May 10, 2007 | World Defense Review

Additional Sparks Fly in the Horn of Africa

A little less than year ago, I appeared before a joint hearing of the Subcommittee on Africa, Global Human Rights, and International Operations and the Subcommittee on International Terrorism and Nonproliferation of the United States House of Representatives to offer testimony on the expanding crisis in the Horn of Africa caused by the fall of Mogadishu to forces of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU).

In my remarks, one of the points I raised in support my contention that the Somali Islamists were more of a threat than some of my fellow witnesses averred was that the former – in their previous incarnation as al-Itihaad al-Islamiya (“Islamic Union”) – had enjoyed longstanding ties with dissident groups which had carried out terrorist and other violent actions within Ethiopia. I specifically mentioned the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), an ethnic Somali group founded after irredentist Somalia's defeat in the Ogaden War against Ethiopia. Since then, the members of the ONLF have been seeking to split their region from the rest of Ethiopia with the goal of joining it to an eventual “Greater Somalia” which proponents envision embracing all their ethno-linguistic kinfolk in Djibouti, Ethiopia, and Kenya as well as the former Somalia and the Republic of Somaliland.

With one exception, to which I will return shortly, my passing comment concerning the ONLF went largely unnoticed, if not ignored altogether. After all, in the then-most recent Country Reports on Terrorism, that of 2005 – the Secretary of State being required by law to issue the document for each year by April 30 of the following calendar year, the 2005 edition was issued on April 28, 2006 – the ONLF did not even appear on list of forty-two groups formally designated as being a foreign terrorist organization (FTO). Nor was the group mentioned in approximately three pages which gave the summary of terrorist activities in Ethiopia. (The current edition of the document, Country Reports on Terrorism 2006, released, likewise does not mention ONLF activity in its Ethiopia summary. Nor is the group listed either among the forty-two FTOs or the forty-two “other groups of concern,” a new category.)

A few days after my Capitol Hill appearance, my secretary took a telephone call from someone who claimed he was a representative of the ONLF in the United States.

Deciding that it was probably prudent not to put a presumed representative of a group I had just linked to militant Islamists – either that or the caller was a loon – through to me, she told him I was unavailable.

The gentleman then obligingly sent a fax, transmitted from a Washington-area number which – with unexpected politeness – informed me that he begged to differ with my interpretation if not my facts: while his group was “engaged in an armed struggle to free [their] nation from occupation,” it did not “utilize terror against any entity except bona fide military targets or the repressive apparatus of the regime.” Presumably against the latter, terror was allowed.

In any event, having decided that there could not possibly be a happy ending to an epistolary battle with this correspondent I let the matter drop and did not think of it again until a recent event brought the group back into news.

On April 24, the ONLF launched a massive attack on an oilfield in Abole (also known in Somali as “Obala”), about 120 kilometers from Jijiga, the capital of Ethiopia's Somali Regional State. The oilfield was being worked by Chinese firm, the Zhongyuan Petroleum Exploration Bureau (ZPEB), on behalf of South West Energy, a Hong Kong-based company with a license to explore for oil in a 21,000-square kilometer basin in Ogaden. ZPEB was undertaking the same sort of seismic surveys that it has done throughout Ethiopia for a number of prospecting oil companies since 2003.

During the fifty-minute firefight that broke out between the ONLF fighters and Ethiopian soldiers guarding the oil workers when the attackers opened up on the workers' camp, nine Chinese and sixty-five Ethiopians were killed. Seven other Chinese workers were kidnapped before the ONLF fighters withdrew (the prisoners were subsequently turned over to representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross after the government of the People's Republic of China reacted strongly against what it called an “atrocious” attack and immediately dispatched a delegation to Addis Ababa to undertake what the Ministry of Foreign Affairs explicitly termed “rescue efforts” – note that the official communiqué in Beijing mentioned “rescue” but did not say anything about “negotiations to secure release”).

These facts are freely acknowledged by the ONLF in a posting on its website shortly after the attack, albeit claiming a greater success than that which most international media have reported:

Before dawn this morning at 0430 AM local time in Ogaden, the “Dufaan” commando unit of the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) conducted a military operation in … in Northern Ogaden. The operation targeted three military units of the [Ethiopian] regime who were guarding an oil exploration field. Exploration activities at the field began recently following an agreement between the Ethiopian government and a Chinese company … [Ethiopian] forces in Obala have now been wiped out with many having surrendered to ONLF commandos. Nearly four hundred Ethiopian troops have been wounded or killed. Explosions caused by munitions during the battle resulted in the death of a handful of Chinese oil workers. The oil facility itself has been completely destroyed … The ONLF has stated on numerous occasions that we will not allow the mineral resources of our people to be exploited by this regime or any firm that it enters into an illegal contract with so long as the people of Ogaden are denied their rights to self-determination.

Despite this open admission of its role in the most spectacular attack within Ethiopia since the fall of the Marxist dictatorship in 1991 – to say nothing of the toll of thousands of lives which ONLF ambushes and raids against Ethiopian military and civilians have exacted since 1984 – the Ogadeni militants amazingly do not figure in official U.S. terror lists.


In fact, as my near-interaction with its representative indicated, the ONLF operates openly in the U.S. Last April, for example, the deputy chairman of the ONLF, Mohamed Ismail Omar, openly visited Washington. While in the capital, the militant leader was fêted on Capitol Hill by then-Congressman Mark Kennedy (R-Minnesota), whose district includes a sizable ethnic Somali population, and accorded a meeting at the State Department with then-Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Donald Y. Yamamoto (now the U.S. ambassador in Ethiopia).

Granted, the ONLF does not pose a direct threat to the United States. However, this does not mean that current U.S. policy of de facto agnosticism with regard to a clearly effective militant group demonstrably capable of violence is any less misguided.

First, especially as America seeks to reach out to partners new and old in Africa with the stand-up of the U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM), we cannot afford to be perceived as exclusively concerned with groups which might impact us while ignoring the real challenges faced by our allies.

As I wrote last year, “Our counterterrorism efforts will bear little fruit if they are perceived as too preoccupied with protecting expatriates and their interests and too little concerned with the hundreds of attacks affecting Africans.” In any event, as I noted in that same column, “nothing prevents international terrorist groups from making alliances of convenience with non-international terrorist groups, while the latter can expand their scope to include such international powers which might be viewed as supporting the local authorities against whom they fight.”

Second, despite the recent claims by the internationally-recognized but otherwise utterly ineffective “Transitional Federal Government” (TFG) of Somalia to have secured – yet again – that country's sometime capital, Mogadishu, with the help of an Ethiopian intervention force which defeated al-Qaeda-linked Islamist militants and their clan supporters, the ONLF attacks points to the potential of the conflict to continue elsewhere, “Whac-A-Mole”-style if you will. In the early 1990s, when Ethiopian security forces preemptively targeted ONLF leaders and otherwise cracked down on the secessionists, members of the group fled to Somalia and joined al-Itihaad. And, as I described in a column last December, al-Itihaad encouraged the refugees' subversive activities among ethnic Somalis in the Ogaden region and assisted them in carrying out a series of terrorist attacks, including the bombing of two hotels and the attempted assassination of a cabinet minister in Addis Ababa, that goaded the exasperated Ethiopian government to intervene in militarily Somalia in August 1996.

Now, it appears, the cycle is playing out in reverse: the successful Ethiopian offensive in Somalia at the beginning of the year has driven the Islamists to ground and some undoubtedly slipped across the porous frontiers into the Ogaden (the border with Kenya was sealed and escape by sea was prevented by patrols mounted by the U.S. Fifth Fleet) where they may well contributed to the ONLF's recent remarkable success in the field of battle.

In short, the ONLF attack is reminder of how far the fires in the Horn of Africa are from being extinguished. It is also underscores the need for the U.S. to forge strong ties with partners in the region to monitor, disrupt, and ultimately destroy terrorist networks in there as well as contain the instability emanating from what is left of the former Somalia. To achieve these strategic objectives, however, America needs to take its allies' national interests – including those of the Ethiopian government which, for all its faults, is one of our staunchest allies in the Horn – as seriously as it wants them to take its security concerns.

– J. Peter Pham is Director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs and a Research Fellow of the Institute for Infrastructure and Information Assurance at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. He is also an adjunct fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington, D.C.


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