By Zach Waksman
Impunity Watch Reporter, Africa
NAIROBI, Kenya – Ten days ago, Kenya began a campaign to hunt down members of the radical Islamist militant group Al-Shebab, which occupies much of southern Somalia. Its offensive has brought forces across the shared border between the two countries. The new incursion has drawn scrutiny from Somalia and poses risks to both countries’ future security.
Kenya has been a relatively stable country since gaining independence in 1963, becoming a Western ally and a popular tourist destination. But a series of abductions credited to Al-Shebab, including one of humanitarian workers at a Somali refugee camp, led Kenya to strike back, launching its current action. Or at least this was the initial claim. Wednesday, spokesman Alfred Matua changed the rationale by saying that the abductions acted as a “good launchpad.”
“An operation of this magnitude is not planned in a week,” he said. “It’s been in the pipeline for a while.”
Part of the reason for this move appears to be economic gain, rather than security.
“This isn’t about tourism,” said a senior Kenyan official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “This is about our long-term development plan. Kenya cannot achieve economically what it wants with the situation the way it is in Somalia, especially Kismayu,” referring to a planned port city 60 miles south of the border that is occupied by Al-Shebab.
“Just imagine you’re trying to swim,” he added. “If someone is holding your leg and your arm, how far can you swim?”
For years, the United States has been providing weapons and training to the Kenyan military to aid in protecting its borders from its anarchic neighbor. But this may be the first time Kenya has actually taken military action into Somalia. The U.S. denied involvement in the present campaign, but acknowledged Kenya’s right to defend itself. The Pentagon is watching the affair, finding promising initial returns, but fearing the potential next step.
A man claiming to be a member of Al-Shebab pled guilty to carrying out a pair of grenade attacks in Nairobi, the capital, on Wednesday. The attacks have put the city on high alert. Al-Shebab has affiliated itself with Al Qaeda and has carried out numerous suicide attacks in Somalia. One of its goals is to overthrow Somalia’s transitional government, whose forces succeeded in taking control of Qoqani, a border town in the Lower Juba Region. Despite the setback, the organization vows to stand strong in the face of the Kenyan incursion.
“Kenya violated the territorial rights of Somalia by entering our holy land, but I assure you that they will return disappointed, God willing,” said Sheikh Hassan Turki, a senior Al-Shebab leader.
Though Al-Shebab is an enemy to the interim government, President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed has stated his opposition to the incursion from the beginning, calling the action a potential breach of sovereignty and saying that an agreement with Kenya to run a cooperative security operation against Al-Shebab only allowed Kenya to train Somali troops.
His sentiments have not been echoed within his government. Internal Security Minister George Saitoti sought an explanation of the president’s statements, which implied that he was turning away from the cooperative security agreement.
“In the light of this the Kenya Government is seeking clarification of the Somali government’s position as it is essential to have a unified approach in dealing with the destabilisation of Somalia by Al-Shebab, and its threats to peace and security to Kenya and the region,” Saitoti said.
One of the major questions that Kenya faces as the operation continues will be the ramifications of this action. It is expected to have major implications on the delivery of humanitarian aid to the famine-ravaged Horn of Africa. Mere days after the incursion started, several organizations with operations in Somalia had to suspend operations. At best, the situation will be a temporary hiccup. At worst, it will slow aid delivery to a halt. An extended campaign may give Al-Shebab exactly the motivation it needs to make good on its promise to attack.
For more information, please see:
BBC — Kenya-Somali Border Attack: Al-Shabab Suspected — 27 October 2011
The Standard — Somalia Split over Hunt for Al Shabaab — 27 October 2011
Africa Review — Somali President Wants Kenya Troops Out — 26 October 2011
New York Times — Kenyan Motives in Somalia Predate Recent Abductions — 26 October 2011
Al Jazeera — Kenya Sends Troops to Attack Al-Shabab — 24 October 2011
IRIN — Kenya-Somalia: A Risky Intervention — 20 October 2011