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Al-Shabaab's attacks in East Africa: a timeline
Al-Shabaab's attacks in East Africa: a timeline
Report 184 / Africa

The Kenyan Military Intervention in Somalia

As Kenya advances into southern Somalia, it must act cautiously and avoid prolonged “occupation”, lest it turn local opinion against the operation and galvanise opposition Al-Shabaab can co-opt, much as happened to Ethiopia in 2006-2009.

Executive Summary

The decision in October 2011 to deploy thousands of troops in Somalia’s Juba Valley to wage war on Al-Shabaab is the biggest security gamble Kenya has taken since independence, a radical departure for a country that has never sent its soldiers abroad to fight. Operation Linda Nchi (Protect the Country) was given the go-ahead with what has shown itself to be inadequate political, diplomatic and military preparation; the potential for getting bogged down is high; the risks of an Al-Shabaab retaliatory terror campaign are real; and the prospects for a viable, extremist-free and stable polity emerging in the Juba Valley are slim. The government is unlikely to heed any calls for a troop pullout: it has invested too much, and pride is at stake. Financial and logistical pressures will ease once its force becomes part of the African Union (AU) mission in Somalia (AMISOM). But it should avoid prolonged “occupation” of southern Somalia, lest it turn local Somali opinion against the intervention and galvanise an armed resistance that could be co-opted by Al-Shabaab, much as happened to Ethiopia during its 2006-2009 intervention.

The intervention was hastily approved, after a string of cross-border kidnappings, by a small group without sufficient consideration of the consequences, at home as well as in Somalia. Military leaders were apparently convinced it would be a quick campaign, but the Kenyan Defence Forces (KDF) promptly ran into difficulties on the unfamiliar terrain. Somali allies failed to deliver and began squabbling, while Al-Shabaab, rather than confront Kenyan tanks and armoured personnel carriers head-on, predictably reverted to guerrilla warfare – something the KDF was poorly trained and equipped to fight. Irrespective of whether its troops are “rehatted” into AMISOM, there is a real prospect Kenya will find itself with undependable allies, enmeshed in a protracted counter-insurgency campaign against a resilient and experienced enemy.

The involvement in Somalia was partly motivated by a desire to inoculate North Eastern Province from the chaos across its border, ease a huge refugee burden and curtail the radical influence of Al-Shabaab, but the unintended consequences may prove destabilising. The venture could reopen old wounds, foment new inter-clan discord, radicalise Kenyan Somalis and undermine recent social, economic and political advances. The North Eastern Province is now the soft underbelly in the war against Al-Shabaab. New evidence suggests the radical Islamist movement is intent on destabilising the province, and part of its strategy is to outflank the KDF and wage a low-intensity guerrilla campaign there and in other areas behind Kenyan lines. A string of deadly grenade attacks in Garissa and elsewhere, initially dismissed as the work of local malcontents, now is seen to have a pattern. Most of the venues targeted have been bars frequented by government and security officials and poorly-defended government outposts.

Furthermore, the intervention taps into deep-seated Kenyan fears of Somali encroachment and corresponding Somali qualms that Kenya seeks to assert control over territory that was once part of colonial Kenya. Al-Shabaab is trying to exploit Kenyan-Somali grievances against Nairobi and making pan-Somali appeals, although without much apparent success to date. For Kenya’s venture to have a positive outcome, its leadership will need to define its goals and exit strategy more clearly, as well as work effectively with international partners to facilitate reconciliation and the development of effective local government mechanisms in the areas of Somalia where its forces are active, as part of a larger commitment to ending Somalia’s conflicts and restoring stability to the region.

While this briefing is an independent treatment of the Kenyan intervention in Somalia, some elements, in particular issues related to Al-Shabaab, Kenyan Somalis, and North Eastern Province, have also been discussed in earlier Crisis Group reporting, most recently the briefing Kenyan Somali Islamist Radicalisation (25 January 2012). Crisis Group will publish shortly a briefing on the wider issues involved in restoring peace to Somalia.

Nairobi/Brussels, 15 February 2012

Interactive / Africa

Al-Shabaab's attacks in East Africa: a timeline

Five years after an attack on Nairobi’s Westgate Mall, Al-Shabaab appears committed to striking targets across East Africa. Security crackdowns have blunted its capacity to stage regular assaults, but complacency could roll back those gains, as could failure to engage with communities in which the group recruits.

Starting from Al-Qaeda's first major attack in East Africa, this timeline tracks Al-Shabaab's advances and setbacks in Somalia, as well its attacks in Uganda and Kenya.