On Kenya’s War Against Al-Shabaab – Analysis


By Abena Afia

Somalis in the Southern Somali region of Afmadow fled their homes after a surprise Kenyan military attack on Sunday 16 October 2011. Kenya launched its offense allegedly in response to recent kidnappings, aiming to push Islamist insurgent groups away from its border. Kidnapping in Kenya is rife; offenders include Kenya Police, military and nationals.

A statement released by Al-Shabaab dismissed the kidnappings as a motivation and said, ‘The allegations put forward by the Kenyan authorities with regard to the recent kidnappings are, at best, unfounded and, apart from the mere conjectural corroborations, not substantiated with any verifiable evidence”.


The public relations office at Defence headquarters said other international forces in a ‘concerted effort and rescue operation’ joined Kenya. The attack targetted Kismayo, the economic power base of Al-Shabaab, to weaken the youth group’s core. Shabaab’s bombing in Mogadishu, as Kenyan Defense Minister Yusuf Haji and Foreign Minister Moses Wetangula visited for talks with Somalia’s president, signified a widespread presence in response to Kenya’s military course.


Kenya, in carrying out its offensive did so without obtaining a UN Security Council resolution or permission from the Transitional Federal Government. Somali Spokesman, Abdirahman Omar Osman Yarisow, denied that Kenyan troops had even entered the country.

Ethiopia’s invasion was authorised by Somali President Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed, whilst US entered with the UN Security Council’s assent. Kenya may justify entry under self-defence and the right to combat terror, a provision of international law enshrined in the UN Charter (Article 51).


A move guaranteeing reaction has already met warnings from Al-Shabaab threatening to counter-attack if Kenyan troops do not withdraw. The waging of this proxy war will create many opportunities for those able to manipulate an exacerbated fragility intensified by this attack.

The invasion has already helped to revive Shabaab’s fading appeal, enabling them to appear as genuine freedom fighters to Somalis. Press statements released by the extremist group display a distinct and deliberate departure from their usual fundamentalist rhetoric, employing a more nationalistic approach that has earned them a growing support. Unanimity on their call could establish the ascent of Shabaab domination.

The Somali state of affairs is extremely complex; understanding the true intentions of those claiming to act in its interest is never clear-cut. When Ethiopia lost the war, the main resistance was led by the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC), the head of which later became the president of Somalia. Sharif Sheikh Ahmed branded as a terrorist by the US who currently stands as president, took office through U.S backing.

Al-Shabaab were the youths of the UIC opposed to US support, and some argue an affinity still exists between Sharif and all Shabaab, signified by a subdued reaction to their activities.


Kenya has endured Al-Shabaab’s presence for years. Many kidnappings have taken place that did not make Shabaab automatic suspects. The recent spates of kidnappings are further denied by Al-Shabaab who believe that the kidnappings are being used as a pretext for the incursion.

Horn of Africa analysts say any number of groups could have carried out the kidnappings – including pirate gangs. Al-Shabaab, notorious for claiming responsibility for their actions, such as the recent bomb in Mogadishu which claimed the lives of innocent students, have not done so for these kidnappings, a cause for doubt on Kenya’s assertions.


Recent events have seen the Somali government reinstate its political and ruling position. In a U-turn decision, after fears that Somali sovereignty would become obsolete, discussions involving Somali MPs, intellectuals and civil society rejected key proposals in the recent UN backed roadmap, designed to reconstruct and re-distribute Somali governance and territory to neighbouring countries.

Parliamentarians and leading figures unanimously decided that Somali law could not be changed by an interim government and any action negating marine, land and air borders would be treated as a direct threat to Somali sovereignty.

Somalis have resisted occupation from previous foreign interventions, the US in 1992 and Ethiopia in 2006, ending in humiliating withdrawals. Provisions in the road map would have allowed Kenya to hold a significant stake in Somali resources. If Somalia was occupied and annexed by Kenya, tourism and business would again flourish. The decision to resurrect Somalia’s territorial claims caused anxiety to its neighbours.

Deals long exist between Kenya and multinational petroleum companies for offshore exploration blocks; of particular interest is block L5, thought to have the highest concentration of oil. Pursuit of this part of the block lying within the perimeters of Somali territorial waters is illegal.

In accordance with Article 10 of Somali Law No. 37 Territorial Sea and Ports (1972), Somalia has the right to territorial waters of 200 nautical miles (nm) and an Exclusive Economic Zone of 200 nm provided in United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

It seems of little coincidence then that an invasion has taken place following the fall of the roadmap, reinforcement of Somali law and protection of its sea.

In light of 2012 elections, Kenya’s decision to defend its borders may be seen as a bold statement to demonstrate major efforts made to increase security to win popularity. The implications though, are probably already understood, and the war that Kenya has instigated may not be met with the gratitude it hopes to attain.

North eastern Kenya is heavily populated by Somalis who maintain strong connections with their country. Britain and the US warned against the war, anticipating the ramifications Kenya naively discounts – as well prepared as Ethiopia was, it failed to capture Somalia.

Given Somalia’s fierce resistance to occupation, the US military deploys remotely controlled drones to conduct reconnaissance missions and carry out bombing runs.


Notwithstanding the worst period of drought the country has seen (starvation alone has killed tens of thousands of Somali children over the past few months) a US drone attack claimed the lives of 27 civilians, including children. Witnesses reported many were also injured after a US strike on the port town of Kismayo. A similar airstrike killed over a dozen people in another southern region.

As Kenyan troops advance on Somali soil to oust Al-Shabaab, we are reminded what little power the central Somali government has. It is doubtful that the Transitional Federal Government gave initial support; this would only accentuate its own weaknesses. Many Somali parliamentarians have expressed deep anger over Kenya’s forced entry whilst former President of Puntland, Jama Ali Jama, has challenged the grounds of this invasion and is calling on the UN to issue a response.

The retaliatory threats from Al-Shabaab are much publicised and fuel the sensationalism needed to justify and support Kenya’s actions. The fact remains that the accusations in this instance are unfounded; Kenya has not sought permission to enter and war crimes increase each day that they remain. Somalis already in a desperate situation continue to suffer.

Somalia, a current hotspot for international interest owing to its East African coastal location, oil explorations and other ‘free for all’ attractions such as illegal fishing and lucrative international piracy activity, now hosts Blackwater and Saracen mercenaries who have built base in Puntland. The unsettling presence of such ‘private security firms’ could see the orchestration of Somalia’s current internal war handled and controlled by more lawless but “professional” killers, whose interests do not coincide with those of Somalis.

The calamity engulfing Somalia is often blamed on an inability to manage its own country but active aggressors play a major role in its stagnation and underdevelopment. In times of extreme famine and internal turmoil, Somalia needs the support of the international community, not another war.

Pambazuka News

‘Pambazuka’ in Kiswahili means the dawn or to arise as a verb. Pambazuka News is produced by a pan-African community of some 2,600 citizens and organisations - academics, policy makers, social activists, women's organisations, civil society organisations, writers, artists, poets, bloggers, and commentators who together produce insightful, sharp and thoughtful analyses and make it one of the largest and most innovative and influential web forums for social justice in Africa.

One thought on “On Kenya’s War Against Al-Shabaab – Analysis

  • November 11, 2011 at 5:58 pm

    its high time 4the author of pambazuka to think in a broad-way rather than fueling the war on militia,in short:u better tryna go to these refugee camps scattered all over n see 4urself the sufferings n the anguish undergone by these close to 650,000somalis…they need to go back to their homes in a peace-ful country n enjoy that freedom just like you.they need to go to school n get education atleast one-day they may write peace-ful n encouraging articles than you..they wil preach life n love not death n hate as you do.the refugees need life better life.they are against the shabab that you so praising as per your thought.pple r tired of shabab so you,d rather give us a break. try and write something constructive that wil bring pple together in somali rather than ur bluff-empty-headed-flip-flop malice and accusations.


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