The Islamists who control most of southern Somalia and who are grouped under the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) continue to accuse Kenya of being biased in support of the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) as well as backing plans to send African Union peacekeeping troops to Somalia. For Kenya, the ICU’s large advancement into southern Somalia has caused concern. Kenya shares a 1,500 kilometer border with Somalia and experts have warned that this line, which is often un-patrolled, has in the past been an entry-point into Kenya for international terrorists. Some government officials have quietly backed this view, warning that developments in Somalia are a real threat to Kenya’s security.
On September 28, Foreign Affairs Assistant Minister Moses Wetang’ula confirmed the government’s anxiety when he said that the armed forces had been put on high alert following recent developments in Somalia. At the same time, the government announced that it had increased surveillance along the border, while training the border security personnel in anti-terrorism skills. Nairobi has boosted the presence of Kenyan paramilitaries—called the General Service Unit—and army soldiers and policemen at border points. Some reports say that units consisting of these groups have also been stationed at strategic locations on the Kenyan side of the border. The border geography itself is desert and semi-desert, with hot, windy and dry conditions. The conditions are harsh, like most of northern Kenya.
The Kenyan Navy, Kenya Ports Authority and the Marine Police are also on high alert and are monitoring all shipping coming into Kenya’s territorial waters. Only those ships authorized to sail within the country’s 200 nautical-mile limit are docking at the port in Mombasa. The military is monitoring the waters north of Mombasa in the towns and smaller ports closer to the Somalia border. It has extended its nautical border along its coast from 200 to 350 kilometers. The United States on October 6 donated six armored speedboats to Kenya to help patrol the coast (The Standard, October 9). “In this era of terrorism and piracy, we want all stakeholders to join hands with the government so that we can make sure our sea waters are safe,” said Mohammed Maalim, the Mombasa district commissioner, on October 20.
Causing further concern, there are reports that the ICU has been recruiting the Somali diaspora in Kenya for a religiously incited jihad against Ethiopia. Some sources, such as North Eastern Provincial Commissioner Kiritu Wamae, report that the ICU’s jihad and pursuit of Islamic ideology have attracted Somali youths from Kenya (The Standard, November 4). These young men are similar to the ICU’s main fighters who are in their 20s and early 30s. The main attraction to the ICU militias has been employment and military training. Many Somali Kenyans live in towns on the border between the two countries and regularly migrate across the border for trade and herding. This makes it difficult to prevent recruits from crossing the border to join the ICU. On October 20, Wamae put the figure of the recruits in the hundreds. He said that the secret recruitment was considered by Kenya as a threat to the region’s security.
Kenya has reason to worry. Reports say that the latest two terrorist attacks in the country were in part coordinated from Somalia. Further reports show that the main al-Qaeda cell that bombed the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi had its members camped out in Kenya for a period of time before the execution of the attack; however, the logistics and the material used for assembling the bombs had been shipped from Somalia (Daily Nation, October 28).
In 2002, Adan Hashi Ayro, an Afghan-trained fighter, was believed to have led members of an al-Qaeda cell in a plot to attack an Israeli airliner taking off from the Mombasa airport (AllAfrica.com, October 28). The weapons used in the attack were traced to terrorist cells in Somalia. Ayro is, at the moment, believed to be heading another violent unit in the ICU militia known as Shabaab (Garowe Online, October 17; Terrorism Focus, August 8). Sources in Mogadishu, who do not wish to be named, say that this unit has been doing most of the intense fighting for the courts. It is composed of young men in their 20s and mid-30s who are radical Muslims and ruthless fighters. According to at least one recent press report, the Shabaab unit now consists of some 300-400 fighters (National Post, October 14). The actions of Ayro have the blessing of ICU spiritual leader Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys who is on the U.S. list of wanted terrorists. The presence of Aweys in the ICU has concerned the international community, including Kenya, which fears that an all out war with the ICU is a possibility since some Kenyan nationals are now said to be joining the ICU fighters.
Within the 15-year period since the ouster of Somali dictator President Siad Barre, Kenya has paid heavily through upsurges in crimes such as bank robberies, car hijackings and killings that have been attributed to the lawlessness in Somalia. Yet, with the Somalia situation becoming more unpredictable by the day, Kenya has tried to be an “honest and neutral” broker. This opportunity is disappearing quickly since the ICU is starting to look at Kenya as an enemy. Somalia’s isolated TFG, for example, was formed in Kenya and its members continue to live in Nairobi, while others visit the country frequently. Nevertheless, Kenya is attempting to push forward with the peace process and prevent an all out war. Such a conflict, however, would reduce the ICU to rag-tag militias and this could be even more detrimental to regional security since it will make the Islamist militia movement harder to control and will erode any stability in Somalia. Additionally, this could encourage elements from the militias to either engage in or support terrorist operations against Kenya and Western interests in the region.