The Third Intervention: Kenya’s Incursion into Somalia Goes Where Others Have Failed

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 9 Issue: 39

Kenyan soldiers prepare for "Operation Linda Nchi" (Defend The Country)

As grenades explode in crowded Nairobi pubs, Kenyan jet fighters bomb targets inside Somalia and France agrees to supply Kenyan forces, Kenya’s military intervention in Somalia against the Islamist militant group al-Shabaab raises many questions regarding the future security of East Africa. The Kenyan Army entered Somalia on October 16 after the September-October cross-border kidnappings of foreign tourists and aid workers in Kenya blamed on al-Shabaab (one French hostage, 66-year-old Marie Dedieu, disabled and ill with cancer, has since died, apparently of ill-treatment). The intervention, known as “Operation Linda Nchi (Defend the Country),” was launched a day after Kenya’s internal security  minister George Saitoti branded al-Shabaab ”the enemy” and vowed to attack them “wherever they are.” [1]

Kenyan foreign minister Moses Wetangula said the army was in Somalia to drive out al-Shabaab fighters who were threatening Kenya’s tourism industry, its second largest foreign exchange earner. (BBC, October 16). Al-Shabaab has denied the accusations of kidnapping, describing them as “a flimsy pretext for the Kenyan military’s incursion into the Somali border.” [2]

On October 19, Kenyan military spokesman Major Emmanuel Chirchir said that Kenyan soldiers were marching on Afmadow, about 120 km. east of the Kenyan border, where they expected to meet up with troops of Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG) who were already trying to take the town from al-Shabaab forces (Capital FM News [Nairobi], October 19). “The next town is Kismayo. The troops are ready for anything. If it takes us to December they are willing to celebrate Christmas there,” said Major Chirchir. The port of Kismayo is a key target as it is a major source of revenue for al-Shabaab, which is otherwise suffering financially during the ongoing drought in southern Somalia (Star [Nairobi], October 19; Kenya Broadcasting Corporation, October 20).

However, there are fears that Kenya’s first foreign intervention might end like previous interventions in Somalia by the United States and Ethiopia.  “As it seems, it will end in retreat and failure,” said Professor Ibrahim Sheikh Hassan who used to teach political science at Strategy College in Mogadishu.  Although Kenya has a well-equipped army, Professor Ibrahim said it has no experience in engaging in war with terrorists and guerrilla forces, adding that it will be hard for Kenyans to defeat al-Shabaab in Somalia. He notes that pushing al-Shabaab back from the border will not be hard but keeping them at bay will be challenging. Regarding the small force of 2,000 men deployed by the Kenyan Army across the border, Professor Ibrahim says a force of this size is unlikely to penetrate far into al-Shabaab-held territory: “It seems to me that they know nothing about al-Shabaab and the conflict in Somalia.” [3]

In response to the intervention, al-Shabaab threatened retaliatory attacks in Kenya if authorities do not withdraw troops from Somalia. “Kenya has peace, its cities have tall buildings and business is flourishing there, while Somalia is in chaos. If your government ignores our calls to stop its aggression on Somali soil, we will strike at the heart of your interests,” said Shaykh Ali Mohamud Dheere, an al-Shabaab spokesman. “Your attack on us means your skyscrapers will be destroyed. Your tourism will disappear.  We shall inflict on you the same damage you inflicted on us,” he added. [4]

An official statement from al-Shabaab outlined some of the group’s grievances with Kenya:

Kenya has been forcibly recruiting refugees and training militia along the border for several years and has also been heavily involved in Somalia’s political affairs – both internal and external. The recent incursion of Kenyan troops into Somali territory, however, not only highlights Kenya’s imprudence in sending her non-combat-tested troops to become entangled in Somalia’s intricate web of war, but also a willful negligence towards her citizens. [5]

A former chief of the Somalia Appeals Court, Ahmed Shaykh Ali, told Jamestown that the main object of the intervention is unclear: “As I know, they entered the country without any consultation with [the Somali] government and actually that is against international laws. It is against the sovereignty of Somalia. [Kenya] was [supposed] to talk to the government before its army crossed the border.” While he welcomes the drive to force al-Shabaab out of the country, Ahmed Shaykh Ali worries that Kenya has a secret plan for the future of the Somali border towns: “Somali people distrust neighboring countries. And neighboring countries themselves create the distrust.” [6] Kenyan Foreign Minister Wetangulu maintains that Kenya is eliminating the Somali militants at the request of the TFG, while denying Kenyan plans to occupy any part of Somalia (The People, October 20).

Mogadishu-based analyst Abdikadir Osman warned that the operation will end in failure if Kenya does not state clearly the future of its army in Somalia. “How long will they remain in the country? They have to address the issue now, not after seizing the land.” Osman noted that the Somalis do not welcome foreign intervention because “we always have suspicion.” [7]

Precedent suggests that the Kenyan operation will not be entirely successful. A multinational intervention, the United Nations Operation in Somalia II (UNOSOM II) which involved more than 28,000 U.S. and international troops, ended in failure after the 1994 Battle of Mogadishu.

Ethiopia, which has an historic conflict with Somalia, carried out the second foreign intervention in Somalia in late 2006 to oust the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), justifying its U.S. backed invasion, like Kenya, as “self-defense.”  Although it succeeded in getting rid of the ICU, the latter was replaced by a more determined military offshoot, al-Shabaab. Ethiopian troops were never secure during a two-year occupation and eventually withdrew in early 2009 with Somalia more unstable than before the intervention. 

The third and ongoing intervention is by the Ugandan and Burundian troops of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), which began operations in 2007. With recent reinforcements bringing the mission to a high of 9,000 troops, AMISOM’s progress in retaking Mogadishu has been struck hard by a series of al-Shabaab ambushes and suicide attacks in the last two weeks.


1. Kenyan Security and Defense Ministers’ press conference, Nairobi, October 15, 2011.

2. Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen, “Statement Regarding the Kenyan Accusations and Incursion into Somalia,” Mogadishu, October 17, 2011.

3. Author’s Interview with Professor Ibrahim Sheikh Hassan, Nairobi, October 20, 2011.

4. Al-Shabaab spokesman Sheikh Ali Dheere, Press Conference, Mogadishu, October 17, 2011.

5. Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen, “Statement Regarding the Kenyan Accusations and Incursion into Somalia,” Mogadishu, October 17, 2011.

6. Author’s interview with Ahmed Shaykh Ali, Nairobi, October 18, 2011.

7. Author’s interview with Abdikadir Osman, political analyst, 19th October, 2011, Mogadishu.