Why you should care
Because thwarting terror can carry a high cost.
On April 2, as I waited in a doctor’s office near Nairobi, the anchor of Kenya’s morning news broadcast began reporting what would prove to be a horrific attack on Garissa University by the Somali terrorist group al-Shabab. As the early news trickled in, some people around me looked at the television screen, and others just checked their phones. Most, however, just stared impatiently at the doctor’s door.
In Kenya, another terror attack wasn’t shocking news. Indeed, the number of attacks in Kenya has more than doubled since 2013, and the assault on Garissa, which killed 148, was just the latest in a growing list of al-Shabab attacks outside Somalia. In 2010, a suicide bombing in Uganda killed 74 people; last year, militants carried out the first suicide bombing in Djibouti’s history; and in April, Tanzanian authorities arrested 10 people carrying explosives, bomb detonators and an al-Shabab flag. Meanwhile, in Ethiopia, a country with a longer history of military involvement in Somalia and a much longer border with the country than Kenya, the number of al-Shabab attacks in recent years is … well, zero. The last attempted attack in the country happened two years ago and ended when two would-be suicide bombers blew themselves up in their safe house in the capital of Addis Ababa.
My big concern with Ethiopia is the way they are behaving … is actually going to push people into the arms of extremists.
Bronwyn Bruton, deputy director, Atlantic Council’s Africa Center
Ethiopia’s success at evading attacks might not seem so remarkable, except that even the most developed countries, including the United States, have generally floundered in their counterterrorism efforts. Yet the blueprint Ethiopia is following to thwart al-Shabab attacks — and ultimately to help stall the Islamic State’s inroads into Africa — has its own set of civil rights issues. Indeed, the country sparked its own form of an ends-justify-the-means debate, with critics saying it relies on security and intelligence gathering that is too heavy-handed.
In its defense, the country of 94 million has been focused on the jihadi threat much longer than the rest of the region. Antagonism began in the 1990s, when al-Shabab’s precursor, al-Ittihad al-Islami, or AIAI, launched a number of border region attacks. In 2006, Ethiopia invaded Somalia to oust Islamists who had seized control of large swaths of the country; rights groups accused Ethiopian forces of killing civilians and other atrocities. Ethiopia withdrew its troops in 2009, but last year it joined AMISOM, the African Union’s peacekeeping force in Somalia.
In the years since, Ethiopia has set up a buffer zone along its 1,010-mile border with Somalia. On the Somali side, it has trained local militias; on the Ethiopian side, it has created a militarized zone off-limits to American military or humanitarian aid. Meanwhile, the country’s grassroots “five-to-one” security program provides a safety net: For every five households, one person is designated to report on new faces and any other changes in the status quo.
And despite having one of the world’s lowest rates of mobile phone and Internet penetration, Ethiopia has some of the world’s most high-tech surveillance capabilities. The government has a monopoly on the telecommunications sector, and in 2012 it invested roughly $1 million in hacking software, allowing it to record Skype calls, listen in on phone conversations, and access emails, files and passwords.
Were it monitoring only legitimate terrorist threats, its intelligence system could be a model. But like the U.S., Kenya and so many others, Ethiopia hasn’t escaped the great irony of counterterrorism: undermining human rights as it tries to protect them. According to recent Human Rights Watch reports, the government has monitored journalists, opposition party members and anyone else perceived to be a threat to its grip on power. Recordings of phone calls have been used during abusive interrogations of people whom, under Ethiopia’s vaguely worded 2009 anti-terrorism law, the government labels terrorists, a 2014 HRW report says. “Ethiopia is a police state,” says Bronwyn Bruton, deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center, terming it “almost North Korea–esque.”
So far, Ethiopia’s authoritarian regime has been given a relatively free pass by the international community. The U.S., which is Ethiopia’s largest provider of foreign aid, considers it a strategic partner in counterterrorism efforts. In July, President Barack Obama visited Addis Ababa to address the African Union. Some worry the West’s acquiescence sets a dangerous precedent. “The rest of the sub-Saharan countries see this and see that they can pass this kind of legislation,” says Felix Horne, a researcher at Human Rights Watch. The government seems unfazed by criticism. Din Mufti Sid, ambassador to Kenya, laughed off the label “police state.” “If protecting [your people] gives you a bad name,” he tells OZY, “who the hell cares?”
Critics suggest the country’s repressive measures could breed homegrown terrorism. “My big concern with Ethiopia is the way they are behaving … is actually going to push people into the arms of extremists,” Bruton says. For the past several years, thousands of Muslims have marched in protests over government treatment of the Islamic community. Many protests have been violently disrupted.
But with al-Shabab calling for fresh attacks inside the country, even its strict security may not be enough going forward. “If there’s one thing we’ve learned about al-Shabab it’s that it’s highly adaptive and creative,” says Matt Bryden, chairman of Sahan Research, a Nairobi-based think tank. “The measures Ethiopia has in place today may well not be sufficient tomorrow.”