The Cable

Ethiopia’s Anti-Extremist Policies Could Put It in Militants’ Crosshairs

The United States has long touted Ethiopia as an important ally in East African peacekeeping. But Sunday's execution of 30 Ethiopians in Libya could put new pressure on the young democracy to step up in the fight against the Islamic State.

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The United States for years has praised Ethiopia’s fight against terrorism in East Africa, but that hard-line approach to extreme Islamism may have contributed to the bloody execution of dozens of Ethiopian Christians who were targeted by the Islamic State in Libya.

Addis Ababa has been long consumed with a bigger threat on their borders — against the militant group al-Shabab in neighboring Somalia. The slaughter of two groups of Christians, in Libya likely seeking work or passage to Europe, newly confronts Ethiopia with the world’s fastest-spreading insurgency.

Militants in Libya claiming affiliation with the Islamic extremists documented the brutal killings of two groups of Ethiopian Christian men, whom they accuse of belonging to “the hostile Ethiopian Orthodox Church.” Men in one group, clad in orange jumpsuits on the beach, were beheaded. Others, dressed entirely in black, were lined up and shot.

On Monday, J. Peter Pham, the director of the Africa Center at the Atlantic Council think tank in Washington, told Foreign Policy that Ethiopia’s involvement in the fight against al-Shabab and other local extremist groups could make Ethiopians an attractive target for the Islamic State.

“The Ethiopian government in the last few years has taken a much stronger line against political Islamism in their own country,” Pham said. “The Ethiopian government acting against jihadists in the horn of Africa and in their own country to repress acts of political Islamism in jihadist circles makes them an attractive target for extremist groups.”

A State Department official told FP Monday that despite broad cooperation between the United States and Ethiopia on anti-terrorism initiatives, there is currently no collaboration between the two governments on a specifically anti-Islamic State program. The State Department’s focus in Ethiopia has landed more heavily on countering al-Shabab, the extremist group responsible for attacks in Somalia and Kenya. The United States has provided equipment, training, and technical support to help counter the group and maintain peace in the region.

“Ethiopia is an important partner in regional-led efforts to counter terrorist group al-Shabab and bring stability to Somalia,” said the official, who refused to be identified by name in this story, following department guidelines. “Ethiopia is contributing over 4,400 personnel deployed as part of the AU [African Union] mission in Somalia.”

The execution is just the most recent example of the Islamic State targeting Christians in its campaign to implement its extreme version of Sharia law in the areas it occupies or controls. In Iraq and Syria, the group has destroyed Christian communities and historical sites. The militants claim they offer Christians the opportunity to convert to Islam or pay a tax to continue practicing Christianity unharmed.

The Islamic State also has repeatedly targeted Shiite Muslims, secular Sunnis, and Iraq’s minority Yazidi population.

This group’s murders mirrored the beheadings of a group of Egyptian Coptic Christians on a Libyan beach in February, and the video even features the same English-speaking militant who narrated that execution. The Egyptian government launched airstrikes just hours after that video’s release.

The Ethiopian government, however, has not yet announced any kind of retaliatory strike, and the Ethiopian embassy in Washington did not immediately return a request for comment. Just four weeks out from a general election, Pham said it is unlikely the ruling party, which is vying for reelection, would launch any military effort that could be seen as controversial by many Ethiopians hoping not to get involved in an international conflict.

But the government did declare three days of mourning Monday, and said lawmakers will use that time to deliberate a response to the killings.

In a press briefing Monday, White House spokesman Josh Earnest maintained the U.S. focus on stopping the spread of Islamic State-related attacks throughout the region. “That these terrorists killed these men solely because of their faith points to the terrorists’ vicious, senseless brutality,” Earnest said.

Earnest noted some claims of affiliation with the Islamic State may lack validity. But he also said the possibility of extremists’ expansion into Libya should be taken seriously — and is a major reason President Barack Obama is focused on eliminating the Islamic State at its roots in Iraq and Syria.

Obama remains focused on curbing the Islamic State, and will “not allow it to continue to spread across the region in a way that it could further destabilize an already volatile region of the world,” Earnest said.

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