In the last 10 days, a number of key international gatherings have taken place. The trilateral summit between Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran was held last week in Islamabad. The conference on Somalia was organized in London, which also provided an important opportunity for the Clinton-Khar meeting last Thursday. On the other hand, ‘Friends of Syria’ met in Tunisia on Friday. In addition to the complex Afghan reconciliation and volatile Iran and Syria situation, the Horn of Africa has clearly emerged as another hot spot, impacting the events of Middle East and North Africa.
Yemen And Horn of Africa
The Horn of Africa is in the limelight recently for several reasons. The surrounding waters are a hotbed of piracy and every major power has naval presence there to protect the busy commercial sea routes that pass through Suez Canal. Located to the north of Somalia, just across the Gulf of Aden, is Yemen, another trouble spot. In addition to the AfPak, the region has become another serious extremist hub.
Over the years, as pressure from US drones and Pakistan military operations on tribal areas mounted, Somalia and Yemen became the ‘go to’ safe havens for the extremists. This, in turn, produced serious implications for Middle East and Saudi Arabia, which most certainly did not want to find itself in the same situation as Pakistan: having to face a potentially dangerous combination of regional rivalries and the terrorist threat.
In August 2009, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) had attempted to assassinate the Saudi Deputy Interior Minister, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, in the Red Sea port city of Jeddah. It was later found that the assailant had crossed over from Yemen and had connections with the tribal areas of Pakistan. The country later arrested and handed over two suspects to Saudi Arabia.
Subsequently, the Saudi’s carried out a number of operations along the Saudi-Yemen border region. Just as the Afghanistan war has spilled over into tribal areas and mainland Pakistan, the Yemeni proxy conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia had the potential to cross the border while also exacerbating Shiite-Sunni tensions in the region. When one considers the present fragile state of ethnic and religious balance in Iraq, it has been a frightening scenario for the Sunni Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) nations.
Therefore, US, GCC, and especially the Saudis and Egyptians, augmented their support for the Yemeni government’s counterinsurgency efforts, fighting al-Houthi Shiite rebels in the country’s remote mountainous north. However, this was the situation before the Arab Spring brook out and fundamentally altered the political and security landscape. In March 2011, Saudi led GCC forces went into Bahrain to contain the troubles there.
Situation In Somalia
Towards the south of Gulf of Aden lies Somalia. A UN back Transitional Federal Government (TFG) in Mogadishu is being supported by troops from the African Union, Kenya, and Ethiopia, to carry the fight against extremists. A serious development occurred there in early February when Al-Shabab released a joint video with Al-Qaeda, pledging obedience to Ayman al-Zawahiri. The announcement of the merger has come at a time when Al-Shabab was considered to be under pressure. Many analysts believe that the merger could change the nature of the conflict in Somalia. In this context, the London conference on Somalia took place at a key time.
At the London conference, David Cameron has announced that Somalia needs a representative government by the end of August, when the term for TFG ends. Similar to the strategy being applied against Al Qaeda connected groups in Afghanistan; Cameron declared those that part ways with Al-Shabab and violence it propagates, can join the political process. On the other hand, Al-Shabab, which was not invited to the London conference, has warned of ‘an ugly turn of events’ in case of unwanted interference.
Trouble in Somalia has been brewing for a while. In November of last year, Israel had extended its support to Kenya to help the country deal with Somali militants. Israeli President Shimon Peres had said at the time that his country would “make everything available” to the African nation to help it fight against the Al-Qaeda linked terrorists. Analysts, however, had warned that the partnership could increase support for Al-Shabab, which would attempt to gain help by showcasing the deal as anti-Muslim. Israel looks at the stability of Ethiopia as fundamental to a stable Horn of Africa. Moreover, Israel considers checking Saudi and Egyptian influence in Ethiopia beneficial to its interest.
In December 2011, the US Secretary of Defense described Yemen and Somalia as key nodes during his visit to Camp Lemonier in Djibouti, and declared it as the central location for counterterrorism efforts in the region. He added that America is shifting its focus to Africa on its Al Qaeda hunt after the success in FATA. As Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and Al Shabab become active in their ambitions, Panetta vowed that US would track these guys wherever they go.
Djibouti, a former French colony, has a strategic location; it borders Somali, Ethiopia and Eretria and is situated across the Red Sea from Yemen. According to a recent report in The Washington Post, US is building secret drone bases in the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula as part of an aggressive campaign against Al Qaeda in Somalia and Yemen.
It is clear that in addition to Iran and Syria, the Horn of Africa is becoming much more active, with a destabilizing influence on the Middle East and North Africa. The Salafi Jihadists that were earlier forced to leave places like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Sudan for the AfPak, have now returned to haunt the Middle East and Africa. The environment created by the Arab uprisings has produced an especially volatile situation. There is an increasing risk that Al Qaeda and affiliated groups are planning to exploit the chaos in many of the new hot spots.