Eritrea Is a State Sponsor of Terror

Sixteen years ago, the Bush administration considered placing Eritrea on the state sponsor of terrorism list. On its face, the country deserves such status. Alongside North Korea, a formally designated state sponsor, Eritrea is the world’s most totalitarian country

Bad governance and corrupt dictatorships do not alone qualify countries for designation, though. At the time, the U.S. State Department debated whether Eritrea’s support for insurgents in Somalia might qualify the country for the list.

In the end, then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice demurred, but she was wrong.

Eritrea has continued to support terror groups in Somalia, Djibouti, and Ethiopia. Had Rice acted, Eritrean dictator Isaias Afwerki might not have felt so emboldened to destabilize neighboring states.

If anything, Isaias has grown more aggressive. He has armed militias that engage in gross violations rising to the level of terrorism against non-combatants. Two years ago, the U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned Filipos Woldeyohannes, the chief of staff of the Eritrean Defense Forces, for his actions across the international frontier in Tigray.

Perhaps it is time Secretary of State Antony Blinken reconsider Rice’s inaction. The issue is not only symbolic, but also practical. The United States engages in extraterritorial taxation of its citizens. This is a poor policy that leads to double taxation, and it persists largely because the Internal Revenue Service knows that residents abroad have no representative in the House of Representatives or the Senate who can advocate for their interests. The Eritrean situation, however, is not analogous. In contravention of UN Security Council Resolutions, Isaias taxes Eritreans abroad based on ethnicity, even if they renounce Eritrean citizenship. If Eritreans refuse the tax, the Iasias regime collectively punishes family members.

Isaias can enslave his population with unlimited compulsory conscription in order to enrich himself, and he can fund his machinery of terror by extorting money from those who survive the journey to Europe, the Persian Gulf, or North America.

The Biden administration’s track record in Africa is poor. Notwithstanding the occasional high-profile U.S.-Africa Summit, follow-up is nonexistent. President Joe Biden works to rehabilitate Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, a man responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths. Molly Phee, assistant secretary of State for African Affairs, has left a legacy of unnecessary chaos and carnage in Sudan. Neither Blinken nor Congress have held her to account. History will not be kind to the administration’s record on the continent. 

If the State Department were to designate Eritrea a state sponsor of terror, however, Blinken could leave positive change. It would immediately become more difficult for Eritreans in the United States or those aspiring to American citizenship to remit taxes to Eritrea. Many European states would follow suit. While proxies for the Eritrean government might argue, as pro-regime Iranians do, that ordinary Eritreans would suffer, this is wrong for two reasons. First, the cause of suffering is the preservation of the Isaias regime. Second, there is precedent to mitigate shortages of essential medicine and humanitarian goods through specific waivers. 

Decades of countering the diaspora tax through diplomacy and the United Nations have gone nowhere, just as endless diplomatic conferences have failed to achieve justice for Eritreans who deserve so much more. To designate Eritrea a state sponsor of terror might not only tamp down instability in the region, but also drain Isaias of the funds he uses to build totalitarianism at home and sow disorder abroad.

Now a 19FortyFive Contributing Editor, Dr. Michael Rubin is a Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Dr. Rubin is the author, coauthor, and coeditor of several books exploring diplomacy, Iranian history, Arab culture, Kurdish studies, and Shi’ite politics, including “Seven Pillars: What Really Causes Instability in the Middle East?” (AEI Press, 2019); “Kurdistan Rising” (AEI Press, 2016); “Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes” (Encounter Books, 2014); and “Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos” (Palgrave, 2005).

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