Kenya launched a military incursion into Somalia on Oct. 15, after a string of kidnappings of foreign tourists and aid workers by Somali gunmen began to take a toll on Kenya’s crucial tourism industry. Its troops are reportedly approaching the southern Somali town of Afmadow, a crucial way station on the road to the port city of Kismayu, where the Islamist militia group Al Shabab maintains its main base of operations.
No group has taken responsibility for the Sunday night grenade attack on the Mwaura Pub, a bar in Nairobi’s thriving downtown. Nairobi police say they have no evidence linking the attack to Al Shabab, but told Agence France-Presse that they were investigating the Islamist militia group, which has threatened retaliatory attacks on Kenya because of its incursion. Al Shabab carried out suicide blasts against Uganda in July 2010 because of Uganda’s military support for an African Union peacekeeping mission in Mogadishu, propping up Somalia’s fragile transitional government.
“It’s easy to attack any major city, as we’ve seen from the attacks on London and Madrid, which are much farther away from areas of conflict than Nairobi is, and we have seen that in Uganda, Shabab was taking the fight against the country whose troops they are fighting at home, so the risks for Kenya are real,” says Roger Middleton, a Horn of Africa expert at Chatham House, a London think tank.
Taking a war home to one’s enemy has great risks for both sides. For Kenya, the risk of intervention is that Al Shabab supporters can launch even more terror attacks against a country that relies heavily on tourism and that increasingly pins its future on high technology and information services. Kenya could also create an internal enemy if it handles its own sizable ethnic Somali population too harshly. But for Somali militants, launching terror attacks on Kenyan soil could have a galvanizing effect on a Kenyan public whose patience with Somalia’s two decades of civil war – and with hosting at least 500,000 Somali drought and war refugees – could well run out.
On Monday, Nairobi police officials were cautiously investigating links between the grenade attack and Al Shabab.
"Yes, we are linking the grenade attack to the threats that have been issued by Shebab and that is why I am appealing to city residents to be vigilant and cooperate with our officers," Antony Kibuchi, provincial police chief for Nairobi, told the AFP.
Just one day before the grenade attack, the US Embassy in Nairobi issued a warning to US citizens in Kenya to avoid shopping malls, nightclubs, and other public areas where foreigners are known to gather, saying that the US had “credible information of an imminent threat of terrorist attacks.”
In Somalia itself, there are reports that jets are pounding suspected Al Shabab positions in the crucial port city of Kismayu, while French naval ships patrol the waters. Kenyan military spokesman Emmanuel Chirchir confirmed the aerial attacks, but said they were not by Kenya’s Air Force.
“It is confirmed that Kismayu has been under aerial attacks, but it is not our troops, it must be one of our allies,” he was reported as saying by the Daily Nation, a Kenyan newspaper. The US, which has long used drones in targeted attacks of Al Shabab commanders and foreign fighters, denies that its planes have been involved in any bombardment.
A much anticipated assault by the African Union peacekeeping force in Somalia, AMISOM, together with troops loyal to the transitional government, managed to push Al Shabab out of its last main footholds in Mogadishu last month. The militant group’s taxes from Mogadishu’s Bakara Market, and on shipping export and import fees in Kismayu, have long been part of their economic strength in sustaining their rebellion against the government. Loss of control of those economic hubs may be a key part of shutting the rebel group down.
“When Shabab lost control of Bakara Market in Mogadishu, the UN estimates they may have lost $40 million to $50 million a year in tax revenues, and even if it is half of that, it’s a big blow,” says Mr. Middleton. The other major source of income is Kismayu and the smaller port city of Merka, he adds, and if Shabab loses those ports as well, “the theory is that eventually that is likely to have a huge impact on their ability to fight.”
It all depends on what kind of fight Al Shabab intends to engage in, Middleton says. Fighting a conventional war against Kenyan troops, with street fighting and heavy weaponry, requires more money than the kind of asymmetrical warfare that Shabab fought against Ethiopia during its six-month long intervention in Somalia in 2006.
“There is danger that Kenya can get trapped into that kind of fighting,” Middleton says, “but maybe Kenya has a plan for that.”