In early October 2011, the Transitional Federal Government of Somalia was coming to grips with an evolving al-Shabaab that had just conducted the country’s most deadly suicide bombing at the time. On the 4th of October, a truck bomb detonated outside a compound housing several government ministries, killing up to 82 people, mostly students and their parents gathered at the Ministry of Higher Education following up on scholarship opportunities abroad. Despite all the fanfare that had followed al-Shabaab’s exit from the capital city earlier that year in August, this terrorist attack confirmed the group’s continued resistance and its adaptation.
The group, which had reverted to its initial guerrilla tactics, claimed responsibility and warned civilians to avoid government installations, even as the attack was widely condemned. On the same day the truck bomb went off in Somalia’s capital, in Nairobi, the Kenya Defence Forces was finally granted the authority to invade Somalia. Twelve days later, on 14 October 2011, the first Kenyan boots crossed into Somalia in Kenya’s first expeditionary warfare campaign dubbed Operation Linda Nchi — Protect the Country.
The deployment of Kenyan forces to Somalia had been rumoured for a while, but strangely, the invasion was hurried and the communications relating to the incursion ill-prepared. It was announced to Kenyans and the world two days after the fact by the Minister for Internal Security, flanked by his Defence counterpart. Two days later, Kenyan officials belatedly travelled to Mogadishu to synchronize messaging with Somali authorities. In a letter addressed to the Security Council 17 October 2011by Kenya’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations on, Kenya termed the invasion a “remedial and preemptive action” for recurrent incursions by al-Shabaab inside Kenyan territory and the abductions of several foreign nationals. Curiously, to the letter dated 17 October was attached the Joint Communiqué that would be issued the following day by the Kenyan Foreign Affairs Minister and Somalia’s Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister. The initial justification of “hot pursuit” of al-Shabaab kidnappers was eventually replaced with self-defence in line with Article 51 of the UN charter. Al-Shabaab had denied responsibility for the abductions at the time.
“When the Kenya government and the people of this country feel that they are safe enough from the al-Shabab menace, we shall pull back.” Gen. Julius Karangi, Chief of General Staff, KDF.
Two weeks after the launch of “Operation Linda Nchi”, General Julius Karangi, then Commander of the KDF, made the following haunting remark, “This campaign is not time-bound”. Ten years later, the end of the incursion, which has since been integrated into the AMISOM mission, is still not in sight. Nor is the peace or safety that Kenya sought. In Somalia, other than control of the major port city of Kismayo and the installation of an administration that is amiable to Kenya in Jubaland, KDF has little to show for its foray into Somalia.
Kenya suffered its greatest military tragedy in 2015 when al-Shabaab attacked El-Adde, a KDF forward operating base in the Gedo region of Somalia. An estimated 170 military personnel were killed in what Prof. Paul Williams of the Elliott School of International Affairs described as “the deadliest attack on peacekeepers in the history of modern peace operations.” And internally, since the invasion, attacks and casualties have multiplied, with the group taking responsibility for hundreds of attacks on Kenyan soil.
Prior to this, the group’s major claim to notoriety outside Somalia was the coordinated bombings targeting crowds watching the 2010 World Cup final in the Ugandan capital, Kampala, that killed 74 people. The group has since killed hundreds of people in Kenya, with high-profile incidents in the capital, Nairobi, including the 2013 siege of Westgate Mall and the 2019 attack on the DusitD2 hotel.
The group’s deadliest atrocity was its 2015 attack on Garissa University in north-eastern Kenya where 147 people were massacred. Al-Shabaab has also not shied away from hard targets and routinely attacks government security installations, including last year’s raid on the Manda Bay Airfield, a military facility near the Somali border. Thus, a sober evaluation of Kenya’s invasion and its aftermath, particularly when juxtaposed against the nation’s stated objectives, highlights a less than satisfactory performance on most counts.
“Not yet Kenyan”
In Kenya, parallel internal security operations were initiated to root out al-Shabaab, an animal whose “head was in Eastleigh and tail in Somalia”. These words by Orwa Ojode, Kenya’s former Assistant Minister of Internal Security, illuminated the official understanding of the relationship between the al-Shabaab threat and Kenya’s own Somali population. This was not much different from the ethnic Somali experience during the Shifta War (1963–1967), an insurgency that begun when the predominantly ethnic Somali population in north-eastern Kenya opposed the post-independence administrative arrangements that denied them the choice of joining Somalia.
Parallel internal security operations were initiated to root out al-Shabaab, an animal whose “head was in Eastleigh and tail in Somalia”.
Although the insurgency officially ended in 1967, collective punishment, discrimination, and political and economic marginalization of ethnic Somali communities in north-eastern Kenya continued to be the de-facto policy in the following decades. In 2014, the government launched its counterterrorism response, Operation Usalama Watch, following major security incidents at the coast and in north-eastern Kenya. The crackdown in Eastleigh, a suburb of Nairobi that is the residential and business hub for the Somali community in the capital, exacerbated historical tensions.
The profiling and arbitrary detentions, harassment, extortion, and even forcible relocation and expulsion, contributed to the alienation and grievances that provide rich fodder for radicalization and recruitment. Rather than attract adherents through ideology, al-Shabaab capitalized on Kenya’s response and sought to identify with the disaffected communities, mainly at the coast and in north-eastern Kenya, in the process morphing from a distant threat that could be contained in Somalia to one that is now no longer easily identifiable.
The Jubaland Initiative
At face value, the intervention was seemingly motivated by national security interests as Kenya shares a long and porous border with Somalia where an active insurgency is raging. But upon closer inspection, previous non-military actions point to an intent to establish a friendlier Somali political order. Following the advent of al-Shabaab in 2007, the security situation in southern Somalia became a major concern to the Kenyan leadership. Kenya set about establishing the “Jubaland Initiative”, a plan to establish “Azania”, a buffer zone comprising three regions of southern Somalia — Gedo, Lower Juba and Middle Juba.
The proposed leader of “Azania” was the late Prof. Muhamad Abdi Gandhi, a former minister in the Transitional National Government of Somalia, who hailed from the region. On the Kenyan side, a clan associate of Prof. Gandhi, Yusuf Haji, was Minister of Defence and a key player in both the initiative and the 2011 invasion. Kenya set about training approximately 3,000 soldiers who would conduct the offensive alongside Kenyan troops, but a little later, Sheikh Ahmed Mohamed Islam Madobe’s Ras Kamboni militia became the preferred ally. Kenyan troops captured the port city of Kismayo from al-Shabaab insurgents in September 2012 and less than a year later, Ahmed Madobe declared himself president of the new interim administration of Jubaland. The Federal Government of Somalia at the time did not recognize this administration, leading to testy relations.
Kenya’s support to Ahmed Madobe also dented relations with Ethiopia and led to regional tensions. In 2019, after Kenya stuck with its ally during disputed Jubaland polls that were not recognized by members of the Somali diplomatic corps, and prevented an Ethiopian military aircraft — rumoured to be ferrying Ethiopian troops to support Federal Government plots in Kismayo to undermine Ahmed Madobe — from landing at Kismayo airport.
In January 2020, fighting broke out between Somali government forces and those of Jubaland after the Jubaland regional security minister, Abdirashid Hassan Abdinur “Janan”, suspected of crimes under international law, escaped from Federal detention and resurfaced in the Kenyan border town of Mandera. After Janan mobilized militias on the Kenyan side of the border, Somalia filed a complaint with IGAD. The assessment team sent to the border by IGAD reported no proven Kenyan role in supporting rebels. However, the Djibouti officials who led the fact-finding mission were challenged by the Somali government, souring relations between the two countries. The unfortunate consequence of the political rivalry and military standoff was the noticeable distraction from the war against al-Shabaab.
The assessment team sent to the border by IGAD reported no proven Kenyan role in supporting rebels.
Somalia’s neighbours have routinely recruited, trained, and backed Somali militia groups whose leaders are then propelled to political leadership positions. Interventions in Somalia’s political and security matters by her neighbours have provided an arena for proxy battles, elevated allied political cronies to the detriment of grassroots leaders, and thrown the nascent federalism structures into disarray. By making allies out of Somalia’s regional leaders, the neighbours are decentering sovereignty, weakening the already fragile state-building efforts.
Some argue that Kenya’s action was pre-emptive and that the insecurity across the border in Somalia caused by the active al-Shabaab insurgency would eventually have spilled into Kenya. However, if the purpose of the operation was to contain al-Shabaab and create a buffer zone, that has failed. A more potent al-Shabaab continues to make regular incursions and has co-opted more communities into its Kenyan front. Assailants of Somali origin initially led al-Shabaab attacks in Kenya; today, the threat has morphed and includes Kenyan nationals from every ethnicity.
Kenya has been further stained by reports of the KDF’s involvement in illegal trade, particularly sugar smuggling and charcoal exports, with the Kenya government reportedly losing millions of shillings in tax revenue due to the illicit sugar that transits through Somalia. Further, Kenya’s aerial bombardment campaign in southern Somalia has been the cause of tensions between the KDF and civilian populations, particularly in Gedo. The bombardments usually follow attacks on Kenyan positions or soldiers and have been read as collective punishment, resulting in civilian casualties and destroying critical telecommunications infrastructure.
The KDF has made a valuable contribution to Somalia’s peace and stability. The ultimate sacrifices by the KDF and the financial cost of the war have been immense and have not been in vain, at least for Somalia. Al-Shabaab has been kept at bay and allowed the state formation process to proceed. However, a major casualty has been the relationship between Somalia and Kenya which, although historically testy, deteriorated to its lowest point in the wake of the 2011 invasion and the Jubaland initiative. In the anarchic period that followed state collapse in 1991, Kenya had posed as a supportive neighbour, hosting hundreds of thousands of refugees as well as multiple reconciliation conferences. It had adopted a hands-off approach, only engaging through IGAD and taking the lead from Ethiopia on political matters. The reconciliation conferences eventually gave birth to the Transitional Federal Government in 2004, which Kenya hosted for another two years.
The 2011 invasion, the implementation of the Jubaland initiative, and the maritime boundary dispute between Somalia and Kenya have changed this. The two countries have engaged in very public diplomatic spats over the Jubaland regional elections in 2019 and the maritime dispute that the International Court of Justice has just decided in favour of Somalia, severing and restoring diplomatic relations several times.
As it became clear that the mission would not end as swiftly as it had begun, the KDF rehatted into AMISOM in 2012 to ease the financial burden. However, the future of AMISOM itself is the subject of ongoing debate, with the AU and the UN both conducting independent assessments and presenting possible options for an international security operation beyond 2021. Among the options recently endorsed by the AU Peace and Security Council is a hybrid mission with the UN that would ostensibly solve the challenge of financial sustainability. The Somali government has wholly rejected this option. Instead, it seeks a reconfigured mission that would be more agile and support the Somali Security Forces, taking on primary security responsibilities.
Of course, those in the Somali national leadership are not passive spectators or victims but also aggressors as they have learnt to use the neighbouring states to prevail in political and security standoffs. Beyond 2021, Somalia envisions a security infrastructure that will depend on Somali security forces, not external armies — a direct challenge to Kenya and its stated plans to only leave Somalia when Kenya feels safe.