Kenya’s recent invasion of Somalia does not fit the mold of a typical border struggle. Rather than enter neighboring Somalia to capture territory, Kenya’s military marched across the border on October 16th in hopes of quelling a terrorist network that has menaced both countries: Harakat Al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen, known more commonly as al-Shabaab. A group of Islamic extremists, al-Shabaab has caused havoc across most of Somalia and beyond its borders via kidnappings, bombings, and other acts of violence since 2006, all with the ultimate goal of a total takeover of the country.
Questions arise, however, as to whether al-Shabaab is the sole reason for Kenya’s military entry. The 1,600 Kenyan troops making their way through southern Somalia represent the largest Kenyan military operation since its independence in 1963, and many believe Kenya is trying to finally do something about Somalia’s chronic instability. Indeed, the Kenyan invasion was greeted rather coldly by Somali president Sharif Sheik Ahmed who, despite signing a joint agreement calling for action against al-Shabaab, questioned Kenya’s motives while insisting that the Somali government retain territorial sovereignty. Tension remains apparent despite the countries’ written agreement, some of which can be explained by the countries’ starkly different histories.
Since its independence, Kenya has boasted a relatively strong and dependable economy that has helped alleviate the political woes its neighbors have faced. Its fertile Eastern plateau allows the country to thrive agriculturally, which contributes to 22% of its annual GDP, and has become a hotspot for trade in East Africa. Despite troubles with corruption in the past decade, Kenya is widely regarded as a bastion of stability in a region that is often fraught with turmoil. As such, Kenya finds itself constantly inundated with refugees from its less-prosperous neighbors; Dadaab, a trio of Kenyan refugee camps, sees the arrival of roughly 1,400 new Somali refugees every day, bringing the grand total to well over 400,000.
But overwhelming numbers of refugees are not the only problem that Somali instability has caused for Kenya. Kenya’s tourism industry, the country’s second-largest source of foreign exchange revenue, has been threatened by the increasing problem of Somali piracy. Recent abductions and killings of travelers from some of Kenya’s most important resorts have caught the attention of the media, dealing significant blows to the $800 million tourism industry. Hopes of achieving a record year for tourism revenue have been all but derailed.
But piracy is nothing new to Somalia, a country that has struggled through a tumultuous history even by East African standards. Despite having the resource potential for a relatively healthy economy, the country has been engulfed by nearly a half-century of civil unrest that has rendered it one of the poorest and most violent states in the entire world. Economically well-situated on the African coast, Somalia has been unable to convert its favorable location into an economic benefit— ironically, piracy has turned the country’s biggest advantage into one of its biggest problems.
Somalia’s major problem, however, is a recurring famine that has lasted multiple decades. Food shortages this year have affected an estimated 12 million people around the Horn of Africa, including roughly half of the entire Somali population, exacerbated by the region’s worst drought in 60 years. The problem is most dire in the southern regions of the country, where al-Shabaab has driven out the United Nations and other aid groups and has even deprived local farmers of water resources.
Al-Shabaab makes no secret of its ultimate goal in Somalia: the overthrow of the current government, called the Transitional Federal Government, and the spread of its very strict brand of Sharia law throughout the region. Established little more than a decade ago as an off-shoot of two other Somali Islamist groups, al-Shabaab has developed significant ties to Al-Qaeda, with its chief military strategist expressing allegiance to Osama Bin Laden at one point.11 Like the pirates in the area, al-Shabaab has been recently involved in many acts of violence, actions that have lent a sense of urgency to Kenya’s willingness to enter Somalia with force.
But a successful Kenyan operation in Somalia is not without risk; indeed, many observers criticize the military move as too aggressive and too dangerous. To begin with, recent rains in the area will significant hamper the Kenyan force’s mobility due to impassable terrain. The al-Shabaab fighters, roughly 15,000 strong, have already begun to conduct hit-and-run raids, and their guerilla tactics are made particularly effective by their superior knowledge of the territory. Furthermore, the invasion itself may already have convinced jihadists to plot acts of vengeance in the form of suicide bombings in Kenya or elsewhere. Only one week after the Kenyan troops entered Somalia, two deadly grenade attacks were carried out in Kenya’s capital of Nairobi. With such attacks seeming to be direct responses to the invasion, the war effort will likely see significant erosion in support from the Kenyan citizenry.
Despite the obvious risk, Kenya and Somalia’s efforts to stop al-Shabaab have rallied powerful allies for support. Kenya’s military is backed by the United States, giving their forces a military edge over the terrorist network. The effort has received local support as well, with South Africa and Rwanda both firmly in-line with goal of thwarting al-Shabaab. Finally, global organizations such as the European Union and the Commonwealth Heads of State have also given their support to the movement, although their concerns rest primarily with the piracy that has threatened trade in the region.
Although all recognize that the military movement is fraught with risk, ultimately the consensus among Kenya’s allies is that ridding the region of al-Shabaab is well-worth the danger. Only time will tell if the Kenyans, Somalis, and their supporters have bitten off more than they can chew.