Somalia-Kenya Maritime Border Dispute Could Threaten Counterterrorism Gains

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 17 Issue: 14


A maritime border dispute between Somalia and Kenya is threatening to derail the war against al-Shabaab, the al-Qaeda affiliate in East Africa, which continues to execute a deadly war in the Horn of Africa.

The dispute is particularly precarious because Kenya is a key contributor of troops to the Africa Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), which the Somali government relies on to fight al-Shabaab (The East African, March 24).

Recently, the al-Qaeda affiliate in East Africa has stepped up attacks, increasingly striking targets in the capital Mogadishu. The weapon of choice has been Vehicle-Borne Improved Explosive Devices (VBIEDs) backed by suicide bombers and small teams of fighters armed with AK47s. In one of the latest incidents, the militants attacked a neighborhood in Mogadishu on July 8, killing three people, including police officers. In what is becoming a trend, the attackers detonated a VBIED, before opening fire on nearby individuals (Daily Nation, May 24; Intelligence Briefs, July 8).

Such attacks have struck home in Kenya, Somalia’s southern neighbor, which has long paid a heavy price for protecting Somali government interests. One of the country’s significant decisions has been to send troops to fight al-Shabaab, which has been battling to replace the Somali government with one governed under Sharia (Islamic Law). Kenya entered Somalia in 2011 in pursuit of the militants who it accused of kidnapping foreign nationals, aid workers, and tourists inside its borders. In 2012, Kenyan troops formerly integrated into the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) force, turning the battle against the group into a continental effort (Daily Nation, July 6, 2012).

For supporting AMISOM, Kenya has paid with the lives of its troops. The militant group has also launched deadly reprisal attacks in Kenyan towns and cities (Daily Nation, May 25).

In January, al-Shabaab attacked the Dusit D2, an upmarket hotel and office complex in Nairobi, killing at least 21 people. In 2015, the militant group attacked Garissa University College, killing 148 people, mainly Christian students. In 2013, the militants attacked the upscale Westgate shopping mall, killing at least 60 people and injuring over 200 (Daily Nation, February 21).

AMISOM campaigns backed by increased U.S. airstrikes have, however, put the militants on the defensive. Al-Shabaab has lost significant territory and been forced out of towns and cities key to its revenue. The group, however, has remained a resilient force, extending its terror activities near the border with Kenya, with militants increasingly crossing into Kenya to carry out attacks.

But Kenya—a key U.S. ally in the war against terrorism—now finds itself at loggerheads with Somalia over a maritime border line. The dispute could put the war on terrorism and piracy in the Indian Ocean at stake. Security experts fear that the disagreement could upset the diplomatic balance, undo significant gains made against terrorism in Somalia and the region, and hinder the fight against piracy. Similarly, there is a fear that the dispute could embolden the militants.

The tensions have peaked in recent months, with diplomatic spats coming into the open. In May, three junior Somali ministers were blocked from entering Kenya at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi while traveling to join a European Union-sponsored cross-border management meeting. Somalia reacted by banning all Kenya-based NGOs working in Somalia. The government gave the organizations one month to relocate their headquarters to Somalia or be barred from operating in the country (Daily Nation, May 21; Business Daily, May 26).

After years of decline, piracy off the coast of Somalia has slowly been making a comeback. The incidents doubled in 2017 compared to 2016 and could surge again this year. [1] Terrorism and piracy in the area are closely related (Business Daily, July 31, 2018).

Furthermore, how the dispute will affect the collaboration between the Somali Army and the Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) remains to be seen. The two have been collaborating in the fight against the al-Shabaab, which still controls most of southern Somalia.

Past attempts to solve the border disputes have not been successful. In 2009, Kenya and Somalia agreed that a UN Commission in charge of border disputes should resolve the border line and agreed they should work so that the border issue does not go to court.

In 2014, however, Somalia brought the issue to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) at The Hague, sparking a fresh diplomatic row. Rejecting an out of court settlement, Somalia wants the line redrawn to run diagonally eastwards as an extension of the dry land border. Kenyan officials allege if the line is extended eastwards, it will affect Tanzania, then Mozambique, and finally South Africa (Standard Digital, June 18).

Kenya maintains the border runs parallel to the line of latitude. Kenya, East Africa’s largest economy, has argued that Somalia has recognized and respected this position since 1979 (Standard Digital, July 1).

At the core of the disagreement are off-shore blocks in a 100,000 square kilometer triangle off the Kenyan port of Lamu. The sea blocks are believed to contain huge deposits of hydrocarbons, such as oil and gas. Kenyan officials allege a hidden hand, mainly of international oil and gas prospecting companies, which are apparently taking advantage of Somalia’s weakness to drive the dispute (The East Africa, June 9).

Gas and oil are new discoveries in the two countries, and each is keen to develop its own energy sector. Both have set sight on the disputed territory’s hydrocarbons, in spite of the threat posed by piracy in the sea and al-Shabaab on the land.

At stake for Kenya is a sea area of approximately 51,000 square kilometers, which represents 26 percent of its Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ). The country would also lose 85 percent, or 95,000 square kilometers, of the continental shelf beyond the EEZ as well as access to international waters (Standard Digital, June 18).

Somalia had attempted to auction off oil blocks in the disputed region. According to the reports, the country held an oil exploration exhibition in London in February, where the blocks were put up for sale. Kenya alleged the country had exhibited seismic oil data for potential buyers, under the sponsorship of a potential explorer (The East African, June 9).


The border dispute threatens the war against al-Shabaab and complicates efforts to end piracy in the Indian Ocean. Somalia could try to portray Kenya as a bullying, stable neighbor while Kenya could try to portray Somalia as an ungrateful, troubled nation. If the diplomatic tensions increase further, Kenya could potentially choose to pull its troops from AMISOM. Such a move would be disastrous for Somalia as Kenya is a key contributor and the country does not have a stable and efficient army.  Al-Shabaab, which over the years has emerged as a very resilient force, could quickly overrun most regions in southern Somalia, where it still maintains some control. The dispute needs to be resolved quickly and amicably so that it does not threaten, complicate and disrupt key security efforts in East Africa.


[1] The State of Maritime Piracy Report