As the world watches the governments of the Middle East divide into two competing blocs based on their allegiance to Iran, a similar Iron Curtain is being created in Africa. The Iran-Syria Axis is teaming up with rogue countries like Sudan, Eritrea, and Zimbabwe, and even radical Islamic forces in Somalia. Opposing this Axis is Ethiopia and Djibouti, although many more countries will enlist themselves in either bloc in the years ahead.
The ongoing war in Somalia may be ultimately seen as the first proxy war between these two blocs. A November 2006 United Nations report revealed how several countries were backing different sides in the conflict. Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Eritrea, Libya, and Djibouti were cited as giving aid to the forces of the Islamic Courts Union, a radical organization then affiliated with Al-Qaeda, while Ethiopia, Uganda and Yemen were cited as supporting the forces of the Transitional Federal Government.
According to the U.N. report, in mid-July 2006, Aden Hashi Farah, a leader of the Islamic Courts Union and member of Al-Qaeda, chose 720 Somali militants to join Hezbollah in Lebanon to fight Israeli forces. 200 of these Somalis went to Syria for further training on July 27. By early September 2006, at least 100 of these militants returned to Somalia, accompanied with five Hezbollah operatives, who would train other militants. The rest of Somalis remained in Lebanon to undergo further training. These militants were paid a minimum of $2,000 and up to $30,000 were given to the families of those killed in combat. Hezbollah also arranged for Syria and Iran to deliver weapons to the radical Islamic forces. According to the report, two Iranians remained in Somalia when it was released in November 2006 to try to arrange for the retrieval of uranium in return for their assistance.
The U.N. report also alleges that the Iranians provide the Somali militants with 250 anti-aircraft missiles. An “American intelligence source” confirmed to the Long War Journal that SA-7 Strella and SA-18 Igla missiles were provided, along with the AT-3 Sagger anti-tank missiles often used by Hezbollah in Lebanon. Further substantiation of this came when an Iraqi Shiite tribal leader said on November 18, 2008 “I asked the head of the [Somali] Islamic Courts Union, whom I met in Libya: 'Who supports you?' I expected him to tell me it was Saudi Arabia, but he said: 'No, my brother. Iran supports us, via Hizbullah.'”
Most of the named countries’ predictably rejected these allegations. Andrew McGregor of the Jamestown Foundation described the accuracy of the U.N. report as “doubtful,” and the Council on Foreign Relations has warned that “the report's sources are unclear and doubts have been raised as to the report's credibility.” Regardless of the dispute over the details of the report, which undoubtedly had to rely upon confidential intelligence sources, substantial corroboration exists to support the allegations that Iran has been active in Somalia, and that two competing blocs are emerging in Africa.
Eritrea has denied the allegations in the U.N. report that they had been supporting the radical Islamic militants in Somalia, but an additional U.N. report released in July 2007 said they had secretly provided “huge quantities of arms” possibly including surface-to-air missiles and suicide bomb belts. Eritrea is quickly becoming a member of Iran-led axis, with Iranian President Ahmadinejad visiting the country and saying on May 20, 2008 that the two governments saw no limit to Iranian-Eritrean cooperation. Reports later followed stating that Iranian soldiers and missiles began arriving in Assab, Eritrea in December 2008.
Sudan is another member of pro-Iran bloc in Africa. The Sudanese government has announced its intention to start a nuclear program. In 2006, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei announced his country’s desire to share nuclear technology with other countries in Khartoum. With the revelation from Ali Reza Asghari, the Iranian deputy defense minister who defected in February 2007, that Iran was financing North Korea’s role in Syria’s nuclear weapons program, the location of Khamenei’s announcement is suspect, especially when coupled with the launching of Sudan’s own nuclear program. It is quite probable that Iran is looking to make Sudan a partner in its own nuclear enterprise.
It is unclear how other countries on the continent will react to this new Iron Curtain. Libya, for example, wants U.S. oil contracts, and has made some liberal reforms. On the other hand, Libya has condemned the International Criminal Court’s indictment of Sudanese President Omar Bashir for crimes against humanity and supporting the new military government in Mauritania that came to power through a coup. Mauritania has since suspended its ties with Israel, and according to the head of German intelligence, Al-Qaeda is establishing bases in the country. The U.S. response to the developments in East Africa will likely determine how countries like Libya decide to react to the emerging bloc.
Ultimately, Ethiopian military forces that were supporting the Transitional Federal Government in Somalia completed a precipitous withdrawal on January 26, 2009, allowing the radical Islamic forces to take control of the country. Al-Shabaab, the Al-Qaeda affiliate that acted in tandem with the Islamic Courts Union, has since split from the group. Al-Shabaab currently controls southern Somalia, and Osama Bin Laden has called for the toppling of President Ahmed, the former leader of the Islamic Courts Union. This has caused some media outlets like BBC to describe Ahmed as a “moderate Islamist,” ignoring the fact that Ahmed has implemented Sharia Law and his organization engaged in terrorism and worked with Al-Qaeda in the past. No matter how the West may wish to think the new Somalian government is “moderate,” the fact remains that the recent turn of events in Somalia represents the first victory by the new pro-Iran bloc in East Africa.