Kenya’s military intervention to target Al-Shabab in Somalia is likely to worsen the plight of millions of food-insecure civilians and could increase popular support for the Islamist insurgents, aid workers and analysts warn.
Kenya launched Operation Linda Nchi (Kiswahili for “Protect the Nation”) on 16 October and has since deployed ground troops and air assets between its common border and the Somali port town of Kismayo.
Government officials have said its forces were targeting militants who threaten Kenya’s heavily tourism-dependent economy and its national security. In recent weeks there have been kidnappings of tourists and aid workers in Kenya, which officials blamed on Al-Shabab, a charge the group denied. One tourist was shot dead on the Kenyan coast, another died in captivity.
Six regions in Somalia are now classified as being in a state of famine; volatile security in many of these areas, mostly under the control of Al-Shabab, greatly reduces aid agencies’ ability to reach the needy. The food crisis has displaced hundreds of thousands of people, many of whom have crossed into Kenya to seek refuge in the world’s largest refugee complex. Two Spanish employees of Medécins sans Frontières (MSF), were abducted from the camp in mid-October. Three weeks earlier, a Kenyan driver working for CARE, another NGO, was abducted at gunpoint.
“The main concern is that we are in the middle of a famine where hundreds of thousands of lives are at risk, people are extremely malnourished and desperately need more aid - the last thing they need right now is more conflict that could displace more people and make it even harder for aid agencies to reach them,” Alun McDonald, regional media and communications officer for Oxfam GB’s operations for the Horn, East and Central Africa, told IRIN.
“We're already seeing some impact on humanitarian access - some of our local partners in Somalia have reported having to temporarily suspend some activities over the past few days - particularly some of the less immediate work such as support for farmers and livelihoods. The concern is that if fighting continues to increase then it will get even harder to work than it already is,” he said.
“Population movements are a very likely result, and there are concerns about where people would flee to if the Kenyan government puts stricter controls in place for crossing the border,” he said.
Tony Burns, director of operations for SAACID, a Somali NGO working mainly with women and children, said, “Any increased conflict will inevitably have negative consequences for the Somali civilian population and the local economy.”
But he added, “If the Kenyan intervention remains only a short-term incursion – to demonstrate military capacity and strength of will - then I do not believe there will be any lasting consequences for the current basket of humanitarian and development activities.”
On the move
"Many people have been leaving in the last three days. No-one wants to get caught up in the fighting, I have sent my family to the villages," said a resident of Afmadow, a town 140km north of Kenya’s border.
Describing the intervention as a “joint Kenya-Somali operation”, the commander of Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG) forces in the border area, Gen. Yusuf Hussein Dhumal, told IRIN from his base in Tabta, 65km north of the Kenyan border, that his forces were in control of Qoqani, 50km south of Afmadow town.
"We are being delayed by heavy rains. Our aim was to be in Afmadow by now but the rains have made that impossible. We will push until we chase them [Al-Shabab] from Kismayo."
Mohamed Ahmed Ilkase, a reporter for Somali national TV travelling with the Somali forces, told IRIN Al-Shabab was reportedly regrouping in Afmadow.
A resident of the port city of Kismayo, 500km south of the Somali capital, Mogadishu, said Al-Shabab had been reinforcing its positions in the city and conscripting people "to fight the enemy. They have been bringing many militias since Monday [17 October] and have been calling on residents to register to fight.”
He said families had started leaving the city. "Some are going south [towards Kenya], while many others are going north to Mogadishu."
Several observers warned that Kenya’s intervention could backfire.
“The real surprise is that the western countries that have urged restraint have failed to convince Kenya that Kenya may be perpetuating the problem that it is claiming to want to eliminate,” said SAACID’s Burns.
“The fear is that Al-Shabab will be able to garner Somali nationalist sentiment against Kenya – perceiving the incursion as an invasion and occupation. Al-Shabab was very successful in framing the Ethiopian military incursion of 2007-2008 in support of the TFG in that way, and there was a concomitant virulent nationalist Somali opposition to the Ethiopian occupation.
“If the incursion becomes an occupation, then I suspect Al-Shabab will be able to garner more and more public support and funding as time passes, and the Kenyan military will face an ever more complicated military context,” he added.
A view echoed by Somali university lecturer Farah Mohamed: “The invasion, I don't know what else to call it, will only help those they claim to be fighting.”
"Unfortunately, it will not solve any of the problems but will create even more," said Hassan Sheikh, an academic and politician. Kenya’s intervention risks "not only boosting Al-Shabab but creating new groups that we don't know about".
“I think they [the Kenyans] have taken on more they bargained for,” said Abdi Dahir Dirie, a professor of at Mogadishu University.
Noting that Kenya’s tourism industry was an economic lifeline worth protecting, Laura Hammond, a senior lecturer in the Department of Development Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London, also expressed concerns about the plan to capture Kismayo from Al-Shabab.
"If it succeeds, what then? What will it do if it achieves this goal? Stay in Kismayo the way the Ethiopians stayed in Mogadishu? The plan seems to me not that clearly thought out, and there are a thousand chances for it to go wrong," Hammond said.
Rashid Abdi, Horn of Africa analyst for the International Crisis Group (ICG), said he doubted “the Kenyans have a military strategy as such beyond showing they can act.
"This operation is primarily aimed at mollifying critics of Nairobi's ‘soft’ policy towards Somalia... I think this escalation is ill-advised.
"My greatest fear is that Kenya has just given Al-Shabab the excuse it needs to strike at Kenya. If Al-Shabab carries out a terrorist act in Kenya, the repercussion for Somalis will be grave,” he said.
Within Somalia, “Al-Shabab will most certainly retaliate with all manner of actions – suicide bombers, improvised explosive devices, hit-and-run guerrilla tactics, ambushes and even frontal attacks against soft targets,” Imaana Laibuta, a retired Kenyan army major now working as a security consultant, wrote in Nairobi’s Daily Nation newspaper.
Without adequate force protection measures, he warned the incursion “might be a tragic undertaking whereby we have just sent our sons, daughters, brothers, sisters and mothers to die just to satisfy public anger and please the western tourist circuit and anti-Islam fear-mongers”, he added.
There are also suspicions that the intervention is designed to boost Kenya’s widely reported but publicly undeclared plan to establish a semi-autonomous region in southern Somalia, a buffer zone known variously as Jubaland and Azania, made up of the Gedo, Lower and Middle Juba regions, with Kismayo as its capital.
From the Kenyan perspective, the main incentive for such a zone would be to protect its border from Al-Shabab incursions. Kenya has also been keen to reduce the inflow of Somali refugees, around half a million of whom live in Dadaab, an attitude demonstrated by the delayed opening of an overflow camp in the complex.
On 20 October, the Star newspaper quoted an unidentified government minister expressing alarm at Al-Shabab’s recruitment in Dadaab. “We will create a safe zone for them and then the UNHCR [the UN Refugee Agency] and other agencies can take care of them inside Somalia,” said the minister, who made no specific reference to “Jubaland”.
In April 2011, a Somali former defence minister, Mohamed Abdi Mohamed, announced to international media that he had been named “president” of Jubaland, but since then there have been no noticeable developments around the initiative.
“The real reason [for the military action] in my opinion has to do with the failed Jubaland initiative and the Somali-Kenya maritime boundary,” said Hassan Sheikh, an opinion shared by Mogadishu University’s Dirie.
“I think some people in Kenya want to revive the Jubaland initiative,” Sheikh added.