When North Korea conducts its ballistic missile and underground nuclear tests, those who complain most are the ones that are least likely to ever be the victims of such weapons: US and Japan. They keep entertaining the farfetched scenario where the Kim Jong Il regime targets its nuclear-headed missiles at them. This is what happens when terrorism is looked at through the 9/11 prism only. The truth is that the paranoid regime’s target is not the outside world but its own people. The message that the totalitarian leader is sending to the outside world is loud and clear: do no interfere with the way I terrorize my people! It just happens that a nuclear-headed missile is a neat way of keeping outside interference at bay. We can then say, without any exaggeration, that these missiles are aimed directly at the North Korean masses. It is sad when the West refuses to see the link between the regime’s external posturing and internal terrorism and instead focuses only on external terrorism that potentially threatens it or its interests only, distant as that possibility may be.

The other wrong understanding of terrorism that has evolved after 9/11 is that for it to count as terrorism it has to be of the ideological type, with Islamic fundamentalism coming at the top of the list. A leader who uses external terrorism as a “pragmatic” tool to terrorize his own subjects would not easily fall under that description. The motivation for holding a distinction between pragmatic and ideological terrorism is the belief that whereas the goals of an ideological terrorist are impossible to be met within the norms of the civilized world, the goals of a pragmatic terrorist are not necessarily inimical to the civilized world and hence are open to negotiation. While the ideological one, given the overarching and uncompromising nature of its demand, cannot be satisfied short of the destruction of the “enemy”, the pragmatic one might relent if some of its non-ideological demands are met. For instance, if what is driving Eritrea to terrorism is the border crisis, all that is needed is to address that problem for it to be weaned out of its terrorist habits – so goes the argument.

The case of Eritrea though is a good example where the above mentioned two distinctions cannot be held. Isaias Afewerki’s terrorization of the neighborhood is primarily motivated by internal factors that would make the internal-external and pragmatic-ideological distinctions untenable. And yet, so far, the world has failed to identify this tyrant as a terrorist (or as a sponsor of terrorism) simply because he doesn’t fit the West’s profile of an ideologue terrorist that has emerged after 9/11. And what is more, this has lead to a futile effort on the side of the West (especially the EU) to find solutions to external interference without addressing the internal variables that are motivating the tyrant to terrorize the region in the first place.

All the internal variables that motivate this regime to do what it is doing externally are intimately tied to its very nature, a behavioral pattern that has fully evolved coalesced within Eritrea long before it began its terrorist excursions outside. In assessing Shaebia’s/PFDJ’s “personality”, one has to look at six internal variables that crucially define it: the major drive that motivates it in whatever it does, the track record of its behavioral past, the “ideology” that guides that behavior, the way it translates that ideology on the ground, the way it conducts its “business” within and without and its state policy that has now achieved an overarching status in its domestic, regional and foreign matters:

  1. The relevance factor: The major reason that drives Eritrea to sponsoring terrorism throughout the neighborhood is its leader’s (and the organization that he leads) false sense of grandeur and, consequently, his obsession to be the most relevant leader in the region; this is a nation that has yet to learn how to adopt a behavior befitting to its small size.
  2. Vulgar pragmatism: The only “ideology” that explains almost every action that this organization has taken since its inception as Shaebia – that of “vulgar pragmatism” – also happens to explain best its brand of terrorism, where terrorism is primarily used as a pragmatic tool in its survival strategy and not for any “higher” principle it holds dear.
  3. Its confrontational past: The terrorism we are witnessing today simply happens to be the logical extension of its confrontational past – both as Shaebia and PFDJ – where it used to get things done through brute force and coercion only; the consistency of its 40-years behavioral past is remarkable in that it hasn’t resolved a single major crisis through peaceful means.
  4. Domestic terrorism: This is an organization that keeps ever-tightening its totalitarian grip over the population through sheer terror; no nation on this earth treats its people with such brutality except for North Korea – the labyrinthine security apparatus, with its tentacles spread throughout the country in the form of hundreds of prisons, scores of concentration camps and indefinite national service, is a testimony to this fact.
  5. Economic terrorism: Mafia-like profiteering is also one aspect of this pragmatic terrorism, from blackmailing, extortion, land expropriation, monopolization, and endemic slave labor inside the country to blackmailing the Diaspora population, exporting poor women for hard currency and smuggling arms for profit to notorious organizations such as Tamil Tigers outside.
  6. Terrorism as a state policy: Terrorism as a state policy has attained such an overarching status that not only does it permeate and dominate almost every aspect of decision taken in its domestic, regional and foreign matters as no other variable does, but it does it by inextricably linking them to one another such that they are also made to serve each others’ goals.


The Somali case incorporates all of the above mentioned aspects. First, the despot of Asmara is supporting and arming Islamist extremists in Somalia not because he has any love for their fundamentalist aspirations, but because, first, he believes it is the only card left to him to destabilize Ethiopia – thereby displaying his “pragmatism”, albeit a vulgar one. Second, the destabilization of Ethiopia as a mission has little to do with the border conflict, but with the totalitarian control over the Eritrean population that the despot needs in order to extend his rule indefinitely. The encirclement mentality that he has successfully engendered among his people, without which it would have been impossible for his totalitarian system to prevail, needs a permanent enemy; and so far Ethiopia has filled that slot. Third, by attempting to hold all the peace cards in Somalia in his hands, he is telling the US that if it wants to achieve peace in Somalia the only road is through Asmara; this way he would replace Melles as the most relevant leader in the region. Fourth, what is taking place in Somalia should not be seen in isolation of the pattern of violence initiated by the Isaias regime – the violent confrontations with all the neighboring countries, the sponsoring of all kinds of terrorism throughout the neighborhood and the violent past of the organization as Shaebia and PFDJ. Fifth, Eritrea has become the main conduit of arms smuggling to Somalia, thereby channeling funds from contributing hands in the Middle East (especially the Iranian connection) to its coffers. And, sixth, the fact that Isaias is using the Somali case to tighten his totalitarian grip in Eritrea, to attain supremacy in the region and to blackmail the US to side with him tells us that terrorism as a policy has attained an overarching status that incorporates domestic, regional and foreign concerns.

If the Isaias regime is attempting to attain so much through its terrorism card and if its terrorist habits are so deeply entrenched that they have become part of what it is, then no persuasion can wean it out of its terrorist excursions. And if its adventurism outside is so inextricably tied to what goes on inside, then holding external and internal variables independent of one another would definitely lead towards a policy disaster, as it has been the case with the EU, US, AU and UN policies towards Eritrea so far.

The EU is the worst of the group. Lately, it has rewarded the despot’s despicable behavior with 122 million Euros. In this, it is lead by two motives: First, it seems to relish its contrarian behavior where anything that the US does in its foreign policy is countered by its exact opposite. And second, it wrongly believes that “constructive dialog” is the only way to correct this recalcitrant behavior – and this is after all the belligerence the despot has shown for years on end without any let up. The AU came a long way when it conclusively recommended sanctions against Eritrea as the only way out, albeit after its troops had been targeted by Al Shabaab. So far, the UN seems to be indecisive, even as its blue helmets experienced the regime’s hostility first hand. The US is the only powerful entity that has shown any interest in punishing the unrepentant Asmara regime, but it too has come woefully short, even as it keeps issuing one ultimatum after another.

Below, we will see how the regime’s “ideology” – that of vulgar pragmatism – and its two “primordial” drives – its sense of supremacy and its confrontational behavior – converge to make its terrorism deeply embedded in its self, and thereby refuses to go away from the regional and national scene. This is so even as it leads the nation to the edge of disaster, given the multiple warnings from major world bodies and the specter of another round of war with Ethiopia. The rest three internal variables will be dealt with in Part II.

[Below, I will be recycling some material from an article that I wrote (“Terrorism – in the Nature of PFDJ”) the first time the US was contemplating to put Eritrea in the blacklist of terrorism sponsoring nations because I find it as relevant now as it was then.]

(1) Ideology: vulgar pragmatism

Shaebia’s overarching “principle,” one that guides it in whatever it does, has been its vulgar pragmatism. The vulgar twist in its pragmatism is explained by the fact that it is guided by no other higher economic, social, political, ideological or moral principle. The single objective of this pragmatism always remains the same: “Self-preservation of the organization above everything else!” The means of achieving this objective is: “Whatever it takes!” The only inhibiting question that it asks in pursuing its objective is: “Can I get away with it?” And particularly now, at a time when the PFDJ believes that the only “weapon of choice” it has for enforcing its domestic, regional and foreign policies is terrorism, this “pragmatic” choice turns out to be a fait accompli.

Among terrorism-sponsoring states, what commonly holds true is that they at least share the “cause” of the terrorist groups they sponsor, be it religious fundamentalism, ethnic solidarity or communism. That is not the case with Eritrea. True to its vulgar pragmatism, the Isaias regime’s terrorism policy has no “higher” religious, racial, ethnic, political, humanitarian or ideological principle that guides it. When it supports Islamic fundamentalists in Somalia, it is not because it shares their religious zealotry. When it supports South Sudanese rebels, it is not because it sympathizes with them in their racial grievances (against the Arab North). When it supports disgruntled Tigray elements or Eastern Sudan Beja insurgents, it is not because of ethnic solidarity. When it supports the Darfur cause, it is not because of the humanitarian disaster that has been unfolding in that region. When it supports many “democratic” elements from Ethiopia, it is not because it shares their alleged concern for democracy. Good evidence that it doesn’t give a damn about the “causes” of these rebel groups is the fact that at the moment anyone of them fails to fit in its calculation of the survival game it pursues ruthlessly, it drops it nonchalantly with no qualms at all – the Sudanese story is a case in point.

The fact that the terrorism policy of the Isaias regime has an enduring pragmatic twist shouldn’t be confused for it being less pernicious than the ideologically driven ones, for it is precisely the lack of a higher guiding principle that makes it an enduring and ubiquitous phenomenon in whatever it does. It is probably instructive to notice that, odd as it may seem, there is something central to what they do that terrorism-sponsoring states and terrorism-fighting states share in common: an appeal to a “higher” cause: the former appeal to their fundamentalist ideologies for guidance, and the latter appeal to liberal democracy for motivation to fight back. In the hands of the principle-less Shaebia though, terrorism becomes an extension of its confrontational past and a pragmatic tool of choice. And as such, while it keeps dropping one “cause” and adopting another, what remains invariable is the tool itself: terrorism. It is a habit instilled in it through decades of confrontation, one that it cannot wean itself out short of its final demise. In short, terrorism has become part of what it is, something that it cannot hold apart from itself.

(2) Shaebia’s/PFDJ’s confrontational past

As any rational minded observer would tell you, a good way of predicting someone’s behavior is tracking his behavioral past. This is especially so if there is a striking consistency in whatever he did in the past, as it is in the case of Shaebia: in its four decades of existence, one would be hard pressed to find a single case where it resolved its problem peacefully. Its violent track record is so consistent and pervasive that it left nothing of what it did untouched; so much so that when it comes to employing its coercive means, it has reached a stage where it completely lacks any discriminating mechanism.

There is something foolhardy, yet consistent, about PFDJ’s confrontational past in that it fails to discriminate among its “enemies,” irrespective of their advantages or disadvantages, weaknesses or strengths. It adopts the same confrontational stance in solving its “problems” against defenseless individuals (the elderly mediators, parents of deserters, handicapped veterans, etc.), its own dissenting ruling party officials (ex: G15), influential foreign diplomats (ex: Ambassador Bandini), indispensable NGOs (ex: USAID), international media (BBC, Reuters, etc.) prestigious world institutions (Red Cross, UN, etc.) giant neighboring countries (Yemen, Sudan and Ethiopia) and mighty world powers (US and EU). In enforcing its domestic terrorism policy, it puts helpless elderly mediators and aging parents of deserters and draft dodgers behind bars. In settling internal dissent, it detains higher officials, journalists and other dissenters indefinitely without due process. In pursuing its regional policy, it picks up fights with all the neighboring countries and turns itself into a hub of all types of disgruntled elements. In enforcing its confrontational foreign policy, it bullies the UNMEE (constraining their movement, shutting off their information outlets, expelling their staff and finally forcing them out.), harasses NGOs (constraining their activity, possessing their vehicles and finally expelling them out of the country) and antagonizes foreign diplomats (expels Ambassador Bandini, arrests American embassy employees, constrains the movements of Western diplomats, etc.).

So was it in its ghedli past, when it was still a guerrilla organization. All the relations it had with similar organizations – TPLF, EPRP and ELF – were confrontational in nature, and at times went outright violent (ex: with ELF). In fact, the recent border war can be partially explained as a natural evolvement of the confrontational past between Shaebia and TPLF. The same holds true within itself; the organization had never settled any internal rifts peacefully. The liquidations of thousands of teghadelti from Falul, Menkae, Yemin and others attest to this violent behavior. We also see the same pattern of behavior in its dealings with the helpless ghebar; sheer terror was the means through which it cowed this population group to silence and compliance. For more than a decade, the peasants of Eritrea were forced to join the guerrillas through the barrel of the gun, and became the main fodder for the endless battles conducted in Sahel.

Thus, if we look at its recent past, as PFDJ, and at its ghedli past, as Shaebia, there is not a single case where this organization has solved its problem through peaceful means. If this is not a well-established four-decades-long behavior of a dysfunctional entity whose confrontation-oriented worldview drives it to solve all of its perceived or real problems through confrontation only, nothing is. Thus, the Isaias regime’s excursion into easily identifiable form of terrorism (identifiable by the world body) is simply a logical extension of its confrontational past.

The relevance factor

The tragedy of the last 18 years in the history of the young nation Eritrea can be couched as a result of its leader’s (and the organization he leads) quest for relevance. But this is not your normal kind of relevance, where a nation seeks its natural place among a family of nations.

Isaias has a super-size ego that cannot be accommodated by the tiny nation that he rules. Eritrea is neither big enough nor rich enough to play the kind of disproportionate role it is made to play in the region. Much of the chaos in the region can be traced to this foolish leader’s quixotic effort to remain more relevant than Melles of Ethiopia and Beshir of Sudan in the region. But this is not simply in the nature of the leader only but also in the nature of the arrogant organization that he leads and in the inflated sense of importance instilled in the nation itself.

Shaebia always believed that it was the senior member of its alliance with TPLF. That might have been true at one time, but the moment the TPLF consolidated its power as the indisputable leader of Ethiopia, the balance of power irretrievably shifted towards the latter. The problems that came thereafter can be traced to the simple fact that Shaebia and its leader never came to terms with this indisputable fact. The border conflict is a direct result of this misperception, where Shaebia foolishly thought that it could prevail against a nation twenty times its population. It never understood that it is the relevance of Ethiopia that made TPLF and its leader Melles relevant and not the other way round. Its sense of supremacy, its exaggerated sense of grandeur instilled in it through years of ghedli lies, myths, revisionist history and indoctrination, has made it impossible for it to see such an impeding disaster of huge proportions. [For excellent accounts on Shaebia’s misconstrued sense of invincibility, look at Tekeste Negash’s “The Dilemma of Eritrean Identity and its Future Trajectories” and Zekre Lebona’s “Revisiting the Orthodoxy ‘Against All Odds’” – both to be found in delina.org]

The only good thing about Isaias is that he has never been a nationalist, but armed with his super-size ego this quality turns into a disaster for its ambition recognizes no borders. The problem with Isaias is that once he put himself in the nationalist straight jacket called “Eritrea”, he never managed to disentangle himself from it. He (and ghedli) needed to instill ultra-nationalism in his followers to be where he is now. Once he reached the goal of independence, that very ultra-nationalism became a hindrance to his insatiable ambition to be the most relevant leader in the neighborhood. There was no way that his army would be willing to march to Addis-Ababa and put him on the Abyssinian throne. Instead, he had to look enviously as Melles’ army did exactly what he wanted to do. At that particular moment, he must have cursed the “narrow nationalism” of the Eritrean people for denying him what he considered was within his reach.

But that doesn’t mean that Isaias totally gave up on his ambition. In fact, the trauma the young nation has been undergoing can be explained as a result of seismic efforts of its leader to come out of the nationalist straight jacket that his people have put him in. First, he was flirting with the idea of confederation with the belief that that would give him a noncontroversial and “peaceful” means to escape this straightjacket. And then there was that wild hope that TPLF won’t ever make it in Ethiopia without his support, a condition that he thought he could exploit permanently. After the border war, all such hopes were dashed. Since then, his various misadventures in the neighborhood can be explained as a desperate attempt to get out of that straightjacket. So it goes both ways: not only do his people think that they are victimized by him, he also thinks that he is victimized by them. Both created their own monsters: Isaias (and ghedli) created one of the most nationalist people on earth, and the people created a monster too big to be tethered within the confines of the nation.

Any pragmatic leader would have realized that there is no way on earth that the West would replace Eritrea for Ethiopia, or even hold it in parity, as the most relevant nation in that neighborhood. Real politics dictates that the leader of a small nation such as Eritrea ought to take such reality as given and work around it. But don’t tell that to our Grand Fool who has been fighting the US, EU, AU and UN for not prioritizing his concerns. He then turned into terrorism to show the world what he could do when he was ignored like that – the only way he could make himself relevant. This is especially the case where the US interests are involved in the region. By playing the spoiler, he is telling the US: you cannot make it without me playing the determining role. This is true in Somalia as it has been in Darfur.

Pragmatics after the fact

At times of crisis, it is this well established confrontational behavior, and the hubris that goes along with it, that collides head on against the pragmatism we are attributing to Shaebia, however vulgar that may be. The border war is a case in point, where Shaebia two primordial drives – the drive to stay the most relevant entity in the neighborhood and the drive to solve anything along confrontational lines – overwhelmed its vulgar pragmatism.

Shaebia’s pragmatism has no inbuilt mechanism that warns it of impeding disaster. Its corrective mechanism works only after the fact; the only time it becomes aware of danger is when it is in the midst of it. Given its gigantic hubris, it doesn’t allow itself any margin of error in whatever it does. It lacks eyes that warn it of an impeding wall ahead of it; the only way it would come to know about it is by bashing its head on it. The history of its mieda past is full of such wailing walls. That is why Shaebia’s history is a history of repeatedly coming back from the edge of disasters. And this phenomenon, instead of instilling caution in its behavior, has created a false sense of invincibility. The belief that it would eventually come out of any danger triumphant is the primary stuff out of which the true believers’ “Book of Miracles” is made.

The border war is a good example where Shaebia was able to return from the brink of abyss only after it bashed its head on the wall; its arrogance had made it impossible for it to see the disaster that it was heading to. This is especially true when Shaebia (or its leader) believes that it is losing ground on the relevance factor, something that strikes at the core of what it perceives itself to be. Short of giving up its identity – that is, short of its death – there is no remedy to it.

All of this might make it seem that Shaebia was going against its survival instinct, but this comes from a wrong reading of what transpires at one level only. What seems total insanity at one level makes sense at a different level. The border war is a perfect example where what is suicidal for Eritrea at one level is a rare opportunity for Shaebia to be reborn again [more on this below]. True enough, this could eventually lead to mutual suicide, but by then Shaebia would have lived a “full” life; it would have stretched its lifespan to the longest possible – the aspiration of any living organism.

Isaias’ relevance and the border war

The border war was a necessity for Isaias and Shaebia for two reasons: it was the only means for them to stay relevant not only in the region, but also within Eritrea.

The border crisis between Eritrea and Ethiopia started at the very moment Isaias sensed that the balance of power was irretrievably shifting towards Melles. The moment the Melles government was confident enough to pursue its own agenda, irrespective of whether it comports with that of the Eritrean government or not, Isaias sensed that he was losing control in a turf that he thought to be his own until then. Isaias started the border war not because of any border grievances but because he felt it was the only way to curb Melles’ progress and regain the momentum that he was losing. The war was meant to teach Melles a lesson so that he would come back to his senses and let Isaias be Isaias – the most prominent leader in the neighborhood.

And there is no doubt that the legendary Shaebia’s hubris did play a great role in the war. This was a protracted war that lasted two years; and, in between, there were many opportunities that came along Isaias’ way to avert another disaster. But every time such an opportunity came, the tyrant couldn’t bring himself to take the safest way out simply because his gigantic sized pride wouldn’t let him, even as he knew that it was leading into an eventual disaster. The idea that he has to given in to Melles, someone whom he always thought as his junior partner, was impossible to swallow.

It has also to be noted that it is only with the war that Isaias has been able to extend his rule in Eritrea indefinitely. Although he was always seeking ways of skirting or manipulating the democratic process since the day he entered Asmara, it was only with the war that he was able to do that with resounding success. Isaias is not a person that can live with democratic “competition”, with all its unpredictability and power constraints – the constitution, elections, term limits, parliamentary constraints, journalistic watchdogs, independent judiciary, etc. He has been very consistent in that he has been eliminating the slightest bit of competition throughout his 20 years in mieda as a leader of Shaebia. The only difference now is that he needed a crisis to recreate the mieda environment where no such competition would be tolerated. That is to say, he was able to make himself the only relevant leader that matters in Eritrea through the war. Short of the war, there is no way he could have openly said he would rule the nation for decades to come in a public medium and get away with it.

If the above is true, it explains why finding a solution to the border crisis has been next to impossible: any peaceful solution to the border crisis would leave Isaias “disadvantaged” when it comes to the relevance factor – both in the region and within Eritrea. So for Isaias, short of the collapse of the Melles government, there is nothing that can redress this imbalance. That explains why he has fully embarked on the destruction of the Melles government through the only means available to him now - terrorism; anything that leaves him in a weaker position in the region or in Eritrea would be unthinkable. Thus the hubris that gave birth to the Eritrean nation is the very hubris that is now militating to its undoing.

But it is when it comes to Shaebia, rather than Isaias, that the relevance factor as it is applied within the nation gets real interesting.

Shaebia’s relevance and the border war

For Shaebia to stay relevant, it was necessary not only that it remain distinct from the nation body as a separate entity long after its mission was accomplished, but also that it compete with the nation for survival. This is what I wrote in “Romanticizing Ghedli”:

“The current existential predicament of Eritrea can be traced to one single fact: Shaebia’s primordial quest for self-preservation at any cost; that is, its relentless attempt to stretch its lifespan beyond necessity, in the absence of any justifiable cause. If the end result of the struggle is liberation, then attaining that objective ought to have brought ghedli in all its manifestations to an end; Shaebia ought to have dissolved itself and completely merged into the civilian society. Contrary to this sensible resolution though, its preservation has become an end objective of the current game, displacing the original one, that of the preservation of the nation’s freedom. This relentless quest for self-preservation at any cost has now reached its climax, where Shaebia is at a deathbed struggle to out-survive Eritrea (odd as that may seem); obviously with suicide as its end point.”

The peaceful environment of the after-independence though was hostile to Shaebia; however hard it tried, its ghedli culture was finding no resonance among the civilian population. By the late 90’s, Shaebia was having a full blown existential crisis:

“For Shaebia, the years soon after independence were the years of existential angst. The cause for which it had existed was no more available. Thus, it was faced with two stark choices: either it had to totally give up its quest for self-preservation as a distinct entity and meld into the civilian culture, or it had to force the society to adopt its mieda culture; it realized there was no way that the two could have parallel existence – it was either one or the other. But the problem for Shaebia was that the peaceful context of the after-independence-Eritrea was not conducive for the culture of martyrdom to flourish. To mold a society on an ideology based on sacrifice, one needs an ever-deferrable cause in the form of an enemy that would be made never to leave the scene. It was soon to find that role being played by its old archenemy – Ethiopia – and consequently, by ‘enemies’ from within too.”

After a number of false starts, it was with the border war with Ethiopia that it found the perfect environment to recreate its old mieda self:

“When Shaebia initiated war against Ethiopia, it was primarily driven by its quest for self-preservation. Remember that this was not the first time that it was actively seeking enemies; it was only that it was the first time to succeed in doing that. The fact that the others refused to take the bait (Yemen's leader was remarkable in doing that) does in no way erase Shaebia’s track of record in its relentless effort to find an enemy to justify its existence as a distinct entity. Another way of looking at this phenomenon is to see how it has used the border war as a rare opportunity not to be passed by, the same way Jebha did with the Falul uprising, to reassert its old identity. This is what I wrote before on this subject matter:

“’That is why recreating the ghedli environment, wherein such an experimentation would be freely and excessively conducted, became an obsession of this generation [the Isaias/Yikealo generation]. The beginning of this sinister task was Sawa, one that eventually culminated into war with Ethiopia. This war was not only willed into existence by Isaias, it was also happily embraced by his generation for providing it the perfect context it had been desperately seeking for to recreate the mieda experience into which it wanted to initiate a whole new generation. The extended military service which the Warsai have been subjected to for the last ten years is not so much a military necessity as it is a conducive environment for this sinister undertaking. …’”

True enough, this drive for survival at the cost of Eritrea itself is in the end suicidal, for Shaebia’s existence is parasitic on Eritrea’s existence. By the time it will bring Eritrea to destruction though, it will have lived the longest life possible. The war has to be seen within this context, as a means for Shaebia to extend its life beyond necessity:

“Shaebia is not only emptying the land of its new generation, it is also hollowing out all the rest of insides of the nation. Like a voracious parasite, it is devouring its youth, its economy, its security, its institutions, its humanity, its religion, its culture, etc. – anything and everything that makes the nation. In the meantime, in its quest for self-preservation, it is living off the nation as any other parasite that lives off its host does. All that it knows is that it has to voraciously eat its host (Eritrea) from inside. The fact that the very body on which it is living off is eventually going to die as a result of the hollowing out done from inside is something that the parasite cannot bring itself to contemplate, for there is no other alternative to its means of survival. So Shaebia is doing what it does because there is no other way for it to exist else than through what it is doing right now, even as this will eventually lead it to suicide. It is as simple as that. The question for us is: how do we deal with this parasite before it kills the nation?”

For Shaebia then, as it was with Isaias, a war environment was necessary for them to stay relevant not only in the region at large but also within Eritrea, and they succeeded in bringing such an environment with the border war after many failed attempts to do just that with Sudan, Yemen and Djibouti. Only a thoroughly terrorist organization would go to such a length simply to stay relevant. All the terrorism that it is conducting now is simply an extension of that war strategy meant to extend its lifespan. The fact that it is conducting its war of survival outside of Eritrea shouldn’t be confused for a different kind; it is the logical extension of the war it is conducting against its own people inside Eritrea and the border war against Ethiopia. Thus, anyone who advises Shaebia to do otherwise is asking it to shorten its lifespan for the sake of Eritrea and the region, something that it will never bring itself to doing, for self-preservation is precisely what motivated it to initiate the border war and all the other terrorist excursions in the neighborhood in the first place.


When the US, EU, AU, UN and other forces look at the profile of Isaias (and the nation that he leads), it doesn’t easily fit with the kind of terrorist profile that has emerged after 9/11. As a result, the West has treated him as a prodigal son who has lost his ways but who will nevertheless come back to his senses if only the right approach is being used. But neither the EU’s “constructive dialog” nor the US’ endless warnings have produced the desired result. Both are getting it wrong simply because they have paid little attention to the internal variables that is motivating the Eritrean leader, and the organization that he leads, to do what he is doing.

The idea that somehow Eritrea is driven into terrorism because of the border crisis and, hence, is corrigible comes mainly from not factoring in the relevance variable. Any solution to the border crisis that would leave Isaias and Shaebia at weaker position, both abroad and inside the country, would be unthinkable. The only way Isaias would be willing to cooperate with the US in its war against terrorism is for it to drop Melles and replace him as the most relevant leader in the region – utterly foolish as this request may seem.

The West should also pay enough attention to the dysfunctional nature of the Shaebia/PFDJ. It is not for nothing that one’s criminal records are always brought up in matters of importance, be it in court or in employment. Its confrontational past has been so consistent, and without exception, for the last four decades that it ought to be as good as anything in predicting its behavior in the future. Shaebia is like a hardened criminal who gets in and out of prison for the rest of his lifetime because he doesn’t know anything better. Its incompetence has left it with no alternative but to resort back, again and again, to the only means it is familiar with: pure coercion. Like the hardened criminal impossible to learn constructive coping mechanisms, Shaebia cannot be rehabilitated into the civilized world.

And, last, its vulgar pragmatism has made it possible for the nihilist, principle-less Shaebia to side with “the coalition of the willing” at one time and with Al Qaida affiliates at another time without any qualms whatsoever. The only thing that matters to it is its survival, and if that means that the whole neighborhood would go up in smoke or that the very nation it pretends to serve would go down the drain, so be it would be its nonchalant reaction.

Given the above, there shouldn’t be any doubt that this is an organization beyond redemption, and it should be treated as such – hence the necessity of sanctions.

Isaias is known to relent only when he sees the noose tightening around his neck. It took the Ethiopian army to march deep into Eritrea for him to accept the Algiers agreement. And, recently, it took a stern warning from Secretary Clinton form him to go mute on his vitriolic on the US. But the moment the US’ eyes are taken off him, even briefly, he quickly reverts back to his old self. Deep down, he believes that he will eventually outwit even the US. Now, he is waiting for revenues from the numerous mines to pour into his coffers to anoint himself as Hugo Chavez of the region. If Eritrea has been causing so much mischief in the region while it remains dirty poor, imagine what it will do with gold in its hands – hence the necessity of sanctions.

The other option would be war. I don’t think Ethiopia will stand by with its hands folded as the Isaias regime sets a new arms race in the region by spending all its revenue on sophisticated military gadgets and by sponsoring all kinds of armed dissidents. So there is an additional reason for supporting sanctions against the Isaias regime: it might be the only means left in our arsenal to avert a full-blown war and bring about the kind of change that we want. This reminder holds true with the US, EU and UN as it is with the opposition in Diaspora.

[Part II will deal with the remaining three internal variables, with focus on how Eritrea’s external terrorism is inextricably tied to domestic terrorism. And Part III will deal with the West’s response to Eritrea’s terrorism, with a special focus on the US-Eritrean relationship as it went through various phases.]


Yosief Ghebrehiwet

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