The Long Game of the Saudis and Ethiopia By Medhane Tadesse

The Saudis have been radicalizing the hinterland and are now militarizing the borderlands i.e. the Red Sea and the rest of it. The only difference this time around is the unambiguous projection of hard power. As is usually the case I was asked to give a presentation on Jihadist movements in Africa. Seeing statements such as the new Saudi threat to Ethiopia or the Horn of Africa by regional observers gave me an abrupt comeback to the same urgings I have been making for more than a decade about what I call as Corporate Radicalization, that is Saudi Arabia and the threat it poses to the region. It also gave me a rush of intense memories and emotions, for it was here that I spent the last fifteen years. So, this presentation, though provoked by a talk I recently gave at a forum provided by Wilton Park and African Leadership Centre might look very personal. 

It is both thrilling and discomforting that the same people who used to berate me for outlandish scenarios on the Saudi agenda on Ethiopia and the Horn are now, more than a decade and half later expressing their worries about the same threat.To bring the issue to an end it is suffice to say that the Saudis have been radicalizing the hinterland with liberty and are now militarizing the borderlands i.e. the Red Sea and the rest of it. The only difference this time around is the unambiguous projection of hard power. This came as a result of several but interrelated factors. First is the new kind of rivalry for regional power order in the Middle East. The Saudi military expansion that took place over the past five years is unprecedented and Riyadh is ready to use most of it in the regional game.

The much talked about Saudi-Egyptian blitz is part of the new regional game which goes beyond the Sunni-Shia rivalry. The dynamic within the Sunni Arab world is a major piece of a new kind of regional competition. In my piece ‘Qatar and the Horn’ and ‘Eastern Africa and the Yemeni Civil War’ I hinted about the emergence of rival Sunni camps and their potential impact in complicating peace and security in the Horn. The Muslim brotherhood movements themselves have become flashpoints of regional rivalry for power and influence.

The penchant for conflict and cooperation between the Riyadh-UAE and Qatar-Turkey Sunni camps should not disguise the intensity of Islamic radicalization in the Horn of Africa. In fact, the semblance of competitiveness has heightened radicalization and violent extremism in the Horn of Africa and beyond; from Somalia to Mali and Libya. It is not by accident that the political and military groups with the strongest balance sheet in today’s Somalia are Islamists. The geo-strategic trickledown effect is correspondingly harmful. Many countries around the region have been pulled into the orbit of Riyadh,due to survival or mundane strategic considerations. Along the way many including Egypt has fast depreciated into acting like the foster child of the Saudis altering regional alliances including the destruction of the Sa’na Forum.

Medhane Tadesse[i]
Radicalization and Violent Extremism in Africa

Radicalization and violent extremism are not new to Africa, but have evolved over the last two decade in more significant ways. This is not just a reflection of jihadist group’s recent inventiveness and adaptation, but the culmination of longer-term historical and global trends. It has continued to spread building both on economic decline, moral populism, international connectedness and classic vulnerabilities of the state. Indeed, it is among these variables that the deeper and enduring sources of violent extremism and its solutions can be located.

There are vast regions of Africa where regular state administration has been suspended or violently challenged, sometimes for long periods. Many parts of the continent continue to be attractive to international and local jihadist groups, which could become parasitic on local armed conflicts, seizing upon ideological dimensions to local grievances. As much as there has been an internal fertile ground for radicalization, the ideological roots and financial backing of violent extremist groups lie outside the region. To the extent that any policy on radicalization and violent extremism has meant that such problems are overlooked, it is unlikely to achieve its goals and there is a need for a more sophisticated and nuanced approach.

Putting a Tracer on Jihadist movements in Africa.   

  1. a)     Ideological foundations: A dual heritage

Political Islam and the emergence of the Muslim Brotherhood Movements has a peculiar history attached to Hassan al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb . Both heritages have materialized in many parts of Africa: We have jihadist groups adopting a violent and destructive route and radical Islamic movements without an army currently being supported by Turkey and Qatar on the one hand and Saudi Arabia on the other. Many of them are adopting or switching to less destructive trail to capture the state through electoral politics, but for analogous ends. Theirs is a change of tactics due to the security backlash they have suffered in recent years. The difference between the two is like a choice between the bad and awful. A gesture: today’s Muslim Brotherhood Movements are more radical than Hassan al-Banna. Clearly until the late 1960s Egyptian Ulamas and universities had a monopoly over Islamist ideology. In the 1970’s the Saudi began to take over with destructive consequences.

  1. b)    Operational foundations.

The nadir: the Afghan Jihad of the 1980s. The Saudis aided by the Pakistanis shaped the practicalities primed the ground for the practical foundations; thus began Saudi primacy. It was a test of what was to come. The Saudis will dominate the long game: the ideological and cash flow for radical Islamists at the global level. February 1989: Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan and the first Sunni Islamic Revolution in Sudan. Ended the legitimacy of a jihad to expel infidel invaders of a Muslim land. The appearance of Jihadi refugees- Turabi’s Popular Arab Islamic Conference/PAIC/ invited many of them to come to Sudan.

The collapse of the State in Somalia in 1991, the Gulf War in 1991 and the Somali Humanitarian crisis only made matters easy for the new arrivals. The presence of US troops in Muslim land only increased the paranoid and conspiratorial view of Islamists and fed into their narrative. Thus, Moral outrage and populism as a major driver of extremism began to take hold in the Horn of Africa. This greatly impacted on Al Qaida, the Egyptian Islamist Group, and Al-Ittihad Al-Islamia in Somalia.

The Saudis worked hard to match the level of outrage with the large scale expansion of Wahhabi teachings, a violent and puritanical brand of Islam, throughout the Horn of Africa. The result being the mushrooming of violent radical organizations across the continent.

Drivers of radicalization and violent extremism

Clear and comprehensive understanding of the drivers of radicalization and violent extremism helps to design strategies to overcome the challenge.

Ideologically or grievance-driven?

  1. a)    Classic vulnerabilities of the state

Over the course of recent history, violent extremism and terrorism has been consistently tied to the evolving politics and identity of the state, steadily gaining in its capacity to draw power from the Western nation-state and moving from a peripheral nuisance to a central strategic threat.

Radicalization has continued to spread building both on the economic decline, violent conflicts and lack of strong and legitimate states. It happens fast when the entitlements of citizenship are not extended throughout a population or when the state is not the primary actor mobilizing to provide public goods. The central challenge for Africa is to build accountable, capable governments that can deliver security and inclusive growth.

Recently, a new type of Jihadist groups has been gathering ranks and momentum in Africa. Violent extremism draws its strength, and even in some sense its guidance and inspiration from the flaws of the contemporary (and broadly from the 20th century nation) African state. It is a truism that violent extremist groups are pre-modern and post-modern, sub-national and transnational, and transcend the Westphalian state system.

The problems of contemporary African state include:

–           The historicity of the state: Its nature, character and composition.

–           Deep roots in the social and economic marginalization of a large section. As such the essence of radicalization – and to some extent violent extremism – is political (e.g. Boko Haram).-

–           The collapse of the state (Somalia). Central to this is states and territories for organizing security, and governments that lack authority and legitimacy. Meanwhile, in the security vacuum, Islamist groups once repressed or marginalized gain traction (e.g. Libya, Mali).

–           Conflict and criminality: Susceptibility to international terrorist and criminal networks. The crisis in Libya and in Mali has been three pronged: political failure of the political elite in Bamako, aspirations of Tuaregs and expansionist agendas of the Al-Qaida allied AQIM.

–           Ungoverned spaces: There are vast regions in Africa where regular state administration has been suspended or violently challenged, sometimes for long periods. This often intersects with marginalized regions characterized by deep-seated horizontal inequalities, ethnically or religiously polarized identities.

–           Armaments: the most obvious legacy of former or nearby conflicts is weaponry (the role of the AK 47 in general and the fall of Gadhafi in particular. An arms bazaar?)

There is similar cause to most radical groups (difficult enough to generalize about) than there is for other forms of political opposition.

Violent extremism, like other forms of political violence, arises out of the beliefs and aspirations of communities and must be analyzed within a social and political context.

But Grievances are necessary but not sufficient ingredients for radicalization and violent extremism.

  1. B)     International connectedness

As much as there has been an internal fertile ground for extremism, the ideological roots and financial backing of militant Islamic groups lie outside the region. This could be explained in terms of the religious bazaar, ideological mutuality and moral outrage.

The Radicalization bazaar:   Egyptian; then Sudanese and lately Saudi Arabia as major sponsors of money and ideas. In late 1980’s the National Islamic Front/NIF/ in Sudan-which was formerly known as Muslim Brotherhood successfully engineered a military takeover of power, henceforth embarking on a region-wide Islamisation project? This was done through scholarships, money and NGOs on the ground.

Since 2002 I have been warning about the thoughtful and stealth Saudi menace, what I referred to as the Long Game to radical radicalize Africa, particularly the Horn of African region. As much as this is global, it has become lethal in the Horn of Africa due to the existence of an Islamist infrastructure provided by the first Sunni Islamic Revolution in Sudan. Since the late 1970s Kenya’s madrassas have been dominated by wealthy Wahhabi charities and foundations. Inadvertently Ethiopia opened its floodgates to Wahhabi’s after 1991. By providing social services for the region’s poor, establishing madrassas, and evangelizing via firebrand preachers, Wahhabi leaders have galvanized support and converted many to their cause. This refers to the Wahabbist Puritanism—a form of fundamentalist Islam which originated in Saudi Arabia which attempted to become internationalist Islam. In the first years of this century the Saudi have come closer to alter the age-old religious equilibrium in Ethiopia. Eritrea was spared due to the heavy handed and timely crackdown on Islamic (Wahhabi) charities but the firebrands from the Gulf have adjusted themselves to the situation and made a geo-strategic choice to prompt the Eritrean regime from above. Here we are now.

Ideological Mutuality: Political Islam has morphed into number of movements and brands which became blended with the nature of rivalry among states in the Middle East. However there is a remarkable sense of mutuality among the different sponsors of the various variants of radical Islam: Egyptian and Sudanese Muslim Brotherhoods, Wahhabist Puritanism, Islamist Social movements such as Al-Islah and al-Tabliq in Somalia and Djibouti. The penchant for conflict and cooperation among the different movements exist. All intensified the sense of Muslim moral outrage.

Moral outrage: This is concerned with the moral outrage of Muslims and its attendant moral populism. The global context is extremely relevant as exogenous factors are very crucial to understanding the origins as well as resolving the problems of radicalization and violent extremism in many parts of Africa. These include developments in Iraq, Somalia, Afghanistan, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

For many young Muslims, the sense of moral outrage is often the start of a process. The outrage has to fit into the nature of the state, international connectedness, the presence of a radical Islamist infrastructure. For that to happen, the domestic situation must provide the enabling environment (listed above) for radicalization. That is why it becomes more difficult to distinguish between ideologically or grievance-driven.

Countering Violent Extremism: Prospective Solutions: 

One cannot expect a solution, immediate, splendid and decisive such as that obtained in other areas of conflict resolution.

On the State:

Meeting the current threat can best be accomplished by enhancing the capacities of the African state, thereby diminishing its susceptibilities to radicalization and violent non-state actors and reducing the longer-term threat to violent extremism. Radicalization appeals to Muslims because it resonates with their personal experiences of discrimination and economic exclusion.

The struggle first and foremost is about legitimacy. On the religious/radicalization workshop. The ‘Radicalization Central’, Saudi Arabia, has managed to outspend everybody on this radicalization workshop. This has to be changed which entails a multi-pronged approach: Diplomatic, political, financial etc.

Africa needs to elevate the Saudi menace to the top of its security agenda and galvanize regional instruments and mechanisms towards disabling this existential threat.There is a need to align with global initiatives. It also requires political reform in Saudi Arabia: curbing radical Wahabbism, regulation of Islamic charities etc.

However the real battle involves an offer to challenge Islamic philantropism and secularize social services, including education. African countries with large Muslim populations need to contain the flow of students to Egypt and Saudi Arabia for Islamic education. Providing scholarships to young and disillusioned students has been a major weapon of radicalizations and this need to be discontinued by providing such services and opportunities within national borders. Capacities for this must be a priority for bilateral and regional cooperation.

On the classic vulnerabilities of Violent Extremist groups

At the core of the strategy to countering radicalization and violent extremism is an understanding of the nature of its appeal and its classic vulnerabilities, thereby diminishing its adverse impact on the evolution of the state and the international system. In this regard we seem to have reached a learning curve.

At the core is about mobilization and legitimacy. It is also about caution and complexity. Transition from terrorism to insurgency creates its own vulnerabilities that can be exploited by states and international organizations/players.

–          Avoid sweeping generalizations.

–          Focus on transitions and strategic vulnerabilities.

–          Don’t respond in a foolish way

–          Embrace Containment

–          Allow them a Sabbatical to govern

–          Focus on the violent nature of these groups and avoid doctrinaire fights.

–          Diminish the moral outrage and reduce moral populism



The presentation largely profited from the previous works by the same author, which include, the following:

Medhane Tadesse Al-Ittihad: Political Islam and Black economy in Somalia: Religion,

Clan and Money and the Struggle for Supremacy over Somalia

Mega Publishers, Addis Ababa. Ethiopia.2003.

————————-“Religion, Peace and the Future of Ethiopia”. Presentation at a Conference On “Federalism, Conflict and

Peace Building in Ethiopia”.GTZ.Addis Ababa, May2003

————————- Sharia Courts and Military Politics in Stateless Somalia. In Hot Spots Horn

of Africa Revisited: Approaches to Make Sense of Conflict.

Transaction Publishers LIT VERLAG, Berlin 2008.

————————- “The War on terror and Security Sector Reform in the Horn of Africa”.

In developing an SSR Strategy for Africa. Kampala, Uganda. June 2006.

—————————Beyond AQIM: Radicalization in the Sahel. Presentation at African Security

Symposium, Marrakech, Morocco. February 8, 2010.

————————– The Political Economy of Radicalization and Terrorism in Africa. Key Note Address- African

Center for Strategic Studies/ACSS/. April 11, 2011.Dakar, Senegal.

————————— Preventing Youth Radicalization in East Africa.Presentation at ACSS Conference.

23 January 2012, Kigali, Rwanda.

————————– Violent Extremism in Eastern Africa. A Speech to UK Parliamentary

Committee. October 29, 2012. At the British Parliament. London.

The Muslim Brotherhood in the Wider Horn of Africa: NIBR Report 2009:33. Norwegian

Institute for Urban and Regional Research/NIBR/. December 2009.

Political Economy of the Sahel: Research and Training Programme in the Sahel 2014-2015

Capturing Results. Netherlands Institute of International

Relations/Clingendael/. 2015.



[i] Medhane Tadesse is a Visiting Professor at Kings College, London and Senior Security Sector Reform/SSR/ Advisor to the African Union.

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