NYT | Fifteen people arrested in Ethiopia were part of what American and Israeli officials said was a foiled Iranian plot against diplomats from the United Arab Emirates.
NAIROBI, Kenya — When Ethiopia’s intelligence agency recently uncovered a cell of 15 people it said were casing the embassy of the United Arab Emirates, along with a cache of weapons and explosives, it claimed to have foiled a major attack with the potential to sow havoc in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa.
But the Ethiopians omitted a key detail about the purported plot: who was behind it.
The only clue was the arrest of a 16th person: Accused of being the ringleader, Ahmed Ismail had been picked up in Sweden with the cooperation of friendly “African, Asian and European intelligence services,” the Ethiopians said.
Now American and Israeli officials say the operation was the work of Iran, whose intelligence service activated a sleeper cell in Addis Ababa last fall with orders to gather intelligence also on the embassies of the United States and Israel.
They say the Ethiopian operation was part of a wider drive to seek soft targets in African countries where Iran might avenge painful, high-profile losses such as the death of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, Iran’s top nuclear scientist, said to have been killed by Israel in November, and Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, the Iranian spymaster killed by the United States in Iraq just over one year ago.
Citing Western intelligence sources, Rear Adm. Heidi K. Berg, director of intelligence at the Pentagon’s Africa command, said that Iran was behind the 15 people arrested in Ethiopia and that the “mastermind of this foiled plot,” Mr. Ismail, had been arrested in Sweden.
“Ethiopia and Sweden collaborated on the disruption to the plot,” Admiral Berg said in a statement.
Iran denied the accusations. “These are baseless allegations only provoked by the Zionist regime’s malicious media,” said a spokeswoman for the Iranian Embassy in Addis Ababa. “Neither Ethiopia nor the Emirates said anything about Iranian interference in these issues.”
The United Arab Emirates angered Iran when it normalized relations with Israel in September as part of a series of agreements brokered by the Trump administration in its final months and known as the Abraham Accords.
A spokesman for the Ethiopian police, which named just two of the 15 people arrested, declined to say why Ethiopia did not finger Iran for the plot. Several diplomats said that Ethiopia, as Africa’s diplomatic capital and home to the headquarters of the African Union, tries to avoid getting publicly embroiled in delicate issues involving major powers.
Even so, Ethiopia’s National Intelligence and Security Service said that a second group of plotters had been preparing to hit the Emirati Embassy in Khartoum, Sudan. A Sudanese official confirmed that account.
>>Read more: Ethiopia Thwarts Iranian Plot to Attack UAE Embassy
A senior United States defense official linked the arrests in Ethiopia to a failed Iranian plan to kill the United States ambassador to South Africa, which was reported by Politico in September. The American and Sudanese officials agreed to discuss the matter on condition of anonymity because of its diplomatic and intelligence sensitivity.
Still, much about the Ethiopian arrests and alleged Iranian role remained murky. The Ethiopian police have yet to formally charge the 15 plot suspects, only two of whom have been identified. Israeli officials say that as few as three of them may be actual Iranian operatives, with the others having been caught in the Ethiopian dragnet.
And the arrests in Ethiopia come at a time of heightened political sensitivity in Iran and the United States, as the Biden administration considers its posture toward Tehran and whether to revive the Obama-era nuclear deal with Iran that President Donald J. Trump scrapped in 2018.
Adding to the pressure on President Biden, Iran’s intelligence minister suggested last week that his country might seek to obtain nuclear arms if American sanctions were not lifted soon.
While Admiral Berg confirmed several details about Iran’s role in the Ethiopian arrests, other military and diplomatic officials in Washington declined to discuss it.
In contrast, officials in Israel, whose government is openly hostile to any thaw between Washington and Tehran, highlighted the purported plot as further evidence that Iran cannot be trusted.
For all its efforts, Iran has yet to deliver on its promises of vengeance for its high-profile losses, beyond a missile attack on American forces in Iraq in January 2020, days after General Suleimani was killed.
Any plan to hit the U.A.E., as suggested by the arrests in Ethiopia, would be a curious choice, given its potential to undermine Mr. Biden’s putative nuclear diplomacy with Iran, said Aaron David Miller, a foreign policy expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Other analysts, though, said that the U.A.E. was high on Iran’s list of enemies and that the embassy in Ethiopia might present an unchallenging target at a time when Ethiopia is distracted by a war that has been raging in its northern Tigray region since November.
“Africa is a relatively easy place to operate, and Ethiopia is preoccupied with other issues,” said Bruce Riedel, a former C.I.A. officer now with the Brookings Institution.
The murky episode seemed destined to become the latest in a series of cat-and-mouse episodes between Iranian and Israeli operatives on African soil in recent years.
During the 1990s, Iran enjoyed close ties with Sudan under the autocratic ruler Omar Hassan al-Bashir, and in the next decade it was able to dock its warships in Eritrea.
Israel struck back in 2009 with airstrikes against a convoy of smuggler trucks in Sudan that aimed to stop Iranian-supplied weapons from reaching the Gaza Strip, American officials said.
But Iran’s ties to the Horn of Africa have withered in recent years, and Israeli and Emirati involvement has grown.
The Emirates helped mediate a landmark peace deal between Ethiopia and Eritrea in 2018, and now it is Emirati warships that are docked in Eritrean ports.
In November, following a call between the Ethiopian prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, and Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, a team of Israeli drone pilots arrived in Ethiopia to help eliminate the locusts that have plagued the country’s farmers.
Weeks later, Yossi Cohen, the chief of the Mossad, Israel’s covert intelligence service, met with his Ethiopian counterpart to discuss what they termed “counterterrorism operations.”
Elsewhere in Africa, Israeli intelligence officials say they frequently tip off friendly countries about suspected Iranian activity.
In Kenya, two Iranians arrested in 2012 and charged with possession of 15 kilograms of explosives are now serving 15-year prison sentences. Kenyan officials said the men were members of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps Quds Force. Their lawyers said they had been interrogated by Israeli intelligence while in Kenyan custody.
Four years later, in 2016, Kenya deported two Iranians who had been arrested outside the Israeli Embassy with video footage of the facility. Iran said the men, who had been traveling in an Iranian diplomatic car, were university teachers.
Iranian agents have been suspected in attacks or thwarted attacks in countries including Georgia, Thailand and India. On Feb. 4, a Belgian court stripped an Iranian envoy of his diplomatic status and sentenced him to 20 years in prison for having organized a thwarted bomb attack aimed at an Iranian opposition rally in France in 2018.
That failed plot and another in Denmark prompted the European Union in 2019 to impose sanctions on Iran’s external spy service, the Ministry of Intelligence and Security. Israeli officials say the same agency orchestrated the operation in Ethiopia.
Sofia Hellqvist, a spokeswoman for the Swedish Police Authority, referred questions about the arrest of Mr. Ismail, the alleged ringleader, to the authorities in Ethiopia.
A spokesman for the United Arab Emirates did not respond to a request for comment.
Given the stakes, it was unclear why the Iranians might risk a rapprochement with the Biden administration by mounting an operation now.
Farzin Nadimi, a specialist on the Iranian armed forces with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said Iran may wish to send a message to the Biden administration officials that “unless they reach a deal with Iran quickly this is what they get: a dangerous neighborhood.”
African Report | Communication technology is a double-edged sword. It can empower people to access and share information globally, or be used as an instrument of political and economic control. While hopes were raised by the Arab Spring a decade ago, the years since have seen multiple internet blackouts in many African countries.
In the past ten years, the practice of jamming cyber communication has become a new tool by certain nations and governments.
Perhaps the most famous example of all is Egypt during the Arab Spring in 2011. For five days, the Egyptian government shut down all internet communication, to disrupt the 2011 protests.
Eventually, this cost the Egyptian economy $90m, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Had the blackout gone for a whole year, it would have put a dent in Egypt’s GDP of around 3-4%.
“Most of the blackouts were across the entire [country] so it affected every person, business, and organisation. They were not targeted on particular institutions but affected everyone in that place,” says Darrell M. West, the vice president and director of governance studies at the Brookings Institute.
Mohamed Basiouny, an owner of a cyber cafe confirms what West says, adding that the shutdown did trickle down to impact everyone: “Cyber cafes [were] playing a central role at the time so, it was not just kids fooling around on the internet. ” Like many others, Basiouny’s business relied on internet communications. “No internet, no money – it’s as simple as that,” he adds.
Ethiopia’s blackout history
In the same vein, the Ethiopian government cut off internet across most of the country after the fatal shooting of musician and activist Hachalu Hundessa.
The singer is affiliated with the Oromo movement that took down the previous prime minister.
The blackout took place on 30 June 2020 and went on for 23 straight days, interfering with Ethiopians’ rights to access information and muzzling any vestige of freedom of expression.
As for the country’s economy, NetBlocks estimated the losses to surpass Br3bn ($102m). Later in the year, the northern region of Tigray witnessed another blackout as Ethiopia’s prime minister and Nobel peace prize laureate Abiy Ahmed announced a “red line” had been crossed by the TPLF leadership.
The ensuing internet blockage curtailed media coverage of the Tigray region that saw thousands killed or displaced. Businesses largely reliant on internet connections and communication also suffered the financial consequences of being shutdown during the conflict.
“These shutdowns are not, and will never be, haphazard. They are well planned and specifically targeting the people in question. In this instance, it is the people of Tigray and their businesses,” says IT consultant and former employee at the Ethiopian Chamber of Commerce and Sectorial Associations (ECCSA), Samuel Maasho*.
According to Maasho, Abiy was intentionally targeting the region’s gold producer and a huge textile factory, both of which funnel funds to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front. “This alone can paralyse a whole country, let alone a region like Tigray,” he says.
New tactical response
The scale of such practices is a much bigger problem today than it was a few years ago says West. According to his research in 2016: “Many of the shutdowns are occurring on a nationwide level as opposed to what used to be in local communities. Shutdowns are being put in place to quell political protests, stop coverage of human rights abuses, and to limit some economic activities.”
Similarly, Ramy Raoof, a privacy and digital security researcher and tactical technologist at Amnesty International, sees internet shutdowns more as a tactical response, than a tool itself, to have instant control-impact.
“Internet shutdowns are by design unsustainable, technically speaking, and it’s meant as a temporary response with either gradual shutdown or gradual restoration. And even during blackouts the states sometimes only apply 80-90 % of shutdowns because they might want to keep national institutions online to avoid financial disasters,” he tells The Africa Report.
Alternatives for businesses?
Beyond building a reliable system based on offline practices or returning to old habits from phone calls to fax machines, one has to wonder, is there a more sustainable alternative?
“All the tips and approaches the activists would engage with, such as international sim cards, satellite phones and connections, are highly dependent on the context,” says Raoof. “The telecommunication infrastructure works differently [de]pending on the ownership. So infrastructure ownership determines how surveillance and controls take place. In many scenarios these tips are valid momentarily for a limited amount of time until those frequencies are also targeted/shutdown.” He points to the example of Egypt in 2011 when the internet crackdown targeted different parts of the communications infrastructure at different times.
“The whole point of internet shutdowns by governments is to keep individuals and organisations from communicating,” says West. He echos Raoof’s concerns, adding such alternative tools would need to be available to all, otherwise they would be futile.
One example to spark answers are how bigger companies can manage to avoid the worst of the crackdowns.
“We were never impacted,” says *Ahmed Bayoumi, operations manager at one of Egypt’s towering outsourcing call centres, in reference to the internet blackout in 2011. “The government cut off the internet for networks and domestic internet providers. But big corporations like ours that are based on leased lines or direct cables were not impacted,” recalls Byoumi.
Following from that experience, one of the projects he set up in 2015 involves using a microwave tower that is fed directly from the mother source. “This tower is linked to a Synchronous Transport Module 1 (STM1),” he explains. It allows companies to remain connected despite any government-imposed blockage, but it comes with a price tag. STM1 is a network transmission of around 155.5Mbit/s and costs about LE12m ($768,296).
For those companies that cannot afford such access, it’s a lose-lose situation: “It’s very costly for small enterprises. Imagine paying for a marketing campaign via Facebook. And suddenly the internet stops. You can’t possibly retrieve that money,” he adds.
Capacity | The World Bank has warned the government of Ethiopia not to take measures that hinder the development of telecoms in the country.
It is criticising the restriction of digital financial services to Ethiopian firms and nationals and a ruling limiting investment by independent cell tower companies, obliging the new entrants to use the infrastructure provided by Ethio Telecom.
This “may slow down network roll out, particularly in rural areas”, warns Ousmane Dione (pictured), the World Bank’s country director for Eritrea, Ethiopia, South Sudan and Sudan in a hard-hitting blog published by the bank.
Dione, who has been with the bank for more than 16 years, took on his present role in August 2020, just as the present government of Ethiopia was advancing its plans to licence new operators in the country and to sell a stake in Ethio Telecom.
The World Bank has a key role in this process, points out Dione. The International Finance Corporation (IFC), the private sector arm of the bank, is assisting the Ethiopian Communications Authority (ECA) with the licence awards. “The World Bank itself is supporting the partial privatisation of Ethio Telecom and the strengthening of ECA as an independent sector regulator.”
The ECA has set 5 April as its deadline for bids for the two new licences. A number of companies have said they are interested in either new licences or in stakes in Ethio Telecom. Airtel has said it will not bid.
“The two new operators would compete with Ethio Telecom in mobile communications, internet and other telecom services,” says Dione in his blog.
“Ethiopia is one of the last countries in the world to have retained a state-owned monopoly provider of telecom network and services, a market which is dominated by the private sector in most countries.”
He says: “Opening the market to private sector competition, and foreign investment, is expected to bring lower prices, higher quality of service and more choice for consumers. It will also lay the foundations for Ethiopia’s future digital transformation.”
But while Ethio Telecom has the most to gain from the expansion of the digital economy, “it is also at risk from losing market share if it fails to compete effectively”, he says. The government of Ethiopia appears to be trying to shelter Ethio Telecom from competition, he notes. “This seems to be the motivation behind policy announcements that seek to restrict the operation of digital financial services to Ethiopian firms and nationals. But this may slow down innovation and investment in the market and may actually hinder Ethio Telecom’s own ambitions to attract a strategic investment partner from abroad.”
He suggests that “a better strategy would be to encourage Ethio Telecom to compete on equal terms with the new market entrants in providing mobile money services, without ownership restrictions”.
In the cell tower market, he advises that “Ethio Telecom will need to collaborate as well as compete with the new entrants. But this is best done by allowing for open commercial negotiations in which the new entrants can make rational decisions whether to build their own infrastructure or buy capacity from Ethio Telecom.”
The government’s policies will allow the state company to charge high prices, and that “will end up harming the company”, he says.
“The new operators will be Ethio Telecom’s biggest customers if prices are set fairly, through market competition,” says Dione. “Ethio Telecom has the potential to become a regional powerhouse, but only if it is well-prepared for the competitive environment.
MEMO | Iran has categorically rejected the allegation contained in a New York Times report that it is planning to attack the UAE Embassy in Addis Ababa. The denial was issued by the Iranian Embassy in the Ethiopian capital.
“Neither Ethiopia nor the United Arab Emirates have spoken about Iran’s involvement in these issues,” said the Iranians. “These baseless accusations are fabricated by media outlets that are hostile to the Islamic Republic of Iran, and work as agents of the Zionist entity [Israel].”
Earlier this month, Ethiopia said that it had arrested fifteen members of an underground cell and seized weapons and explosives as part of a plot against the UAE Embassies in Addis Ababa and Khartoum. However, the New York Times claimed that Iran was behind the plot.
Quoting US and Israeli officials, the newspaper said that Iranian intelligence agencies activated a sleeper cell in Addis Ababa late last year to gather intelligence on the US and Israeli embassies in the Ethiopian capital. According to the NYT report, the operation was part of a wider plan by Iran to seek revenge for the killing of Iranian commander Qasem Soleimani with an American drone strike last year, and Israel’s murder of Iran’s chief nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh in November.
CAIRO (AP) — Sudan has summoned its envoy to Ethiopia home for consultations amid a growing border dispute that has seen military buildup along the two countries’ border in recent weeks, an official said Wednesday.
Sudan’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Mansour Boulad did not provide more information about why Ambassador Gamal al-Sheikh was called home. On Sunday, the ministry said Ethiopian troops have crossed into Sudan and warned about “grave repercussions” on the region’s security and stability.
The border dispute between Sudan and Ethiopia has escalated in recent months after Sudan deployed troops to territories it says are occupied by Ethiopian farmers and militias. Since December, over a dozen Sudanese, including troops, were killed in cross-border attacks by Ethiopian forces in Sudan’s al-Qadarif province, according to Sudanese authorities.
The dispute centers on large swaths of agricultural land Sudan says are within its borders in the al-Fashqa area that Ethiopian farmers have cultivated for years. The two nations have held rounds of talks, most recently in Khartoum in December, to settle the dispute, but have not made progress.
Khartoum has said it reclaimed most of its territories and called on Ethiopia to withdraw troops from at least two points it says are inside Sudan.
Addis Ababa, however, accused Sudan of taking advantage of the deadly conflict in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region to enter Ethiopian territory and loot property, kill civilians and displace thousands of people. Ethiopia has called for Sudanese troops to return to their positions before the Tigray fighting erupted in November, pitting Ethiopia’s federal forces against regional fighters.
Sudan has rejected the claim and insists it deployed troops to its own territories, according an agreement that demarcated the borders between the two nations in the early 1900s.
DevEx | The European Union’s top representative for development aid said Tuesday that the bloc needs to “plan very carefully” when it comes to Ethiopia, as Brussels continues to withhold funding from the government over the conflict in the country’s North.
In December, the European Commission postponed €88 million in planned budget support payments, with officials saying they could not give one euro to the government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed until unimpeded humanitarian access is granted to the Tigray region, among other conditions.
Jutta Urpilainen, EU commissioner for international partnerships, told reporters Tuesday that another five budget support payments, together worth €100 million ($120 million), are due in 2021.
“So of course we need to plan very carefully,” the former Finnish finance minister said, adding that coordination with EU member states would be necessary to decide “what are we going to do with those disbursements and payments and then, of course, have this kind of a broader strategy towards Ethiopia.” The commission will also program its 2021-2027 development budget this year, with Ethiopia among the largest recipients for the 2014-2020 period.
“What we need is this kind of international approach including all different actors in order to leverage and really make a difference.” — Jutta Urpilainen, EU commissioner for international partnerships
A spokesperson for the commission did not immediately clarify when the 2021 budget support payments are due nor which government departments they are destined for.
Brussels’ initial move in December drew an angry response from Ethiopia, with its EU ambassador urging donors not to be distracted by “transient challenges” and reiterating the country’s strategic importance as the “beacon of stability in the Horn of Africa.” Other donors appear to be heeding those warnings, with the commission struggling to get even its own member states to freeze their bilateral support.
Urpilainen acknowledged as much Tuesday, also calling on the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, United Kingdom, United States, and Canada to tell Abiy that without full humanitarian access to Tigray, financial support for the government will be shut off. “What we need is this kind of international approach including all different actors in order to leverage and really make a difference,” she said.
Urpilainen said Ethiopia, along with Chad and Zambia, has requested debt relief through the G-20 group of nations and Paris Club’s new Common Framework for Debt Treatments beyond the Debt Service Suspension Initiative. However, she said, “I would say that it is not a political decision whether to give any kind of debt relief or debt restructuring for Ethiopia,” instead citing the need for technical analysis by the World Bank and IMF.
Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto will report to EU foreign ministers Monday on the outcome of his recent visit to Ethiopia. “Our concern of course is: Is humanitarian aid really reaching the people in Tigray?” Urpilainen said. “What is the real situation concerning the human rights violations and so forth? So I think now everybody is waiting for his report.”
Bloomberg | Opposition leaders have gone without food for almost 3 weeks. Oromo Federal Congress leaders facing terrorism charges.
Time is “running out” to resolve an impasse with imprisoned Ethiopian opposition leaders who’ve spent almost three weeks without food, according to a lawyer for one of the key figures behind the protest.
Media mogul Jawar Mohammed’s representative said the hunger strike was endangering the inmates’ lives and urged the government to seek a quick resolution.
“We are running out of time,” said lawyer Kedir Bulo. “All concerned bodies are advised to think judiciously and take prompt action to resolve the cause of the hunger strike.”
Two dozen leaders of the Oromo Federal Congress including Jawar were arrested in July on terrorism charges. They started the hunger strike on Jan. 27.
The jailed politicians are demanding the government release prisoners of conscience and reinstate opposition party licenses. Jawar will continue the strike until political prisoners are freed, his lawyer said.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s spokeswoman Billene Seyoum referred questions to the Attorney General and the police as Jawar is “under custody and under an ongoing criminal case.” The Attorney General’s office did not respond to questions.
The “reasonably justified demands of the prisoners must be addressed,” the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission said in a statement earlier this month.
Unrest in the region erupted after the assassination of Hachalu Hundessa, a popular Oromo musician, song-writer and advocate of the Oromo ethnic group.