Kenya struggling to contain spillover of Somalia's violence

As Al Shabab's foothold along Somalia's border with Kenya grows, Kenya is vying to prevent its own economy and safety from being undermined.

Peter Imbote/Reuters
A Kenya police Mi-17 helicopter lands in Kiunga, on the Kenya-Somalia border, as they search for the missing disabled French woman seized from her home in Ras-Kitau on Manda Island in Lamu on Oct. 3, 2011. Dozens of Kenyans have protested on against the government's lax security measures after gunmen seized a French hostage and escaped into Somalia, the second incident of its kind in recent weeks which locals fear will hit Kenya's lucrative tourism industry.

Over the weekend the Kenyan press called attention to six new military bases the Kenyan government has set up on its border with Somalia. Kenya has long been deeply implicated in and affected by the conflict in Somalia. Refugees and violence regularly spill over the border. But recent kidnappings of Western tourists in Kenya have drawn international attention, and Al Shabab’s withdrawal from Mogadishu has started to increase violence in the border area.

Witnesses have reported hundreds of Shabab fighters heading south toward Somalia’s border with Kenya. The border area is controlled by a fractious group of warlords and militias who get covert support from Kenya and Ethiopia and are nominally loyal to Somalia’s transitional government. On Friday [Sept. 30] before dawn, Shabab forces struck Dhobley, a market town jointly controlled by an Islamist warlord and a French-educated intellectual who is trying to form his own ministate called Azania, an ancient Greek name for the Horn of Africa.

Border violence and kidnappings inside Kenya are not only security problems; they are also economic problems. Kenya’s tourism industry has suffered since the recent kidnappings:

The attacks are a blow to Kenya’s economy, which earns over $800 million a year from tourism. Many of its half a million visitors come from Britain, so a headline in the Daily Mail, a British newspaper, was damaging: “Kenya is a treacherous place – and it’s getting worse”. The country had hoped for a record year. Not any more.

Given all this, beefing up border security may be a move by the Kenyan government, whose handling of the kidnappings has been criticized, to bolster its image (and, of course, to try to prevent further kidnappings). It may be a long time before the two kidnapping victims are recovered – one is reportedly being held inside Shabab territory in southern Somalia, while the other’s whereabouts are unknown. And al Shabab is also holding at least two Kenyan soldiers. In the meantime, Kenya is making a statement that it takes the problem seriously, and is likely bracing for more problems, both in terms of kidnappings and in terms of battles near the border.

Alex Thurston is a PhD student studying Islam in Africa at Northwestern University and blogs at Sahel Blog.

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