Eritrea: A Potential U.S. Counterterror Partner

Photo: iStock.com/harvepino

Instability and terrorism in the Horn of Africa, along with a massive conflict on the other side of the Red Sea in Yemen, threaten U.S. interests in the region.

Deputy Director of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center, Bronwyn Bruton, writes in a recent report, “the United States could find itself facing instability and perhaps a terror threat on both sides of the Mandeb Strait [separating Yemen from Eritrea and Djibouti], which is a critical chokepoint for the $700 billion … of trade passing annually between the European Union (EU) and Asia.”

Bruton, who is also a Cipher Brief expert, continues, “Threats to this trade route have in recent years led the United States to pour millions of dollars into combating Somali piracy – an indication of the Strait’s importance to U.S. interests.”

Thus, the small East African country of Eritrea becomes vital in preventing the passage of terrorists between the Horn of Africa and the Persian Gulf and maintaining its stability in an increasingly unstable region.

“Thus far, Eritrea has repelled jihadists and proven immune to radical ideologies,” notes Bruton.

The U.S. does not formally collaborate with Eritrea on a counterterror strategy. In fact, the U.S. has no military-to-military cooperation with Eritrea and provides no bilateral assistance to the country, at the request of the Eritrean Government, according to the U.S. State Department.

There are a number of reasons for this. For starters, the UN Security Council, at Washington’s urging, sanctioned Eritrea in 2009 for its alleged support of terrorist group al-Shabaab and for refusing to settle a border dispute with Djibouti. The sanctions included an arms embargo and travel bans and asset freezes on certain individuals. In 2011 and 2012, UN monitors found no evidence to conclude Eritrea still supported al-Shabaab, but sanctions were extended in 2013, resulting in a two-way arms embargo.

“We’ve [the U.S.] lifted sanctions on Sudan, and if we’ve lifted sanctions on Sudan, I cannot see why we would not want to have a better relationship with Eritrea,” Seth Kaplan tells The Cipher Brief.

Kaplan, a lecturer in African Studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, adds, “Having said that, Eritrea has sort of been made everybody’s worst example of human rights, even though I don’t actually see why it’s so much worse than other countries.”

Indeed, the U.S. State Department lists “citing and addressing human rights issues” as one of its interests in Eritrea.

The country has been ruled by one party – the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice, or PFDJ, which was formed out of the group that led Eritrea to break away from Ethiopia in 1991 – since independence more than two decades ago. There is no independent press, and Eritreans flee in large numbers to surrounding Sudan and Ethiopia, and even to Europe.

The United Nations has said around 5,000 Eritreans leave the country every month.

The UN refugee agency reported 11,564 Eritreans arrived in Italy in the first seven months of 2016 – that’s 12 percent of arrivals to Italy. In 2015, a quarter of arrivals to Italy were Eritrean.

Mandatory national service is one of the top reasons why Eritreans flee the country. In 1995, Eritrean President Isaias Afewerki introduced compulsory military service, in which everyone under the age of 50 is required to enlist. Conscription became open-ended in 1998, at the onset of Eritrea’s two-year-long border war with Ethiopia. That means, mandatory service is now indefinite, with release from service dependent on each individual commander.

“The refugees [in Europe] regularly cite the indefinite nature of national service as a key reason for their migration,” a senior researcher for the Horn of Africa at Human Rights Watch, Felix Horne, tells The Cipher Brief.

The need to deal with Eritrean refugees in Europe has changed the landscape of Eritrea’s international isolation over the last couple of years. Horne remarks, “the last two years have seen increased engagement from European states, largely to curb migration to Europe.”

The Gulf states are also showing a new interest in Eritrea, largely due to the conflict in Yemen. “The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has established a military presence in Assab, Eritrea,” comments Horne.

According to Bruton, “Asmara has formed strong strategic alliances with the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia, providing a base for their counterterror efforts in the Red Sea basin.”

In addition, China is seizing economic opportunities in Eritrea. Chinese companies are the second most prominent external investors in Eritrea, says Kaplan, after the Canadians who operate Eritrea’s Bisha Mine.

Eritrea has “secured a series of new Chinese mining investments,” notes Bruton.

This leaves the U.S. in the position of potentially having little influence in a more open Eritrea in the future.

“It’s really not clear under the Trump presidency whether there will be a rethink about relations with Eritrea, and there haven’t been many signs from the Eritrean government that they are keen to start a new relationship with the United States either,” says Horne.

Still, Kaplan says there is the possibility of a thawing of relations due to Eritrea’s role in regional stability and combating terrorism. “The fact that fighting terrorism, fighting Islamic terrorist groups, might turn out to be by far the most important goal for the new [U.S.] administration, you would think that Eritrea would be not a highly prioritized but still important partner, given its geopolitical location and its importance as a stable country in the Horn of Africa.”

Kaplan adds, “If our primary goal in that part of the world is simply to reduce the threat from terrorism and to defang as much as possible terrorist groups and possibly, to the extent that it’s possible, to end the conflict in Yemen, certainly we would want better relations with Eritrea.”  

Kaitlin Lavinder is a reporter at The Cipher Brief. Follow her on Twitter @KaitLavinder.