East Africa the Next Hotbed of Terrorism?

Alex Perry, Time magazine's Africa Bureau Chief, explains why the Horn of Africa is arousing strategic interest among world powers. He recently wrote an article on terrorism in East Africa and talks about the political problems Ethiopia poses.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

For more on East Africa's relationship with the U.S. six years after 9/11, Alex Perry. He's Time magazine's Africa Bureau Chief. And he recently wrote a piece about the rise of extremism in East Africa called "Ethiopia: Horn of Dilemma."

Alex joins us now from Cape Town, South Africa. Welcome.

Mr. ALEX PERRY (Africa Bureau Chief, Time Magazine): Hi.

CHIDEYA: So today is the sixth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, and most of our national focus has been on terrorists from Afghanistan and Arab nations. So what does East Africa have to do with terrorism?

Mr. PERRY: Well, it's primarily about geography. East Africa is basically just south of the Middle East. And there's a potential overspill of the turmoil in the Middle East. Influences have always traveled that way. Christianity basically found its legs in the Ethiopia. Islam also did, when the Islamists were thrown out of Saudi Arabia or when they were thrown out of Mecca. They found refuge in Ethiopia. And now, the fear is that this sort of turmoil that you see to the north will also come south and to some extent, that's already come true. Somalia is home to the oldest and best-established jihadi camps in Africa.

Al-Qaida has a presence there. You know, lot of the Islamism is homegrown and locally focused. But there are - both al-Qaida and U.S. military, regards Somalia essentially as the third front on the war on terror.

CHIDEYA: Is there any evidence that East Africans actually have been involved in international attacks?

Mr. PERRY: Oh, yes. Plenty. I mean, there's the - in 1988, that we tend to think of September 11th is the start date for the war on terror. But 1988, essentially, where when the first shots were fired when two American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were blown up with simultaneous car bombs and attacks had killed, I think, 224 people. That was carried out by a group of people who subsequently and probably, previously, had found refuge in the camps in Somalia.

CHIDEYA: Now you recently reported from Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia. And in your article, you called it, quote, "a town of spooks." What did you mean by that?

Mr. PERRY: You just can't avoid bumping into suspicious people with lots of information. It is. I mean, Ethiopia is the second largest country in Africa. And in some ways, it's a spiritual spencer(ph). It's the only country in Africa that was never colonized. It's also where, you know, early man was first born for the 5.8 million years ago.

So it has this sense of being a heartland, and as one diplomat puts, it's the center of gravity for the region, perhaps not all of Africa but certainly for East Africa. And to that extent, it attracts the spooks because when everybody is looking at the Horn as a potential risk area, something that could blow up, everybody has their spies on the ground in Ethiopia. It is slightly unnerving, you know. Addis Ababa is a town of cafes. Ethiopia produces great coffee. And in cafe culture, it's very much part of the culture. But just sitting in a cafe, you hear - you overhear the most amazing conversations going on on next-door tables.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CHIDEYA: So when you're talking about these spooks or spies and operatives, you really are talking about many different nations. How many different nations do you think have an active role or an active stake in Ethiopia's future?

Mr. PERRY: Oh, you name it. I mean, the U.S. considers the Ethiopia its number one African partner. The Chinese are in there. Mossad, the Israelis are fairly active. The Brits are active. The North Koreans have recently supplied Ethiopia with arms shipments. You know, everybody's there.

It's slightly strange in some ways because you wonder what the end game is, what are they all competing for. There's no great pot of gold at the end of this rainbow.

Somalia has been at civil war since 1991 and Ethiopia is one of the poorest countries on earth. But it's more than out of fear of what might happen, what could blow up and also it's simple competition, if everybody else is there, you kind of got to be there too.

CHIDEYA: When you talk about Somalia and the Islamic Courts Movement, there is a perception that the U.S. urged Ethiopia to invade Somalia but the U.S. assistant secretary of state says it was quite the opposite. Now, the U.S. actually did back that invasion with material support, so how much does Washington have influence in the Ethiopian government's decisions?

Mr. PERRY: Look, I mean, this - I know that perception is there. That in some ways this was, you know, an American proxy war. That Ethiopia is a puppet or a poodle for America. I have to say that's, you know, while that perception is widely shared, it's entirely mistaken.

Ethiopia is virulently independent, which, again, goes back to the whole idea that it was never colonized and, you know, it had a very proud heritage. It's the last great living African civilization. So the idea that Ethiopia is anybody's poodle, I think, is out of whack and put about by people who don't really know Ethiopia.

The stories that we heard, and we have people who are very close to the talks at senior levels between the U.S. and Ethiopian government, was America tried very hard to stop Ethiopia invading Somalia. General John Abizaid actually flew to Addis Ababa and essentially tried to forbid the Ethiopian prime minister, Meles Zenawi, from going in. Well, that sort of language doesn't go down very well in Ethiopia. Meles is quite his own man and replied that he would go in.

At which point then America changed its stance and lent small contingent of support. There were special forces units traveling with the Ethiopian command, providing the kind of satellite tracking and intelligence in targeting information that the Ethiopians simply don't have the capability for. And I think there was also a certain amount of logistical support.

CHIDEYA: You've also talked to the Ethiopian president. And what kind of sense do you get of his estimation of extremism inside his own country?

Mr. PERRY: Inside his own country, he's getting increasingly worried. One of the spillovers from Somalia is into the Ogaden region of Ethiopia, which is ethnic Somali. And what the Ethiopians are now facing in Somalia, which is a nationalist insurgency backed by Eritrea, according to a U.N. report that came out in July, it is now facing back at home in terms of an insurgency by two groups. The former, the Ogaden National Liberation Front is the much more important and significant, that is also, sets(ph) Ethiopia, being backed back by Eritrea.

CHIDEYA: You mention Eritrea. It is neighboring Ethiopia. There've been long-running conflicts between these countries and…

Mr. PERRY: Yeah.

CHIDEYA: …Eritrea might have provided the Somali insurgency with weapons. So do you believe that Eritrea still supports Islamic radicals in Somalia?

Mr. PERRY: The U.N. report is absolutely categorical that it's supplying them with weapons - and sophisticated weapons. We're talking sort of, you know, surface-to-air missiles and that sort of things, suicide vests. Somalia hadn't seen suicide attacks until the last year. Now they're happening. There seems to be no doubt.

And, in fact, I must say when I was in Mogadishu a few months back on matter(ph) sort of midlevel insurgent commander, you know, an Islamist, he admitted absolutely openly that the Eritreans were flooding that rebellion with support, with weapons, with cash, with whatever they needed.

CHIDEYA: And Eritrea has been prickly, to say the least, with the U.S. Is there room to renegotiate that relationship?

Mr. PERRY: I hope so. It's a very difficult one. At the moment, I would say there probably is room to renegotiate but nobody is minded to. The U.S. is taking an extremely hard line with Eritrea, closed its consulate in Oakland and is broadcasting widely that it's thinking of adding Eritrea to the - to its list of state sponsors of terrorism, which is very heavy-handed for, you know, a little country like Eritrea.

I mean, this is a tiny, tiny place. The big fear is, basically, puts us one step further towards the scenario in the Horn of Africa that everybody has been afraid of for all these years, which is a regional war.

Because, if Eritreans are backed into a corner and has nobody to negotiate with - from what I understand, the U.S. simply refuses to let it start even talk to Eritreans at this stage, then it, you know, if there's no talks, then it has to fight.

And it will fight by backing the Somalis in Somalia, by backing the (unintelligible) inside Ethiopia, possibly by facing another war with Ethiopia across that common border.

And you have this three-front war, which consumes three countries, and the Horn of Africa goes up in flames.

CHIDEYA: Now, finally, how big of a priority is this region for America given that the military is really stretched thin in Iraq and Afghanistan at this point?

Mr. PERRY: As we've said before, it is the third front in the war on terror. It is a much more minor undertaking than either Afghanistan or Iraq, but it is significant. There is a - since 2002, the U.S. has had eighteen hundred troops stationed in Djibouti and a series of sort of forward bases around the region which, you know, when they're empty, can simply be a shed in the runway but can take up to sort of three or 400 people. And it has the capability to move large amounts of troops offshore, which it did recently, on warships.

During the Ethiopian invasion, the USS Eisenhower's offshore and that takes 72 planes and three-and-a-half thousand men. So there is - there's an increasing focus on Africa as a place which has a lot of unstable states and, you know, potentially, therefore, offers safe haven for terrorists and so on. And a lot of that attention, specifically, focused on the Horn of Africa.

CHIDEYA: Well, Alex, thank you so much.

Mr. PERRY: Thank you.

CHIDEYA: Alex Perry is Time magazine's Africa bureau chief. He spoke with us in Cape Town, South Africa, and you can read his article "Ethiopia: Horn of Dilemma" at our Web site nprnewsandnotes.org.

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