State Vs. Regime Security: History & Structure Of The Eritrean Security Services (Part II)

The security services and the military institution are the two main organs that we need to focus on in our struggle for regime change; they are the main pillars on which the Eritrean dictatorial regime depends for its survival; and we should be very clear on how to deal with them in future democratic Eritrea. In Part I, I dealt with how dictatorial regimes use security services to protect themselves at the expense of national security. It has been a while since I started to study the institutional structure and mode of operations of the security services in Eritrea. I looked into scholarly articles and fieldwork reports; but there is hardly any material available as these organizations operate in complete secrecy. There have been defections and leakages, but most of what is written focuses more on specific events and individuals. The only credible material that I was privileged to access and secure permission to share it publicly is the following account that was written by a researcher  a few years ago—at present, the researcher prefers to remain anonymous. I have cross-checked the information with a number of people who have knowledge about these institutions, and so far I didn’t find any information that disputes it—and I am presenting it in its original form with the exception of updates of the position of persons mentioned. I have also provided links. My own additions and Tigrinya words appear in italics.

The internal security unit called halewa sawra (guardian of the revolution) was established under the late Ali Said Abdalla to follow up EPLF-members and the civilian population administered by the EPLF after the so-called ‘Menqae’ movement was crushed in the early seventies. Its vast network of secret operatives intensively monitored the activities of the EPLF-members and the civi­lian population in order to detect any infiltration from the Ethiopian side or other Eritrean organisations, and any political deviation from the position of the EPLF. Internally, halewa sawra was divided into several sections: surveillance, inter­rogation, and prisons. It detained large number of suspects in secret prisons which were feared for their harsh detention conditions. Suspects were interrogated physical and more often psychological torture was used to extract confessions. On order from the leadership, halewa sawra also carried out death sentences on prisoners. It was a powerful tool of the leadership to maintain its control over the EPLF and to nip challenges to its power in the bud.

The EPLF also had a military intelligence unit known as “72” (seban keleten) after its military communication code. Petros Solomon (a member of the G-15 and whose whereabouts is still unknown) headed this department. The duty of the unit was the gathering of all intelligence relevant to the conduct of the liberation struggle. This de­partment also ran an extensive network of secret operatives in the Ethiopian occupied parts of Eritrea, in Ethiopia and in other countries. It monitored the activities of the Ethiopian military and government and also those of Eritrean collaborators and members of other Eritrean libera­tion organisations hostile to the EPLF and the political activities in the Eritrean diaspora. This department would have been responsible for the elimination of the ELF military leadership in the mid 1980s in Kassala including Saeed Saleh, Saleh Hasseb, Woldedawit Temesgen and others, and the abduction of Eritrean opposition figures from The Sudan shortly after independence. Two well known abductees are Weldemariam Bahlibi and Tekleberhan Gebretsadek (Wedi-Bashay), who were Executive members of the ELF-RC when they were kidnapped from Kassala, Sudan, on April 26, 1994 (almost 17 years ago). To date, no one knows their whereabouts. The intelligence organs had successfully infiltrated the Ethiopian military and government institutions and also the other Eritrean organisations. It is widely believed that the security services had senior operatives within the ELF and some of those were rewarded with senior positions immediately after liberation.  It kept an extensive do­cumentation with thou­sands of dossiers on Eritrean collaborators with the Ethiopian military and civil authorities, on the members of the other Eritrean organisations, and on many Diaspora Eritreans who were suspected of anti-EPLF sentiments.

Both the “72” and the Internal Security (halewa sawra) maintained a close cooperation. The Intelligence Department collected information on “deviant political behaviour” of EPLF-members and supporters living ab­road and transmitted the data to the halewa sawra. If such persons came to the “field” of the EPLF, halewa sawra arrested and interrogated them. For the EPLF, internal dissidence was tantamount to treason against the Eritrean Revolution. Friends of the Eritrean revolution who visited the field were also subject to the surveillance of the Intelligence Department. The facilitators and translators provided by the Protocol Sec­tion of the Department of Information and Propaganda for foreign visitors, were operatives of the halewa sawra writing detailed reports about the guests. Even some western writers like Don Connell who fell deeply in love with the EPLF experience and began to present it as a first class international revolutionary movement, discrediting the ELF and any opposition to the EPLF were no exempt from surveillance. Those writers did a great damage to the Eritrean revolution and to their academic credibility by failing to have a critical assessment. They failed to see its violations and the culture of silence that it developed, both inside and outside Eritrea, a precursor of the dictatorship that we see today. Its military victories and its motto of self reliance was the end that justified the means.

Even today, if Eritreans who were on the ‘Wanted’ list in the old files of the security visit Eritrea, they risk detention and disappearance. Since liberation, the security services have recruited persons who work with the UN, foreign embassies and other NGOs to provide them with internal information about those organisations under the pretext that they are serving their country. Almost all these institutions are infiltrated. Such recruited persons usually report to one specific agent in the security services and thus have limited function and knowledge about the security services in general. Generally, if you ask a security operative (some are well known to the public) what they do, they will tell you they work at the President’s Office. Though members of the security services, particularly those who carry out interrogations and executions do great damage to their fellow citizens, they suffer greatly on the long term. Many are haunted by nightmares and some end up as alcohol addicts and/or suffer psychological ailments.

After the 2nd Congress of the EPLF in 1987, the organisation began to shed its Marxist-Leninist slogans and it adopted a more pragmatic approach. The intelligence services also underwent a major restructuring, the word ‘sawra’ (revolution) was removed and the internal security was renamed into Vigilance Department and was hea­ded by Musa Naib (currently Director General for General Education at the Ministry of Education), the former Deputy-Chief of halewa sawra. The Vigilance Department concentrated on “normal” police functions in the liberated areas, which had greatly in­creased since the mid 1980s, but it also continued to monitor political attitudes within the EPLF and the civilian population under EPLF-administration. Apparently it lost the executive powers and functions as the former halewa sawra, most of which had been transferred to the new Department of Intelligence and Security which was headed by Petros Solomon.

After the end of the liberation war, Vigilance and Intelligence and Security continued to exist. However, it appears that most functions of vigilance, which referred to “normal” po­lice duties, were actually transferred to the new Eritrean Police that was under formation, which was under the Secretariat, later Ministry of Interior. Naizghi Kiflu, an-EPLF Central Committee member who was feared for his ruthless persecution of political dissidence in the service of the top leader­ship, became the head of the security department within the Secretariat of Interior, which also was responsible for the police. Musa Raba (currently Administrator of the Gash Barka Region), a high level cadre of the former halewa sawra became National Police Commissioner, Simon Gebredengil (currently Commander of the National police and Security Services) another high cadre of halewa sawra/vigilance was appointed as Deputy Police Commissioner. There was an assassination attempt on his life in October 2007. Simon is actually regarded as being more closer to the President than Abraha Kassa. Musa Naib, the former head of vigilance, was appointed as Attorney General. Immediately after liberation the security services assassinated about 10 Eritreans in Addis Ababa including Tesfamichael Georgio. In the seventies he had provided details to the ELF about the contacts that Isaias Afwerki had in the early seventies with the CIA in the American Kagnew Station in Asmara. He was a living witness to those contacts and has since been on the top hit list of the EPLF. When the EPLF defeated the ELF in the early 1980s he defected to Ethiopia. Another one who got the same fate was Yihdego Woldeghiorghis who had defected from the EPLF to the Ethiopian side during the liberation war. It would be difficult to imagine their assassinations without the knowledge of the TPLF security services. It is very sad that Ethiopia could not protect them.

The Military Intelligence and Security Department continued after the end of the libera­tion war in its functions. In addition, it also became responsible for the internal judiciary of the EPLF dealing with military rules and disciple within the army and al­so for violations of the code of conduct of the EPLF committed by EPLF-members outsi­de of the strictly military sphere. The internal judiciary system of the EPLF also handled all issues pertaining to national security. Its secret tribunals also conducted the secret trials of captured Ethiopian military and Eritrean collaborators. It also ran the secret prisons of the EPLF/Provisional Government of Eritrea, where the persons sen­tenced by these tribunals served their sentences and where other prisoners of the EPLF were also held. Many of the inmates of these prisons were never given a trial by the secret tribunal of the EPLF, but simply remained in custody for unspecified times. Among them were people accused of collaboration with the Ethiopian enemy, but also captured members of the Eritrean organisations in opposition to the EPLF, some of them even were abducted from Ethiopia or Sudan after 1991 and members of the EPLF allegedly opposing the line of the leadership.

As part of the political and organisational fallout from the mutiny of part of the EPLF-military on the eve of the formal declaration of independence on May 23, 1993, the Mili­tary Intelligence and Security Department came under severe critique. It was accused to have neglected and imperfectly executed its duties, and specifically to have failed to mo­nitor the mood of the fighters, to alert the government on possible unrest, and to detect in time the preparations for a mutiny. After several months of investigation and planning, in the later part of 1993 the Department was dissolved. Its functions were split. Those re­lating to military intelligence in the proper sense were transferred to a new military intelligence office headed by Tekesteberhan Gebrehiwot (a former member of the Ethiopian security service who defected to the EPLF in 1976, where he soon became an important cadre in “72”) in the Ministry of Defence. So­me functions, more related to police work were transferred to the new police force headed by Musa Raba under the Ministry of Interior. For the tasks related to internal and national security a new National Security Office (NSO) headed by Abraha Kassa was establi­shed within the President’s Office. The latter took over the security functions of the dissolved Military and Security Department and the internal security tasks of the former halewa sawra/vigilance department, which had come under the Secretariat of In­terior after May 1991. The NSO “inherited” the extensive archives of halewa sawra and Department 72, which contained approximately 200,000 dossiers of Eritreans: EPLF-members, supporters and members of other Eritrean organisations, and civilians that the “radar” of these services tracked during and after the liberation war. It is a common practice of security personnel disguised as immigration officers to check the names of Eritreans who arrive or leave through the Asmara Airport, against a long list of ‘wanted’ persons.

One result of the—basically politically motivated—restructuring of the intelligence and security sector was a remarkable loss of efficiency of the military intelligence. Many of its operatives, suspected of being loyal to Petros Solomon, whom President Isaias Afwer­ki considered a serious political rival, were now assigned to functions outsi­de of the intelligence sector. Due to the considerable loss of qualified operatives, the ef­ficiency and quality of the military intelligence suffered considerably. In addition, reflecting current political priorities of the EPLF/PFDJ leadership around President Isaias Afwerki, the military intelligence activities, especially in Ethiopia but also in Sudan, were neglected in favour of the surveillance of the Eritrean opposition.

After the outbreak of the war with Ethiopia, the internal security rapidly expanded in per­sonnel and activities. Allegedly to uncover and apprehend the so-called “fifth columnists”, the ge­neral label for Ethiopian agents and secret members and supporters of the exile-based opposition inside Eritrea, surveillance of PFDJ-members, the military, the civil service, and the population in general, intensified. The task of the security organs to monitor the political attitudes within the population in general towards the war and the political leadership was more impor­tantly  than the capturing “fifth columnists.” However, did Eritrea have the ability to detect emerging dissidence and to crush it before it could assume dangerous proportions?

Due to the expulsion of Eritreans from Ethiopia, Eritrea lost most of its already much reduced underground security and intelligence network in that country and was neither able to monitor the Ethiopian military activities nor to follow the activities of the Eri­trean opposition. In addition,  the Eritrean intelligence and security network, which had lost much of its former freedom of action since 1994, experienced further setbacks in the Sudan after the war with Ethiopia—Sudan began to mend its fences with Ethiopia. Such activities in Sudan are back to their former levels after the improvement of relations between both countries.

In other Diaspora countries however, the Eritrean security stepped up its activi­ties. Additional undercover agents were dispatched to all countries with major Diaspora communities and from the ranks of the government supporters in these communities. Lar­ge numbers of “informal agents” were recruited. In the Diaspora, the secret agents of the security were also involved in collecting funds as contributions. Eritreans unwilling or unable to make the demanded payments were visited by a team of government loyalists usually including a secret agent of the security, who would “casually” mention that the unwilling payer has “relatives in Eritrea.” Usually this not very subtle hint was enough to induce unwilling payers to give up and make the payment of the demanded contribution.

The emergence of political dissidence—despite the intensive security surveillance—with­in the ranks of the top leaders of the PFDJ, and the membership of the party in general, but also in a section of the urban population and in wider circles of the Diaspora until then loyal to the PFDJ, caused the camp of President Isaias Afwerki to intensify inter­nal security. The continuing collaboration of the old Eritrean exiled opposition with Ethiopia after the end of the open hostilities also induced the government to increase external security activities. Special emphasis was now placed both internally and exter­nally on discovering and combating emerging links between the old and the new oppo­sition.

In January 2001, President Isaias Afwerki recalled Naizghi Kiflu who was his “hatchet man” since the days of the liberation war, who was fighting real and putative internal opponents from his ambassadorial position in Moscow, to head a new security committee. This committee was specifically assigned the task of combating the emerging dissidence within the ranks of the PFDJ and the military. Parallel to the creation of this committee, also the number of party loyalists and secret security agents stationed in the Eritrean diplomatic missions was significantly increased. The arrest of the G-15 and other dissidents during and after the crackdown of September 18 was directly supervised by Naizghi.

The security services also operates at various levels. It runs an extensive network of secret prisons, some of which are underground. Kjetil Tronvoll describes these prisons as the Eritrean Gulag Archipelago in one of his books. Ali Abdu, the Information Minister, heads the regime’s propaganda and disinformation machine. A lot of resources are used for ‘ERI TV’ and under the slogan ‘serving the truth’, it serves everything but the truth. Opposition groups of neighbouring countries are provided with adequate air time that is carefully controlled by the Eritrean regime. The security services is also involved in destabilizing neighbouring countries. Abdella Jabir is responsible for the Darfur opposition that is  stationed in Eritrea and frequently travels to Chad for coordination purposes. Haile Manjos is responsible for the Sudanese opposition in Eastern Sudan. Reliable sources reported several weeks ago that he arrived in Sudan escorted by landcruisers and came to attend an official Government meeting, uninvited. The meeting was conducted at a border area with the local Hadendawa people and attended by the governor of Eastern Region and the Administrator of Kassala. He took aside the governor and met with him. The Administrator of Kassala reported the incident to the central authorities. It seemed that he knew about the meeting by his informants. It is believed that the recent trip of the Sudanese President, Omer Al Beshir to Eritrea raised this and other related issues with the Eritrean Government. There are also Ethiopian opposition groups that are based in Eritrea and operate in Tigray and Oromia regions.

Many people have been killed by the security service; and many have simply disappeared, some for over 30 years. There were a group of people abducted from Keren in the late seventies by the EPLF and to date no one knows their whereabouts. All attempts by family members have fallen on deaf ears. Several hundreds of Muslims were arrested in 1994 simultaneously from different cities and there are reports that these have been murdered. All those who have disappeared have family members: parents, children, wives, brothers, sisters. They can not mourn; and they live in hope that their loved ones could some day reappear. Doesn’t a ‘revolutionary movement’, a government in the 21st century has the courage to tell families of the fate of their loved one? One of those who have disappeared since 1994 is a childhood friend, Mahmoud Khaled, who had 4-5 small children when he was arrested. He was a humorous person who used to entertain us as children. My heart goes to his family and to the families of all those missing.

I hope that one day the security officials and the operatives will have to answer for their crimes. The ELF had also security services that had their violations, but they were limited in space and time, compared to those of the EPLF, and this could be material for another article.


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