The US Treasury Department designated six supporters of Shabaab, al Qaeda’s affiliate in Somalia, on July 5. Among the six are two Eritrean intelligence officials.
The first is Tewolde Habte Negash, an Eritrean explosives expert who has long worked with a number of Somali insurgent and extremist groups, including Shabaab. Negash was profiled in a July 2011 report by the United Nations, and the language in the Treasury Department’s designation closely matches that report.
According to the UN, “Eritrean involvement in Somalia continues to represent a small but troubling part of the overall equation.” In particular, “Asmara’s continuing relationship with Shabaab … appears to be designed to legitimize and embolden the group rather than to curb its extremist orientation or encourage its participation in a political process.”
The UN identified Negash as “[o]ne of the Eritrean officers most closely engaged in liaison and support to Somali armed groups since at least 2003.”
Numerous witnesses interviewed by the UN, including former Shabaab and Islamic Courts Union (ICU) combatants, as well as former Eritrean officials and other fighters, described Negash’s role.
The UN’s witnesses explained that Negash “has operated intermittently from the Eritrean Embassy in Kenya, where he developed long standing relationships with various Somali (and Ethiopian) armed opposition group members who reside or transit in Kenya.” Negash provided these groups with “Eritrean passports, financial support, training and logistical support” and also supervised their training in Eritrea.
After the ICU took over Mogadishu in 2006, the UN report continues, Negash “spent considerable time” there, “coordinating support to a variety of armed groups, including the ICU and its militant wing, Shabaab,” as well as other groups. A Somali source told the UN that “Negash and his associates were hosted in a residence belonging to ICU financier Abukar Omar Adaani, and described a series of meeting[s] between Negash and ICU and Shabaab military officials, including Yusuf Indha’adde and Aden Hashi Ayrow.”
Ayrow was a dual-hatted al Qaeda and Shabaab commander. He was considered one of al Qaeda’s top operatives in East Africa until he was killed in a US airstrike on May 1, 2008.
A former Shabaab fighter who was trained in Eritrea between 2007 and 2009 explained to the UN that his group was “given training in suicide bombing and vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (VBIEDs).” The trainers “frequently referred to Negash – using one of his aliases – during the course of this training.” According to the Treasury Department, Negash also provided explosives training to fighters in Mogadishu in 2006.
Negash has been arrested and deported from Kenya on multiple occasions. In late September 2009, he was detained and deported after Kenyan officials learned he had traveled to Somalia to meet with Shabaab commanders.
After surveying all of the evidence against Negash in 2011, the UN concluded that he “represents a threat to peace and security in the region” and recommended “vigilance on the part of regional governments.”
The other Eritrean official designated by Treasury is Taeme Abraham Goitom, who heads Eritrea’s external intelligence operation and is deeply involved in Eritrea’s sponsorship of terrorism and violence throughout the Horn of Africa. Goitom is also reportedly an “important arms trafficker.”
Goitom has allegedly played a prominent role in directing the Alliance for the Re-liberation of Somalia (ARS). According to a March 2010 UN report, the government of Eritrea sponsored the formation of the ARS as an opposition group in 2007. Senior Eritrean officials, including Goitom, essentially picked the top leadership of ARS, which was headed by Hassan Dahir Aweys.
Eritrea has harbored and supported Aweys, who led Hizbul Islam and became an ICU leader and then Shabaab leader after the ARS suffered from infighting.
The other four Shabaab supporters designated by Treasury are: Suhayl Salim Abd-El-Rahman (aka Abu Faris), who facilitates the travel of foreign fighters for Shabaab; Aboud Rogo Mohammed, a radical Islamist cleric based in Kenya who indoctrinates new recruits for Shabaab and also raises cash for the organization; Omar Awadh Omar, a Shabaab facilitator who is imprisoned in Uganda for his alleged role in the July 11, 2010 attack on soccer fans watching a World Cup match in Kampala; and Abubaker Shariff Ahmed (a.k.a. Makaburi), a Shabaab “recruiter and facilitator” who is a “close associate Aboud Rogo Mohammed.”
As Shabaab’s operations show, al Qaeda and its affiliates receive support from a diverse set of parties, including nation states such as Eritrea. Mutual animosity for Ethiopia, Eritrea’s neighbor, is enough to warrant collusion between Shabaab and Eritrean intelligence officials.
Ethiopia and Eritrea warred from 1998 until 2000, after which tensions between the two countries have spiked repeatedly. Ethiopian forces invaded Somalia in 2006, and have fought Shabaab and its allies for much of the time since.
Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD’s Long War Journal.