Saturday, October 28, 2006


Perhaps the biggest worry for the Kenyan authorities over Somalia is that the country, now almost in the control of the Union of Islamic Courts, could be used to stage terrorist attacks on Kenya.

How legitimate is this concern?

The Kenyan security agencies know that the last two terrorist attacks in the country were partially coordinated from Somalia. And while the main al-Qaeda cell that bombed the US embassy in Nairobi and killed more than 200 Kenyans in August 1998 camped in Kenya before the raid, the logistics and main ingredients for assembling the bomb were shipped in from Somalia.

The weapons used in the simultaneous bombing of Paradise Hotel, near Mombasa, and the attack on the Israeli airliner in 2002 were traced back to an al-Qaeda cell in Somalia.

The leader of this cell was Mr Aden Hash Airo, a Somali.

The al-Qaeda "quartermaster" in Somalia, who sourced the weapons and arranged their transportation to the site was one Mr Guled Hassan, who was recently moved from the Guantanamo Bay detention camp in Cuba to an unknown destination.

Execution of the scheme

The coordinator of both the 1998 and 2002 terrorist attacks, Harun, who goes by a dozen other names, set up base in Somalia as he reconnoitred the targets on the two occasions.

Only when the execution of the plot was imminent did he briefly move to Kenya. And after successfully hitting Kenya, he is reported to have made his getaway through Somalia.

Mr Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan and Mr Abu Taha al-Sudani, two suspected terrorists wanted for their role in the planning of the two bombings, are reported to be hiding in Somalia under the protection of friendly Islamist militia.

Mr Aden Hash Airo, the al-Qaeda man in Somalia, was a member of the Al-Itihaad Al-Islam which, at its peak, boasted of a membership of slightly more than 1,000 fighters before it was crushed by the Ethiopians.

Both the UN and the US Department of State labelled al-Itihaad a terrorist organisation and blacklisted its leadership.

Crusade against infidels

Among the leaders was Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys who is now the chairman of the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) in Somalia. Sheikh Aweys denies the association. "It is not proper to list me as a terrorist while I have never killed or harmed anyone," he was recently quoted by French news agency AFP as saying.

The Kenyan authorities are not likely to want to take his word on that, especially when al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden recently gave his blessings to the UIC and called on it to wage a jihad (holy war) in this neighbourhood.

Mr Laden's speech envisions the UIC as the new Taliban and our region as the new front in the war against infidels. If this is going to be the new battleground for Osama and his suicidal disciples, ably supported by the UIC, Kenya has cause to worry.

The second reason why Kenya should be wary of Somalia is that whenever there is increased turmoil in that country, the nasty effects of the conflict spill over into Kenya. The inevitable influx of refugees strains the already scarce resources, with no guarantee that international aid will arrive in time or in the quantities required.

But there is a more immediate concern for ordinary Kenyans – personal security. In 1991, when ousted Somali dictator Siad Barre crawled his way through Kenya, President Moi allowed practically anyone who wanted to walk the Kenya border from Somalia to do so.

Some shortsighted advisers probably reckoned that more potential voters, albeit illegal, would not hurt the regime. So the controls were relaxed and many Somalis ended up getting Kenyan citizenship and proceeded to register as voters.

It is not clear if the strategy worked for the then president in the 1992 elections, but what is known is that with the legitimate refugees also came a large number of seedy characters. Gun runners in Somalia moved into Kenya and shared their skills and products with local criminal colleagues. Former militia subscribers also brought in their arsenal to trade.

The 1990s saw the emergence of the most vicious and violent crime Kenya had ever witnessed. Bank robberies, carjackings, contract murders and other gun-related crimes spiked the charts.
The law enforcement agencies traced the source of the new wave of crime to the proliferation of small arms, mainly from the failed state of Somalia. And Kenyans died, and are still dying, because of the decision to go easy on Somalia.

So Kenya has a definite percentage in the flow of events in Somalia, with tangible interests to protect. But what form should such protection take, and what should be the red line beyond which Kenya must act?

The ideal solution for Kenya would be to have a stable government exercising authority over the entire Somalia. This was the idea behind the creation of the transitional government.

It is not in the interest of Kenya for the UIC to spread its influence and control over Somalia. The moderates would be the ones to support, if they exist, as the extremists currently running the show are exposed and isolated.

If that fails then the diplomatic option of sharing power between the UIC and the legitimate government could be explored. That, too, can be acceptable to Kenya.

In the meantime, Kenya and like-minded countries should work behind the scenes to strengthen the transitional government and give it the ability to back its bark with bites.

But if all this does not work, Kenya must be prepared for a civil war in Somalia. And should it come to this, we could be seeing the UIC battling it out with Ethiopians in Somalia.

Ethiopia cannot afford to have the Islamists taking over Somalia either. Ethiopia has been to war with Somalia over territory, and has repelled several rebel incursions staged and backed by Islamic secessionists from Somalia over the years.

On the side of the Islamists will be Eritrea, Djibouti, Sudan and Egypt. Their reason here will be Ethiopia.

These countries have Ethiopia in their sight. Historically, Egypt has always desired a weak Ethiopia because a militarily strong one could threaten the source of its livelihood – the Nile.
Eritrea is still technically at war with Ethiopia, and the former has been accused of arming militia loyal to the UIC, with evidence provided to back the allegations.

Somalia, on its part, reckons that the barren Ogaden province of Ethiopia belongs to it, and the two countries went to war over the area in 1962 and 1978.

Ogaden secessionists and other rebel groups opposed to Addis Ababa have over the years received support from Somalia. Djibouti, too, has issues with Addis Ababa, and it would love to see Ethiopia’s influence in the Horn of Africa reduced.

It is, however, unlikely than any of these countries would commit ground troops to engage Ethiopians in Somalia. Their support of the UIC will be restricted to weaponry, intelligence and supplies.

Ethiopia, on the other hand, would have Uganda and Kenya on its side. Kenya has traditionally supported Ethiopia militarily against Somalia, and the two countries signed a defence treaty against Somalia in the 1960s.

But Kenyan politicians, with an eye on the General Election next year, may not be too enthusiastic about waging an open war against the UIC. And a substantial percentage of the voters in the significant North-Eastern and Eastern provinces are likely express reservations about the move.

But Uganda has no such restrictions and already has troops on the ground in Somalia, albeit under the aegis of Igad (Inter-Governmental Authority on Development).

Kenya could, however, safely provide both intelligence and logistical support to Ethiopia and Uganda. It could also be called upon to provide maritime support by monitoring resupply sea routes to the Mogadishu and Kismayu ports. This can be done under the cover of anti-piracy patrols upon request from the transitional government in Baidoa.

On the battlefield, the UIC and its militia are no match for Ethiopia, even without the support of Kenya and Uganda. First, Ethiopia’s is a regular army with established command and operational structures, requisite training and recent combat experience against Eritrea. The UIC’s is a rag-tag militia of dubious training and skill.

The UIC knows that it stands no chance in a conventional war with any neighbouring country, and that public approval does not amount to much in battle. A guerrilla war will suit it best, given its limitations.

Thus, it is not necessary for Kenya to enter into the fray at this point unless the UIC commits the reckless – like an attack on a Kenyan town or interests. This would the red line that must not be crossed.

Should that happen, Kenya will vigorously seek to destroy all elements of the threat from the source, and this will mean striking deep into Somalia. Kenya will have the justification and the perfect platform to move into Somalia and take out any potential "terrorist" outposts, training grounds and support structures.

Since there will be no limits to how far the threat should be removed, Kenya’s entry into Somalia could spell the end of the UIC and its militia – if they would not have been destroyed by Ethiopia by then.

But a purely military solution without an equally effective political one would not guarantee the desired result – a stable Somalia. We could unwittingly be creating another Iraq at our doorstep.
The UIC and its militia could retreat and then wage a guerrilla war against any foreign force. And they will not be lacking in support – locally and abroad.

The one option Kenya and its allies cannot afford at this point is the holding of any elections in Somalia as the UIC would sweep the slate.

A legitimate claim

The argument that the UIC has a legitimate claim over leadership in Somalia by virtue of the apparent support it has from the public must not be allowed to cloud the inherent dangers of a theocratic state, led by extremists, on our immediate border.

In any case, the public support is based chiefly on the visible quick gains the UIC has made in restoring order in areas it controls. It is a commendable achievement by the UIC, but it would be na?ve and plain foolhardy of anyone to presume that any such gains are representative of the benevolent designs the UIC leadership has.

When Ugandan strongman Idi Amin ousted President Milton Obote in 1971 there were celebrations in many parts of the country. The public believed that, at long last, a just and better leadership was in place. The same thing happened when the Nazi party was voted into office in Germany.

Somalia’s Barre, who was later deposed, oversaw programmes that raised the literacy rate in Somalia from a dismal 5 per cent to 55 per cent when he left. So there are more factors to consider here than mere public perceptions that may not survive scrutiny in the long term. The UIC should be viewed in similar context.

Somalia is one case Kenya cannot afford to ignore or sit on the fence over. It is too late for Kenya to assume the position of "it is not our war" and watch idly as Somalia burns.