilian/Somali joint venture attempted to develop the Somali uranium resources, but the effort collapsed due to financial and logistical problems. There have been no mining activities since as a result of ongoing security difficulties and high recovery costs that would make operations in Somalia uneconomical. Iran has opened 10 uranium mines since 1988. Proven reserves total about 3,000 tons, a sufficient amount to fuel Iran’s nuclear program.

ICU Deputy Security Chief Sheikh Mukhtar Robow Abu-Mansur described the report as “a matter of laughing,” suggesting that the ICU would be quite rich if it were actually in the uranium business. The sheikh added: “How can we receive arms from Arab countries while American warships patrol the Somali coastline and the planes landing [in Somalia] are also under tight surveillance?” (Garowe Online, November 16). ICU leader Sheikh Aweys warned that the United Nations risked losing its legitimacy by issuing “baseless propaganda” (Shabelle Media Network, November 16). The report’s claims are remarkably similar to accusations that appeared in the U.S. National Intelligence Estimates of September 2002, during the build-up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

The UN report mixes legitimate concerns about arms supplies to both sides of Somalia’s latest incarnation of its civil war with recycled allegations from the campaign against Saddam Hussein and what can only be regarded as politically manipulated “intelligence,” creating a vast international conspiracy between unlikely partners. The failure of the report to even examine information of U.S. support to the failed “Anti-Terrorist Coalition” is a major blow to its authority. Its suggestion that Iran might find a source of uranium for its nuclear program in Somalia appears outlandish under present conditions. Much of the material simply reiterates unsupported allegations involving Iran, Egypt and Libya issued by TFG Prime Minister Ali Muhammad Gedi in July. Most surprising is the ease with which so many countries were apparently able to transport arms and men back and forth without interference from the U.S. naval force off Somalia and last summer’s air and sea blockade of Lebanon by Israel.

A closed-door discussion by the Somali sanctions committee on November 21 will decide whether to send the report to the UN Security Council for further consideration.