Imagine for a moment that a military group — aligned with al Qaeda and supported by a bordering hostile nation — slaughtered 74 workers at a business in America or Europe.
How long would it take for this group to be declared a terrorist organization by Western governments and widely condemned in the media?
On April 24, 2007, my country, Ethiopia, suffered just such an attack. Yet Western governments have not labeled the perpetrators as terrorist and the media has been largely unsympathetic. Is there a double standard in what constitutes terrorism depending upon whether the victims are Western? Certainly there is no double standard under U.S. law. The Foreign Relations Authorization Act says “terrorism” is “premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents.”
In Ethiopia a group calling itself the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) has committed numerous acts of violence against civilians, Ethiopians and non-Ethiopians alike. The ONLF’s goal is to forcibly separate Somali-speaking Ethiopians from the rest of Ethiopia.
In April, the ONLF attacked a Chinese oil exploration facility in this region and proudly claimed credit. In this single attack the ONLF murdered 74 innocent Chinese and Ethiopian civilians, including a 3-year-old child, many as they slept.
The talents of the ONLF extend beyond slaughtering innocents. The group is remarkably adept at public relations and has romanced some Western journalists with the notion its members are modern-day Che Guevaras. The New York Times recently called them “Rebels with a Cause,” and its correspondent praised their boldness.
Yet they are, plain and simple, terrorists. The ONLF has killed local elders opposed to its policies, attacked people in markets and religious institutions, killed mourners at funerals of ONLF victims, bombed a stadium, planted bombs near a railroad, assassinated local businessmen and government officials and kidnapped foreign workers and staff of humanitarian organizations. Just recently, the ONLF threatened violence against any oil company that seeks to work in the Somali Regional State.
The ONLF has also allied itself with al Qaeda-aligned terrorist groups operating in Somalia. These groups have a common state sponsor in Eritrea. A recent United Nations report concluded that Eritrea has armed terrorists in Somalia with weapons including suicide belts and anti-aircraft missiles.
The ONLF has safe-haven bases across the border from which they can attack us. Recently, the U.S. Department of State said it is considering naming Eritrea as a state-sponsor of terrorism. That would be a significant positive step.
Collectively, this unholy alliance is trying to destabilize the Horn of Africa, already one of the most dangerous breeding grounds for al Qaeda recruits. They know that Ethiopia, a strong American ally, stands in the way of their reprehensible plans. Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda have issued fatwas against Ethiopia.
Failure to designate groups like the ONLF as terrorists undercuts international efforts to build a global consensus and coalition against terrorism. It instills doubt in the core value of democratic societies — the belief every human life has equal value.
If the international community is to succeed in combating terrorism, there can be no double standard. An attack on any innocent victim for political means must be treated in the same fashion no matter the color of the victim’s skin, the God she prays to, the ethnic group he hails from or the nation she calls home. It is this commitment that Ethiopia has made to its people and to the international community long before the tragedy of September 11, 2001. Now as we face this common terrorist threat we respectfully ask for that same commitment.
Samuel Assefa is Ethiopia’s ambassador to the United States.