About three weeks ago, Kenya’s military launched Operation Linda Nchi (Protect the Country). Some 3,000 ground troops, supported by armour, airpower, and apparently naval forces, crossed the porous border between north-eastern Kenya and southern Somalia. At the time, the Kenyan government claimed the assault was in response to the kidnapping of two foreign aid workers from Dadaab refugee camp, whose abduction it blamed on al Shabab militants. The kidnapping was the fourth in a month, starting with the kidnapping of an NGO driver from the same camp in September, the abduction of a British tourist and the murder of her husband on the coastline near Lamu, and shortly afterwards, the kidnapping of a French national from the same region, who later died in captivity. The Kenyan government stated it was in hot pursuit of the kidnappers.
That Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahideen (HSM) was behind any of the attacks is dubious. The insurgency group is the latest iteration of hardline Islamicist militia fighters who have held sway in various forms over parts of southern Somalia since the ousting of then-President Siad Biarre in 1991. Since 2006 and the ousting of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) it has been the dominant unifying armed group in opposition to the western-backed and inherently fragile Transitional Federal Government (TFG), which holds tenuous control over most of Mogadishu, and little else. For much of the last few years it has engaged in warfare with the TFG and allied forces, including Somali clans, the Africa Union peacekeeping mission AMISOM, and the Ethiopian military. Its recent draw-back from some Mogadishu suburbs was heralded as a military ‘defeat’ for the group, but analysts observed that it more likely marked a transition from more conventional warfare tactics, which were unsustainable, to more assymetric tactics better suited to the group’s less formal military structure. A number of attacks over the last few weeks bear this out, including a massive truck-bomb explosion in central Mogadishu, and an assault on AMISOM troops that left as many as 60 Burundian soldiers dead.
Al Shabab, which aligns itself with al Qaeda’s global mission- and recently hosted an aid mission by alleged al Qaeda operatives– is reported to raise up to USD 100 million a year, according to a recent UN report- largely by taxing shipping through the port of Kismayo, extortion, and other endeavours. While kidnapping expatriates for ransom has become big business in Somalia, as in other war-affected regions such as western Sudan, Iraq and Afghanistan, it is hard to see what al Shabab would have to gain by kidnapping foreign tourists and aid workers. The going price for a hostage is measured in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, perhaps a bit over a million in, give or take, so against an annual income of a hundred million, it’s quite slim pickings. Slim pickings, for a lot of extra work- hostage abductions are costly and risky ventures. Hostages die easily (at which point they become largely worthless), and have to be fed, sheltered, transported and given medical attention. They also generate a lot of attention. Media attention, to be sure- and in some cases, such as the early abductions in the Iraq war, this was a major motivation for targeting expatriates- but this is less the case now. It also garners the attention of special forces rescue operations, rival groups, and military forces, which are usually less welcome.
Kidnap-for-ransom activities tend to be favoured by smaller groups, who are generally prepared to weather the high risks of the operation for the high payoff should it work out. For larger organizations, the cash return is simply not worth the political and military fallout they’re likely to engender- though they may play some supporting role in the operation, such as facilitating handovers between groups, or acting as intermediaries. As hostage-taking becomes more of an industry, it’s also increasingly being run by organizations specialising in this type of endeavour. Securing a ransom requires an element of trust. If you’re an established player in the market, with a track record of returning your hostage once the ransom is paid, you’re far more likely to get paid the next time you snatch someone and there’s an established go-between, and some confidence you’ll follow through on your promises. If you’re just some qat-jived hick with a gun, people are going to be more wary.
Various pirate groups operate with a large degree of impunity up and down the Somali coastline, taking advantage of stateless anarchy to run operating bases and set up holding areas for ships and hostages alike. It’s a huge business, and pockets of Somalia have economies largely dependant on it. The combination of a failed economy, the lack of any state support, and even overfishing that has reduced the profit margins of Somalia’s fishing industry have all contributed to the rise of piracy over the past decade. World governments and shipping companies, frustrated by the trend, have increasingly protected their vessels travelling through Somali waters, with the British government the latest to authorize armed guards on ships. Analysts observing this trend warned that with the infrastructure already in place supporting piracy operations, and the dependency of the local economy, the likelihood was for these gangs to look for easier targets- particularly, inland. While increase in activity by Puntland authorities is trying to tackle this, the authorities are not strong enough to crush it.
The most recent abduction of foreigners– an American and a Dane from the Danish Demining Group taken from Galkacyo last week- evidenced this. Snatched from deep within Puntland- there is very little al Shabab operational capacity here- they were taken coastward to an area known as a pirate holding zone. A few days after the abduction, rival pirate gangs even fought a battle over the possession of the hostages, who remained fortunately unharmed following the incident. There was no way to pin this one on al Shabab.
In fact, the groundswell of opinion suggesting al Shabab were behind the abductions from northern Kenya is waning, too. Interestingly, when al Shabab took control of the pirate haven of Kismayo a couple of years back, piracy operations were largely displaced to other, non-Shabab-controlled areas further north and in Puntland, where the most activity is now seen. Most global sources quote Kenya’s initial claim with some doubt, also referencing al Shabab’s denial that it had anything to do with the abductions (this from a group not shy to admit to its activities). What they don’t seem to pick up on quite as often is that Kenya pretty much withdrew its claims that the invasion was as a result of the kidnapping. Kenya’s own military have admitted that they’d been planning the invasion for months, and that the kidnapping was just a convenient springboard to launch their operations, succinctly explained in this New York Times article:
When Kenya sent troops storming across Somalia’s border on Oct. 16, government officials initially said that they were chasing kidnappers who had recently abducted four Westerners inside Kenya, two from beachside bungalows, and that Kenya had to defend its tourism industry.
But on Wednesday, Alfred Mutua, the Kenyan government’s chief spokesman, revised this rationale, saying the kidnappings were more of a “good launchpad.”
A nation using an inflammitary topic to galvanize its people in support of a foreign invasion, then later changing tack? Where have we heard this before?
So where is the international outcry? Where the governments calling for an immediate withdrawl of Kenyan troops, the public protests decrying an illegal occupation, or the papers full of headlines claiming the invasion to be unjust (as opposed to just incompetent, which a few manage)?
Well, in fact the overwhelming western response seems to be one of tacit, if quiet, approval.
In the early days of the response, rumours abounded of French and US involvement. The former nation’s navy allegedly provided naval artillery support and rumoured aerial support. It subsequently denied any involvement to date, but did say it would provide support to the operation. Meanwhile, murmurs of US drone strikes strategically timed to support the Kenyan invasion also surfaced. A number were even reported in somewhat neutrality-questionable sources in Iran and Pakistan. The US denied that it had launched any strikes recently, or that it was supporting the Kenyan operation other than through an “overt way through the Kenya navy, army and air force“. It even went so far as to claim it had no knowledge at all of the Kenyan invasion- a statement difficult to believe, given Kenya’s status as an ally in the Global War on Terror and the US’s well-established clandestine intelligence presence in Somalia and the region.
Prior to the Kenyan military invasion- the nation’s first- it took a different tack. Much of north eastern Kenya is ethnically Somali, the border long and hard to patrol in a remote area of desert. Dadaab refugee camp has played host to over a hundred thousand refugees since the early 1990s (around half a million today), with more hosted in communities. There is also a large Somali population in Nairobi. The risk of insurgency activity and domestic terrorism has been a priority in Kenya’s domestic and foreign security policy for many years, but specifically since the 1998 embassy bombing that killed two hundred Kenyans and injured a thousand more. That attack, linked to al Qaeda operatives, also had ties to Somalia and al Shabab, with one of the operation’s ringleaders killed at a checkpoint earlier this year. One of its key defensive strategies therefore was to fund allied militias along the border to fight a proxy war and create a buffer between Kenya and al Shabab. That operation did not reap much success, but did manage to fund and arm a number of bloody warlords. The current strategy looks to be a new incarnation of the same drive: to create a buffer.
The plan is horribly flawed. Kenya’s military, while trained and equipped, has little experience of combat operations. The initial invasion force appears to include some 3,000 soldiers, a woefully small number to hold any territory. The aim of the invasion appears to be to take the towns of Afmadow and Kismayo, but to what end is not entirely clear. Does Kenya hope that, once displaced, Kenya-friendly Somali clan leaders will fill the leadership vacuum? Does it anticipate that TFG and AMISOM forces will rush in at their tails to take control? Given the Somali government’s somewhat frosty reception to the invasion (though note the backpedalling here), it’s unlikely Kenya has any aims of actually annexing the region and governing directly. But then, with 3,000 troops, it couldn’t hope to. If there’s a lesson well illustrated in Afghanistan and Iraq, it’s that huge numbers of troops are required to control relatively small areas of territory when insurgents are in operation- that, and pitching conventional troops against organizations skilled in asymmetric warfare does not lead to a quick, easy or decisive victory. And if there’s a lesson well illustrated in Somalia, it’s that power vacuums don’t lead to good leaders stepping in and taking charge, just years of anarchy. A lesson the Ethiopian invasion of 2006 wrote with much blood.
Kenya’s motivations, to shore up its borders and provide some economic security, are obvious. But why does the West seem so slow to condemn Kenya for invading its neighbour- certainly in breach of international agreements, and possibly in breach of international law as well, following the bombing of a relief camp? Well, sitting at this level, we don’t know the finer ins and outs of the diplomacy happening behind the scenes. It’s possible- probable, even- that some envoys are working for a way to enable Kenya to beat a face-saving withdrawl. But, quite frankly, it’s too late for that. Al Shabab has already called for large-scale terror attacks on Nairobi and has said the Kenyan populace will suffer for the actions of its government. A withdrawl will only fuel a notion of victory for the insurgents, and likely embolden them, not diffuse their anger. The chances of a major terrorist attack being attempted in Nairobi over the next few months are pretty high.
The West, however, appears to be playing the same risky game that Kenya did a few years ago, albeit one step removed. Allow a proxy force to go in and do the dirty work. With the significant weakening of al Qaeda Central’s strategic capability since the killing of bin Laden and a number of other key operatives, increasing focus has been placed on al Shabab territory as a breeding ground for al Qaeda operatives and operational capacity, among other festive hotspots such as Yemen. The US’s operational presence in Somalia is increasingly well attested-to, but it is none the less a small and somewhat clandestine operation, primarily involving intelligence support, training, and surgical drone strikes. The likelihood of the US gaining any domestic support for even a relatively small operation (such as the recently-announced Special Operations force to help in the hunt for the LRA’s Joseph Kony) is minimal, with the wounds inflicted by the 1993 Battle of the Black Sea (of Black Hawk Down fame) still smarting. But having an allied force putting its troops on the front line in occupying al Shabab is a perfectly acceptable solution.
It’s hard to know exactly what conversations are going on behind the scenes. Kenya was quick to announce US and French support for the invasion, only to have to withdraw it after both nations denied the action. Still, it seems unlikely that the Kenyans would come out and speak confidently and officially of such support if it hadn’t been inferred at some point in the conversation. Nor does it seem believable that intelligence services knew nothing of the military manouevre that led to the invasion proper. Much more probable is that western governments are perfectly happy for Kenyan troops to fight and die against a perceived enemy in the GWOT, will offer their support and approval behind closed doors, but will maintain a veneer of plausible deniability to limit both domestic backlash and the risk of increased targeted agitation by extremists who can now vent their rage against the more local and accessible Kenyans who are the immediate aggressor. Keep them busy close to their own home fronts, and they’re far less likely to be able to launch attacks further afield.
And never mind the 750,000 Somalis at risk of death from famine, who will certainly be further isolated by this new phase of warfare.