The details of the size and scope of Kenya’s incursion into Somalia remain vague, but as of Sunday afternoon Kenyan troops had moved into al-Shabaab-controlled Somali border towns amid heavy artillery bombardment and aerial bombing. Officials could not confirm if the aircraft conducting the bombing were Kenyan. Various sources report that the operation was coordinated with Somali government forces, and that it was part of a major push into al-Shabaab territory. Kenya claims that al-Shabaab has already vacated two bases in southern Somalia.
Kenya justified the invasion under the doctrine of hot pursuit. “If you are attacked by an enemy, you have to pursue that enemy through hot pursuit and to try hit wherever that enemy is,” said defence minister Yusuf Haji. The enemy is, of course, al-Shabaab, who are allegedly behind several high profile kidnappings on Kenyan territory; first that of a British woman from a resort on the coast, during which her husband was killed; second that of a French resident in Kenya from her home near the island of Lamu; and finally that of two aid workers working for Medecins Sans Frontieres from the Dadaab refugee camp, which is the effective headquarters of the Somali famine relief effort.
The kidnappings have come at a bad time for Kenya, with the precipitous decline of the Kenyan Shilling causing immense damage to the economy. Kenya relies heavily on its tourist industry, and is naturally concerned about the potential impact of the kidnapping threat. Going to war, however, might not be the best way to reassure nervous tourists.
The Guardian reports that in response to the Kenyan invasion, al-Shabaab attempted to forcibly recruit new fighters. “Are you ready to live under Christians?” an al-Shabaab official said on radio. “Get out of your home and defend your dignity and religion. Today is the day to defend against the enemy.” And Kenya’s Daily Nation reported that a senior al-Shabaab official threatened stiff resistance. “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. “Mujahidin fighters will force them to test the pain of the bullets.”
Although officially linked with al-Qaeda, al-Shabaab’s rhetoric and tactics are disturbingly similar to those employed by the Taliban in Afghanistan. Kenya’s relatively green army, although likely to be better armed, might find it difficult to consolidate any progress they make. Their hope will be that in the face of the Kenyan onslaught, the kidnappers will conclude that it’s too risky to keep their abductees and find a way to hand them over quickly. This will allow Kenya to retreat across the border with their reputation enhanced and their dignity defended, and prevent them from being drawn into a difficult guerrilla war on unfamiliar terrain.
The international community, particularly the United States, is likely to welcome the Kenyan invasion. They have been pushing for greater African involvement in Somalia, particularly for more troops to be committed to bolster the existing African Union contingent. The African Union, along with Somalia’s official Transitional Federal Government, has recently claimed significant progress in reclaiming al-Shabaab-controlled areas of Mogadishu. The opening of a second front against the militant group will be a genuine test of its strength and ability to endure. DM
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Tigers cannot purr.