Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 3 Issue: 3

Like many African countries, Ethiopia is impoverished and under-developed. With an ethnically diverse population numbering just over 70 million, it is also one of Africa’s largest states. Despite being religiously split between Christian and Muslim, historically there has been little animosity between the two major religious factions. But because the country contains a large poor and illiterate Muslim community, it has the potential to become a prime breeding ground for Islamist militant groups.

Islamic Terrorism within Ethiopia

Though the potential for Muslim extremism exists, Ethiopians have largely remained exempt from the religious violence that plagues some countries on the African continent. Muslims in Ethiopia tend to identify more strongly with their ethnic and tribal roots than Islam. However, there have been some cases of Christian-Muslim religious violence within Ethiopia: for instance, in January 2001 serious riots broke out between Muslims and Christians in Harar. Adding to existing tensions is the fact that most of the countries bordering Ethiopia have suffered more severe cases of Islamist violence.

To Ethiopia’s south lies Kenya, a stable country that has bore the brunt of al-Qaeda orchestrated bomb attacks. In August 1998, al-Qaeda struck the American Embassy in Nairobi, while also bombing the American Embassy in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. The two attacks killed hundreds of people and coincided with the anniversary of the first deployment of U.S. troops to Saudi Arabia in 1990. Four years later, in November 2002, a hotel bombing in Mombasa killed more than a dozen people, and simultaneously al-Qaeda affiliated militants unsuccessfully attempted to shoot down an Israeli airliner with a shoulder-held, surface-to-air missile.

To Ethiopia’s east lies Somalia, a chaotic state that has no central government. Substantial segments of Somalia’s population are highly radicalized, as witnessed in the consistent attacks by Somali militias against international forces within the country, with the most notable incident resulting in the deaths of 18 U.S. Army Rangers in 1993. Furthermore, Somalia is the home of al-Ittihaad al-Islami (AIAI), or the Islamic Unity group, a radical organization that seeks to establish an Islamic state in Somalia and Ethiopia. While not a serious threat to Ethiopian national security, AIAI has the potential to undermine Addis Ababa’s interests. As printed in the Addis Tribune in June 2003, the Ethiopian Security, Immigration and Refugees Affairs Authority (SIRA) concluded that “after a thorough assessment of the current situation of the country and of the terrorist threats in the Horn of Africa region, SIRA has come to the conclusion that the groups that might carry out terrorist attacks in Ethiopia by their own initiative or as agents of other sponsors would be the [nationalist] OLF and Al-Ittihaad al-Islami.”

Al-Ittihaad al-Islami

AIAI has functioned primarily out of Somalia, but small enclaves are believed to still exist within Ethiopia and Kenya. Founded in the late 1980s, the organization’s initial objective was to overthrow the Somali dictator Mohammad Siad Barre. After the toppling of Siad Barre in 1991, the group enlarged its scope of operations and began cross-border attacks into Ethiopia.

The main objective behind these cross-border attacks was to gain control of the disputed Ogaden region of Ethiopia, which borders Somalia. The Ogaden region is predominately inhabited by Ethiopian Somalis, making it a contentious area; AIAI taps into Somali nationalism by arguing for Somali control of this region. In 1977, Somalia attacked Ethiopia across the Ogaden Desert taking temporary control of the territory, only to be pushed back out of the region the following year. While the attacks by AIAI against Ethiopia were generally small in scale, the militant group did manage to execute operations as far as Addis Ababa.

AIAI is influenced by Wahhabism, the fundamentalist Sunni movement. It is feared that due to its radical orientation, the AIAI, given the opportunity, would find affinity with al-Qaeda. Indeed, according to the U.S. intelligence community, this is exactly the case. Washington believes that bin Laden sent al-Qaeda operatives to Somalia in 1991-1992 to help AIAI organize itself militarily, in addition to giving advice on how to set up social services for the local population. U.S. officials, speaking to United Press International in December 2001, also claimed that bin Laden spent approximately $3 million to send fighters from the Afghan resistance to Somalia to help set up an Islamic republic there. Presumably, the goal of al-Qaeda in supporting AIAI was to turn the organization into a popular force in Somalia, in the unrealistic hope of it seizing power from the disintegrating Somali regime.

AIAI has not been successful in its goal, largely due to the heavy losses suffered after provoking the Ethiopian government. In 1996, AIAI took responsibility for a series of bomb attacks in Ethiopia. These attacks led to frequent military interventions into Somalia by Ethiopian forces. While small in scale, the military incursions severely weakened the operational capability of AIAI. Indeed, by 1997, AIAI’s military operations appeared to have been severely fractured, and the organization’s members filtered back into their respective Somali clans.

The current organizational strength of AIAI is not altogether clear. It is believed that its members have concentrated on the development of social services within Somalia, waiting until they have the opportunity to rebuild their strength and re-emerge as a coherent paramilitary force. As stated by David Shinn, the former U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia, to the Addis Tribune in November 2004, “Many AIAI members abandoned militant tactics in favor of private enterprise, social services and proselytizing.” For the foreseeable future at least, AIAI poses little threat to Ethiopian security. As explained by Dr. Kassa Kebede, Ethiopia’s former secretary of foreign affairs, to the Terrorism Monitor, “The organizational capability of AIAI has never been and is not significant. … That threat seems to have been removed for now by the U.S.-backed Ethiopian cross-border military campaign.”

The Al-Qaeda Threat from Somalia

The greatest threat to Ethiopia from al-Qaeda lies in Somalia. The lack of an effective government in Somalia makes the country a potential haven for al-Qaeda militants. The country’s hopelessly impoverished and lawless situation, in addition to it being 99.9% Muslim, would give al-Qaeda the ability to operate free from fear of government and factional oversight. In the words of Secretary of State Colin Powell, “terrorist activity might find some fertile ground there, and we don’t want that to happen.”

There is widespread concern that al-Qaeda is exploiting the lawlessness prevalent in Somalia to establish military and other training facilities in that country. Indeed, in November 1998 the U.S. government brought forth an indictment in the Southern District of New York accusing al-Qaeda of providing “training camps and guesthouses in various areas, including Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia and Kenya for the use of al-Qaeda and its affiliated groups.” The indictment also stated that al-Qaeda “provided military training and assistance to Somali tribes opposed to the United Nations’ intervention in Somalia.”

This concern is especially plausible considering that the U.S. invasion and occupation of Afghanistan has eliminated the primary country where these facilities were formerly located, forcing al-Qaeda to move its training and planning operations elsewhere.

Hussein Aideed, a powerful Somali warlord whose father was responsible for the attacks on U.S. soldiers in Mogadishu in 1993, agreed with this assessment, stating in late 2001 to the Ethiopian International Institute for Peace and Development: “Clearly Somalia has become a second political homeland or shelter for Osama bin Laden and his international Islamic extremist network and a base for an alternative hideout purposes. It could be defined as an ideal base for the world wide Islamic fundamentalist movement due to the persistent civil war conditions.”

U.S.-Ethiopian Ties

The United States, in recognizing the threat of al-Qaeda and Islamist extremism in East Africa, has supported the Ethiopian government by providing it with military assistance, in addition to working with Addis Ababa to strengthen Ethiopia’s counter-terrorism operations. In the words of U.S. Major General John F. Sattler, commander of the Djibouti-based Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA), speaking after a visit to Ethiopia in early 2003, “We consider Ethiopia a valued partner in our mission to detect, disrupt and defeat terrorists who pose an imminent threat to our coalition partners in the Horn of Africa.” American military forces in the region assist Addis Ababa in “locating potential places where terrorists may attempt to cross the border into Ethiopia.”

The U.S. military does not plan on walking away from East Africa anytime soon. Marine Colonel Craig S. Huddleston, the chief of staff for the CJTF-HOA, told the American military publication Stars and Stripes in November 2004, “I think we’re going to be here long enough for the nations of the region to work together with all our other partners in the war on terrorism to eliminate the threat here. That’s why I think it will take a while.”


While al-Qaeda and other Islamist militant groups currently pose a mere nuisance to Ethiopian interests, the threat has the potential to escalate exponentially. In the words of Kebede, speaking to the Terrorism Monitor, “As regards Ethiopia, all indicators suggest that the problem is going from bad to worse. The political, social and economic problems that are conducive for the emergence and growth of radical revolutionary thought are not being addressed. Public discontent emanating from government policy is increasing.”

The instability and lawlessness in some countries of the region, particularly Somalia and Sudan, will make it difficult for the United States to prevent al-Qaeda from infiltrating East Africa. Washington’s attempt at using Ethiopia as a bridgehead against such instability is an important step, but it is not clear whether it will be successful. Nevertheless, because East African Muslims are not religiously animated in the same way as Muslims in different parts of the world, it will prove difficult for al-Qaeda to establish an effective East African force capable of launching massive attacks against western interests in the region and beyond.

Erich Marquardt is an analyst with the Power and Interest News Report, an analytical organization that utilizes open source intelligence to provide conflict analysis services in the context of international relations.