Ethiopia: suspected terrorists arrested

Ethiopia is a target of Islamic terrorism, but several factors make the risk of high-profile attacks moderate for the time being. The last significant operation ascribed to the Somali organisation al-Shabaab is the failed explosive attack in Addis Ababa (Bole area) in 2013 (only the attackers died). Although the group has not yet managed to perform successful attacks in the country, there is still a credible of risk of attacks on local security forces, government buildings and international assets. The threat posed by the Islamic State (IS) is currently less significant and mostly involves the possibility of sporadic attacks.
Further evidence of the persistent threat posed by terrorist organisations came on 21 September 2019, when the Ethiopian authorities announced that several IS and al-Shabaab affiliates had been arrested in Addis Ababa and in Oromia Region and Somali Regional State. Some of the suspects are accused of photographing sensitive areas in order to plan terrorist attacks on hotels, places of worship and other public spaces of the capital and other places in the country. Other people involved in the planning of the attacks were arrested in Djibouti and Somaliland, thanks to cooperation between the Ethiopian forces and relevant local authorities.


The 21 September 2019 arrests are another sign of Addis Ababa being a target of Islamic terrorism, due to both its symbolic value (as the capital of a country directly involved in the Somali conflict through the AMISOM mission) and the significant presence of international staff. The arrest of suspected terrorists is also indicative of the prevention capabilities of the Ethiopian security forces, which, together with other factors, contribute to effectively reducing the risk of attacks in the short term (compared to other neighbouring countries like Kenya). On 11 September 2019, the Ethiopian authorities announced that they had arrested Islamic State affiliates for the first time; in April 2019, suspected al-Shabaab members were arrested on charges of planning attacks in Addis Ababa.
The Somali terrorist group al-Shabaab is currently the main non-state armed actor in the region, and is also able to carry out high-profile attacks outside the areas under its control. On the other hand, al-Shabaab operations in Ethiopia have been few in number and with a low impact in the past few years.

Figure 1: A picture taken from the English transcription of al-Shabaab leader Abu Ubaydah’s audio message, released by al-Kataib in September 2019. The message makes several references to Ethiopia, which the group calls a “crusader country”. Source: Ifi Monitoring.

The transnational terrorist organisation Islamic State is mostly present in the northern areas of Somalia (Bari region, Puntland, where IS is estimated to rely on about 300 militants, including at least 8 Ethiopian nationals), but its operational capabilities are not enough for it posing a significant threat to Ethiopia (the greatest risk posed by IS in the country is that of attacks by small groups or individuals inspired by the group’s ideology; at the moment, high-profile attacks are less likely).
Although the security situation in Ethiopia has remained basically unchanged in regard to the Islamic extremism threat, the information on the planning of the attacks by those arrested is indicative that hotels used by foreign nationals are potential targets for high-profile attacks. The procedures and tactics al-Shabaab used in its attacks on hotels and shopping centres in the region reveal that the operational phase is generally preceded by detailed planning that involves looking into target vulnerabilities (in terms of security system gaps). This means that foreign economic operators with staff travelling to Ethiopia need to check that appropriate security plans and measures are in place at selected accommodation facilities to mitigate the security risks associated with potential terrorist attacks. In planning security measures, one should consider the following features of the facility/site of operations concerned: perimeter, security systems, access control, any security management personnel deployed at the hotel, etc.
In the short to medium term, there is a low risk of successful high-profile attacks in Ethiopia by al-Shabaab or other Salafist groups, such as the Islamic State. However, the established fact that cells are active in both Addis Ababa and other areas of Ethiopia is indicative of a credible risk that cannot be neglected. We can also assume that individuals and organisations related to religious extremism will try to enhance their operations and recruitment activities in the country in the short to medium term, exploiting the ethnic tensions that traditionally afflict Ethiopia and that seem to have escalated since the new government took office in April 2018.