ANALYSIS-Kenya risks rallying support for Somali rebels
Mon Oct 24, 2011 12:35pm GMT
* Wave of kidnappings forced Kenya to send troops into Somalia
* Troop numbers appear inadequate to rout rebels from south
* Ethiopia's incursion boosted rebel support; Kenya risks same
By Richard Lough
NAIROBI, Oct 24 (Reuters) - Kenya's deployment inside Somalia lacks the
military muscle to deal a mortal blow to Islamist rebels blamed for a spate
of kidnappings and risks galvanising support for the militants plagued by
internal rifts and popular resentment.
With half an eye on elections next year, Kenya's political leaders could
ill-afford to do nothing after the abductions of foreigners and last week
launched an offensive against the al Qaeda-affiliated al Shabaab rebels, now
hunkering down for battle in their southern Somalia strongholds.
The east African country has watched nervously during the last two decades
as first warlords then Islamist insurgents reduced the Somali government to
impotency. It is desperate to prevent the conflict spilling over the border.
The latest wave of abductions on the Kenyan coast and from the world's
largest refugee camp at Dadaab in the northeast of the country exposed how
porous the semi-arid frontier remains.
But Kenya's military operation comes at a time when al Shabaab is on the
back foot, beset by a widening split amongst commanders favouring a
nationalist cause and those bent on a more international jihadist agenda.
This divide led to the rebels abandoning Mogadishu for the first time in
five years in August.
The rifts were exacerbated by al Shabaab's poor handling of the famine
ravaging Somalia, which stoked popular anger at their draconian rule.
Somalis, however, have traditionally fiercely opposed foreign intervention
and a drawn out military offensive risks rallying rebel support, especially
if civilian casualties are high.
"Al Shabaab was losing ground and popular support. Foreign intervention at
this time is counterproductive," said Afyare Elmi, a Somali political
scientist at Qatar University's International Affairs department.
"It will create conditions that would nourish violent extremism by giving al
Shabaab a cause and raise the motivation of its fighters. This was a
strategic mistake on the part of Kenya."
Kenya is tight-lipped on its ultimate objective, but says it wants to reduce
al Shabaab's effectiveness. It is not clear how many Kenyan troops have been
sent into Somalia although local media puts the deployment at some 4,000
The region's biggest economy may intend simply to push the rebels away from
the frontier in the hope that allied Somali forces it has helped train and
arm can occupy the void.
More ambitious would be to crush al Shabaab in the port city of Kismayu, the
nerve centre of the rebels' southern operations, a source of funds, and the
base for its several hundred-strong foreign combatants -- some of whom are
graduates of al Qaeda's training camps.
Kismayu residents, increasingly familiar with the sight of drones dropping
bombs on al Shabaab targets, fear an assault is nigh after warplanes swooped
low in the skies above the city.
A jet on Saturday struck two rebel bases in Kismayu although it was not
immediately clear whose airforce it belonged to.
Seizing and holding Kismayu would mark a big step towards regaining control
of the south and is the stated goal of Somalia's military top brass.
"Kenya does not have the capacity to drive al Shabaab out (of southern
Somalia) and keep them out," said David Shinn, a former U.S. ambassador to
"The best it can do is remove al Shabaab from the border area, and possibly
Kismayu, and then try to replace al Shabaab with Somali forces friendly to
J. Peter Pham, Africa director with U.S. think-tank the Atlantic Council,
agreed Kenya's forces did not appear strong enough to root out al Shabaab,
but cautioned the intervention was "more than enough to stir them up".
"The only thing that will be accomplished is that a few (Kenyan) politicians
can posture, albeit at the cost of tensions being inflamed and allowing al
Shabaab and other militants ... to once again rally Somalis around them
under the banner of nationalism to resist a 'foreign invader'," said Pham.
Somali lawmaker Yusuf Mire Serar welcomed Kenya's incursion but said it did
not appear to have any long-term vision.
"It seems they are just reacting to abductions without thinking of the clear
national vision and strategy with the help of the TFG (Transitional Federal
Government) and the already international and regional actors on the ground
including the African Union," Serar told Reuters in Mogadishu.
"Instead they are empowering the already dead al Shabaab by giving them
chances to mobilise people into war again."
DESTINED TO BACKFIRE?
Al Shabaab has threatened to take the "war of flames" back across the
frontier if Kenya does not withdraw its troops.
Kenya is not the first of Somalia's neighbours to send boots onto Somali
soil, just as the United States did in the early 1990s to consequences
immortalised in the film "Black Hawk Down".
In late 2006, Ethiopia, a far superior military power to Kenya, sent
thousands of troops and columns of tanks into the lawless country with the
tacit backing of Washington, ostensibly to protect its borders.
Seen by Western powers as a bulwark against a rising tide of Islamic
militancy in the region, Ethiopia routed the Islamist Islamic Courts Union
(ICU) from de facto power in Mogadishu.
The Islamists regrouped in Kismayu and from the ashes of the ICU rose al
Professing loyalty to al Qaeda, the rebels launched their insurgency in
early 2007. Ethiopia pulled its troops from Somalia two years later.
Al Shabaab's bloody campaign rages on and has killed tens of thousands of
Ethiopia's intervention was seen as a public relations coup for al Shabaab
and Kenya risks the same if it fails to deliver a mortal blow to al Shabaab
in southern Somalia, said analyst Mark Schroeder of global intelligence
Pham said even if Kenya delivers a knockout blow to al Shabaab, it should
still fear attack from threats already present in the country which pose an
unwelcome danger with presidential elections around one year away.
Kenya's largely Muslim coast and its huge Somali populations in the capital
and the Dadaab refugee camp, which has more than 400,000 residents, are seen
as fertile recruiting grounds for Islamist militants.
"Even if (Kenya) were to deal a mortal blow to al Shabaab ... (it) would
still increase the risk of 'sleeper cells' or even self-radicalised 'lone
wolf' sympathizers to respond by carrying out attacks within Kenya," said
(Additional reporting by Mohamed Ahmed in Mogadishu; Editing by Yara Bayoumy
and Belinda Goldsmith)
C Thomson Reuters 2011 All rights reserved
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Received on Mon Oct 24 2011 - 10:23:34 EDT