Al-Qaeda Cell on Trial as Ethiopia becomes a Religious Battleground?

Andrew McGregor

May 31, 2012

Ten Somalis and one Kenyan are currently under trial in Addis Ababa for their alleged involvement in an al-Qaeda bombing plot after weapons and training manuals were seized in the Bale region of southeastern Ethiopia last December. The Kenyan, Hassan Jarsoo, has admitted his role in the alleged plot, but the others, who allegedly include several members of the army of Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government, have denied their involvement. Six of the defendants are being tried in absentia (Walta Info Online [Addis Ababa], May 20; Africa Review [Nairobi], May 22; AFP, May 18).

Ethiopia is one of the earliest homes of both Christianity and Islam, with its 85 million people being roughly 60% Christian and 30% Muslim. These communities have traditionally lived in harmony, but in recent years Ethiopia’s Orthodox Christians and Sufi-based Muslims have come under destabilizing pressure from external sources, primarily from American backed Christian evangelists and Saudi/Kuwaiti backed Salafists. Both of these trends have caused dissension in the religious communities by describing traditional Ethiopian forms of worship as deviations if not outright heresy and insisting that their adherents must convert to these new, more fundamentalist forms of worship. Ill-considered intervention by the central government has only inflamed the situation, and the result has been a growing wave of religious violence in a nation that has prided itself on religious tolerance. 

Islam arrived in Ethiopia even before it had firmly established itself in Arabia, as the Prophet Muhammad urged his persecuted followers to flee Mecca in 615 and take refuge in northern Ethiopia, where he promised they would find protection from its just king and his Christian followers. While many returned when Mecca became safe for Muslims, there is some evidence that others stayed in Ethiopia, founding the first Muslim community in Africa. The first muezzin (prayer-caller) in Islam was the ethnic Ethiopian Bilal ibn Rabah (a.k.a. Bilal al-Habashi), one of the Prophet’s closest companions. The Ethiopian city of Harar is regarded in some traditions as the “fourth-holiest city in Islam,” with mosques dating back to the 10th century and over 100 shrines.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi told parliament in April that the government was “observing tell-tale signs of [Islamic] extremism. We should nip this scourge in the bud” (Reuters, May 10). In response to fears of an incipient Salafist movement to establish an Islamic state in Ethiopia, the government is attempting to make a little-known and non-threatening Islamic sect known as al-Ahbash the dominant form of Islam in the country, a solution that has inflamed Sufis and Salafists alike.  The Ahbash movement was founded by Abdullah al-Harari (a.k.a. Abdullah al-Habashi, 1910-2008), a Harari scholar of Islam whose views were regarded locally as divisive, resulting in his being forced to leave for Lebanon in 1950. Al-Harari founded al-Ahbash, also known as the Association of Islamic Charitable Projects, in the 1980s. Ethiopian Salafists have complained the government is importing Ahbash imams from Lebanon to teach local Muslims that Salafism is a non-Muslim movement (, April 29).

Abdullah al-Harari

The leading Islamic religious authority in Ethiopia is the Islamic Affairs Supreme Council (IASC). Salafists no longer participate in the Council, which is in the process of having its representatives replaced by government appointed members of the Ahbash sect. Even authorities such as Dr. Ali Jum`ah, Grand Mufti of Egypt and Professor of the Principles of Islamic Jurisprudence at Cairo’s al-Azhar University, charge the movement with having “strange deviant views that have never been expressed by any Muslim sect, group or movement,” including the free intermingling of the sexes, unrestricted cooperation with non-Muslims and the issuing of fatwa-s that contradict the Koran and Sunnah. Salafists and orthodox Sunni scholars also charge al-Ahbash with allowing intercession with the dead (saint-worship), overlooking the need to observe the five pillars of Islam, declaring Salafist-favored scholars such as Ibn Taymiyah, Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab and Sayyid Qutb to be kuffar (infidels) and obscuring their true beliefs by failing to commit them to print (, April 22). Seven Muslims were killed and scores wounded by Ethiopian police in late April when security forces surrounded a mosque in the Oromia Region in an attempt to arrest Salafist Shaykh Su’ud Aman following protests against the government’s efforts to impose Ahbashism (, April 29; VOA, May 21).

As in many other parts of the Islamic world, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states have built numerous schools in underserved regions while Ethiopian workers have found employment in the Arabian Peninsula, where they have been exposed to highly conservative forms of Islam that differ greatly from those traditionally practiced at home. The religiously-inclined can find employment in Saudi-sponsored mosques in Ethiopia after taking advantage of generous scholarships to study Salafist Islam in Saudi Arabia. Local imams suffer from an educational and financial disadvantage in countering the Salafist scholars.

To offset the growing Salafist influence in Ethiopia, the United States Embassy in Addis Ababa attempted to have two works by Khalid Abou el-Fadl, a Kuwaiti Islamic scholar who teaches in the United States, translated into Amharic, Oromo and Somali, but were unable to find translators willing to undertake the work. The failed effort was part of an attempt to use “cultural programming” to turn “public opinion against activists who seek to overturn the existing order and import a brand of Islam that breeds conflict through its corrosive teachings that run counter to more orthodox interpretations of the Koran.” [1]

The Shrine of Shaykh Nur Hussein

In the Bale Region of Oromiya, dozens of Sufi shrines were reported to have been destroyed by Salafists in the 1990s before the Salafists turned their attention to the Shaykh Nur Hussein shrine, a religious center built around the tomb of a 12th century holy man. The shrine is the site of several important annual celebrations and, most importantly, has become a site of pilgrimage, an unforgivable violation of the Salafist code of Islamic worship, which only permits pilgrimage to the holy cities of the Hijaz in western Saudi Arabia. As part of its campaign to counter the Salafist trend, U.S. officials financed a major restoration of the shrine in 2007 at the same time Salafists were trying to force its closure (Ayyaantuu News Online, November 10, 2011). [2]

Local Muslims in Amhara Region then sought U.S. funding for restoration of the 18th century Jama Negus Mosque in Amhara Region, a project which had been denied funding from Gulf State NGOs on the grounds it had not only become a place of pilgrimage, but was also the center of annual celebrations of the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday (Moulid al-Nabi), which are also banned in the Salafist creed. [3]  Salafists despise the Jama Negus mosque as an alternative center of pilgrimage and Moulid celebrations, leading the Gulf States to refuse financial assistance to its physical rehabilitation and creating an opening for the United States to sap support from their Gulf State allies in the battle for “hearts and minds” in Ethiopia by providing reconstruction assistance. [4]

The introduction of non-Orthodox Christianity by Protestant missionaries has also created often violent dissension in both the Christian and Muslim communities. Evangelical Protestant churches and the homes of some evangelical Christians were burned down by in the town of Asendabo in southwest Ethiopia in March, 2011.  Residents of the dominantly Muslim region were incensed by rumors that members of the Pentecostal churches were using pages of the Koran as toilet paper (Radio Netherlands Worldwide Africa, March 20, 2011). Thousands were displaced in violence Prime Minister Zenawi blamed on a sect known as Kawarja. In Bale Region, a group of 17 Ethiopian Christian students were assaulted last year after they attempted to distribute Bibles to local Muslims (Ethiopian Review, March 2, 2011). There have also been Muslim attacks against evangelical Christians in the southern Ethiopian city of Besheno in November, 2010 and May 2011 (AsiaNews, May 2, 2011).


1. Wikileaks, U.S. Embassy Cable, 09ADDISABABA1675, July 15, 2009; U.S. Embassy Cable, 08ADDISABABA3230, November 26, 2008. The books in question were The Great Theft: Wrestling Islam from the Extremists (2005), and The Place of Tolerance in Islam (2002).

2. Wikileaks, U.S. Embassy Cable, 08ADDISABABA3230, November 26, 2008.

3. Wikleaks, U.S. Embassy Cable 09ADDISABABA1672, July 15, 2009.

4. Wikileaks, U.S. Embassy Cable, 09ADDISABABA1675, July 15, 2009.

This article first appeared in the May 31, 2012 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor