On October 16th, Kenyan troops crossed into Somalia in an attempt to secure the border between the two countries. Over the past month, Somali gunmen have kidnapped several Westerners, including two volunteers with Medecins Sans Frontieres, from northern Kenya. Kenya alleges that the Somalis involved in the kidnappings are members of al-Shabaab, a militarist group with ties to al-Qaeda that has been fighting against the Transitional Federal Government in Somalia.
The Transitional Federal Government (TFG) has a tenuous grasp on Somalia, despite withdrawals from Mogadishu by al-Shabaab in August. The group appears to be regrouping in southern Somalia, close to the Kenyan border where the TFG has less support from local clan-based militias. The town of Afmadow is a major stronghold of al-Shabaab and is strategically important because of its proximity to Kismayo, a port city that provides revenue for the group. Residents report that al-Shabaab fighters were leaving as the Kenyan troops approached.
Al-Shabaab denies any involvement in the recent kidnappings and has vowed to take action against Kenya for its actions. On October 18th, a suicide car bomb killed six people in Mogadishu while the Kenya’s Defense and Foreign Ministers met with TFG officials. No one has claimed responsibility for the terrorist attack, but al-Shabaab has vowed to resist the Kenyan forces.
Kenya has been training these clan-based militias to fight al-Shabaab recently, but by entering Somalia with hundreds of troops, Kenya appears to be increasing its involvement. While Kenya has stated that its actions were caused by the recent kidnappings, military analysts have suggested that this highly complex operation has been planned for a while. There have been conflicting reports as to whether the Somali government was aware of the Kenyan military plan in advance, but on October 18th, the Somali government and the Kenyan ministers signed a communiqué emphasizing al-Shabaab’s threat to both countries and stating that Kenya and Somalia would work closely to “defend the sovereignty and territorial integrity of both countries.”
Al-Shabaab claims that Kenya is using the kidnappings as an excuse for the military operation and denies all involvement; others point out that al-Shabaab does not typically organize attacks outside of Somalia. However, Al-Shabaab was responsible for the July 2010 attacks in Uganda that killed 74 people watching a World Cup game in Kampala. It is also worth noting that Kenya hopes that increasing tourists to three million a year by 2015 will help it “achieve its goal of a 10 percent economic growth.” Several of the recent kidnappings in Kenya took place at resorts, which may have a negative impact on the tourism industry. Additionally, famine in Somalia has increased the number of refugees entering Kenya, increasing pressure on Kenyan resources and infrastructure.