The al Qaeda-allied Somali terrorists of Al-Shabaab (“The Youth”), and the pirates that comprise their “navy,” have repeatedly gained world attention—and then been forgotten. In July, Al-Shabaab was blamed for homicidal raids in Kenya, as revenge for Kenyan intervention against the Islamist extremists in Somalia beginning late last year. Somali Islamists have also manipulated nearby states, among them the small nation of Eritrea, separated from Somalia by tiny Djibouti, which has a Somali majority.
Eritreans claim a community of about 100,000 in the U.S. They are a familiar presence in Washington, D.C., and Northern Virginia, where their largest contingent—estimated at 30,000—is found. Their second biggest concentration is in the San Francisco East Bay region, with some 15-20,000. To most non-Africans, Eritreans are not much different from Ethiopians. Indeed, Eritrea came into existence through a secessionist war against Ethiopia, with which Eritrea, an Italian colony from 1890 to 1941, was federated after World War II, under a British mandate approved by the United Nations. Ethiopia annexed Eritrea outright in 1952.
During the 1960s, Eritreans inaugurated their movement for independence from Ethiopia, which in 1974 became one of the African satellites of the former Soviet Union and Cuba. The Eritrean rebels leaned toward Maoist China, and joined with Ethiopian insurgents to overthrow the Marxist dictatorship in Ethiopia in 1991, gaining recognition of independent Eritrea in 1993. Ethiopia’s Communist ruler, Haile Mariam Mengistu, was replaced by a former Maoist, Meles Zenawi, who died on August 20. Eritrea became a one-party regime under dictator-president, Isaias Afewerki. Afewerki and Zenawi, once allies, soon turned against one another.
Eritrea and Ethiopia fought a border war in 1998-2000 that left 100,000 dead and a million refugees. Through these decades, Eritrea and Ethiopia were symbols of tyranny and starvation. But Eritrean success in separating from Ethiopia was most significant in depriving the latter country of access to the Red Sea. And therein lay several problems.
As foreign troublemakers, the Chinese and Russians were replaced in Eritrea by al Qaeda (while Osama bin Laden was headquartered in Sudan, to Eritrea’s west) and Saudi-backed Wahhabis from across the waters eastward. Sudan-based Islamists attacked the Eritrean independence movement. As elsewhere, Saudi Arabia sponsored mosque construction in Eritrea. Eritrea’s population of six million is said to be evenly divided between Orthodox Christians and Sunni Muslims. Eritrean Islam is notably moderate, and has been influenced markedly, according to Jonathan Miran, an associate professor at Western Washington University, by the Idrisiyya tradition of spiritual Sufism (which played a major role in Libyan history).
The Idrisi Sufis are well known in the Muslim world for their opposition to Wahhabi ultra-fundamentalism. Their progenitor, a Moroccan Sufi, Ahmad Ibn Idris (1760-1837), went to Mecca to oppose the Wahhabis in person. He was expelled to Yemen but survived, and his anti-Wahhabi arguments are read widely among Muslim scholars today. Ibn Idris appealed for abolition of the shariah schools of Islamic law and for other reforms. Because of Sufi influence, jihadism has been weak in Eritrea—Miran describes two small Eritrean Wahhabi groups, the Eritrean Islamic Reform Movement and the Eritrean Islamic Salvation Movement, which call for the overthrow of the current regime.
Yet Eritrea’s position is badly compromised by the Somali problem. Eritrean Muslims, it turns out, are less useful than the Eritrean government to the Somali Al-Shabaab and pirate gangs. In 2009, the United Nations Security Council “demanded that all Member States, in particular Eritrea, cease arming, training, and equipping armed groups and their members including Al-Shabaab, that aim to destabilize the region.” The Security Council stated, “the Government of Eritrea has continued to provide political, diplomatic, financial and—allegedly—military assistance to armed opposition groups in Somalia.” In three years since then, the situation has not changed.