On Saturday, suspected suicide bombers struck a restaurant popular with westerners in Djibouti. Three people died and more than a dozen were injured, including European nationals.
Above: Djiboutians protesting in 2007
The attack is the first of its kind. No one has claimed responsibility yet, but it appears to be the beginning of a campaign by al-Qaeda-linked groups to open a new front in the continent.
With a population of less than a million, mainly ethnic Somalis and Afar, the Red Sea country is the smallest in the horn of Africa, but it’s strategically important. It is home to the largest and the “only” US military base in Africa. Other western forces are also present; especially Djibouti’s former colonial master, France.
It appears that Djibouti now offers key characteristics for the Islamists to come in and do business.
From its base in Djibouti, the US has carried out drone strikes and other military operations against Islamists in Yemen and Africa. The fact is that Djibouti poses a serious threat to al-Qaeda-associated organisations. The weekend attack will, at the least, unsettle US soldiers who usually enjoy freedom.
Unlike neighbouring countries, westerners feel comfortable walking on the streets in Djibouti without fear of being killed. On weekends, they go out to restaurants and clubs designed to cater for rich foreigners.
Many of the army personnel have rented houses in Djibouti city for their girlfriends, where they spend their free time. All that is likely to change.
The US embassy in Djibouti has already released a statement advising members of its staff to “limit their movements and exercise heightened security measures at this time”. US citizens are advised to do the same.
To successfully operate in a country, any political group would need a local network for support. It appears that Djibouti now offers key characteristics for the Islamists to come in and do business.
Djibouti doesn’t only provide a base for the US, but its forces are part of the African Union mission fighting to defeat Somalia’s al-Shabaab. However, that is not a major factor for locals to potentially see Islamists as an alternative to the current rule.
Anger against western forces – especially the US forces – has been growing in the past few years. It’s a familiar story in many parts of the world: while the US claims to be promoting good governance, human rights, freedom and justice, in Djibouti it is supporting what is viewed by some as a ruthless authoritarian regime.
As long as he is part of the “war against terror”, Washington seems to be happy to give Djibouti’s president Ismail Omar Guelleh military and financial support. This month, the US signed a 10-year deal for its military base, worth $63m annually.
That money is partly what keeps leaders like Guelleh in power. He inherited the leadership position in 1999 from his uncle and the country’s first president Hassan Guled Abtidon, who ruled the country since it gained independence from France in 1977. Djibouti is a country run by aabo Ismail: “father Ismael” and his associates. The US State Department’s latest annual report is very critical of the regime.
Though they don’t get media attention, there have been regular anti-government protests since the last election in 2011.
Opponents could spend years in jail. Freedom of expression is non-existent. Anyone found criticising the “father of the nation” could disappear. Privately-run media are not allowed, unless they regularly praise “father Ismael”.
Apart from the president’s family and their allies, most locals live in abject poverty. Even basic necessities like electricity and water are in short supply.
Youth unemployment is very high. With that, the US army, which gave hope of employment to local people, have disappointed them. Locals are angry with the Pentagon for hiring staff from Asia when there are thousands of Djiboutians desperate for work, coupled with the US’ support for a leader who is not popular.
That’s why, though they don’t get media attention, there have been regular anti-government protests since the last election in 2011.
For some reason, locals do not blame the former colony as much as they blame the Americans. It could be that the French government sometimes criticises President Guelleh publicly.
Many of the high profile figures, who raised concerns over the country’s direction, have been locked up without fair trial in the Gabod prison, the biggest in the country. They include the most famous religious leaders locally known as the “two Abdirahmans”.
I met one of them before the crackdown and he was complaining about how the country’s leader was allowing “foreign soldiers to turn a Muslim nation into a brothel”. In particular, he was blaming western military personnel for “contributing to an un-Islamic behaviour”. Djibouti is a small country so is its capital city, also called Djibouti. The effect of thousands of foreign soldiers is felt, therefore.
During the French colonisation, Djibouti was known as “the little Paris”. It was a prime destination for Europeans seeking sea, sun and sex. From the 1980s, religious leaders, who felt the country was losing its Islamic identity, went on the offensive.
In Djibouti, with thousands of personnel on the ground, the Americans are vulnerable.
To some extent, they had influence and many locals subsequently became more conservative. However, since the US soldiers started arriving in Djibouti in the early 2000s, Muslim leaders feel decades of hard work to hold on to their Islamic principles have been reversed.
Although many women are trafficked or come from neighbouring countries, especially Ethiopia, religious figures told me that they have seen a growing number of local girls turning to prostitution.
Over the past two decades, I have been travelling to Djibouti and following developments closely. Society in general feels oppressed. Young, poor and unemployed see no way out of the situation. Muslim leaders suspect foreigners are undermining their religious beliefs and the country is at the forefront of America’s “war on terror” with no prospect for a brighter future.
On top of that, due to the US’ support for the regime, anti-western resentment is growing. The conditions suit al-Qaeda operatives well. Unlike Somalia or Yemen, where Islamists cannot hit US drones or war ships, in Djibouti, with thousands of personnel on the ground, the Americans are vulnerable. It will no longer be machines versus men.
Djibouti is likely to become another battlefront between the “war on terror” coalition led by the US and al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamist organisations.