The military intervention marks an immense shift in policy for Kenya, a country that has never sent its troops to fight in another country’s territory since independence in 1963.
The military action into Somali territory – confirmed by Kenyan spokesman Alfred Mutua on Sunday – follows the three separate kidnapping and murder attacks on Western tourists and Western aid workers over the past month, and repeated threats by the Somali-based Islamist militia Al Shabab to attack African countries like Kenya and Uganda, which support Shabab’s enemy, the fragile Somali government in the Somali capital of Mogadishu.
"For the first time our country is threatened with the most serious level of terrorism," said Minister of Internal Security George Saitoti at a press conference on Saturday.
“If you are attacked by an enemy, you have the right to pursue that enemy right where he is,” Kenyan Defense Minister Yusuf Haji told reporters.
Risky move for Kenya
Though Kenya has one of the largest militaries in East Africa, second only to Ethiopia, its Army has very little battlefield experience, and would face substantial challenges in Somalia, a country that has been in a near-continuous civil war since the fall of the Siad Barre government in 1991.
Among the risks are the possibility of terrorist attacks on Kenyan targets by Shabab sympathizers or operatives, a possibility underlined by Shabab spokesmen on Sunday. But Kenya appears to have decided that the risks of having a perpetually destabilized country on its northern border – and the incessant flow of Somali refugees into Kenya – are worth the effort of intervention.
Shocks to Kenya's reputation as a safe country
Kenya – a country that depends heavily on tourism – has suffered shocks to its safe reputation after the recent kidnappings of two Spanish aid workers with the group Doctors Without Borders from a refugee camp last week, the kidnapping of a British tourist and murder of her husband from their hotel room in the coastal city of Lamu in early September, and the apparent copy-cat kidnapping of an elderly French tourist from her home in Lamu in late September.
Kenya hosts more than 500,000 Somali refugees in a cluster of camps in Dadaab along the Somali border, and countless other Somalis have integrated into Kenya’s cities, particularly in the Nairobi neighborhood of Eastleigh.
Al Shabab threatens Kenya
From Somalia, Shabab spokesman Sheikh Hassan Turki promised to push out Kenyan troops from Somalia, and called on Somalis to “stand united against this blood-thirsty enemy that has crossed into our territories and the apostate Somali militants helping them.”
“Kenya violated the territorial rights of Somalia by entering our holy land, but I assure you that they will return disappointed, God willing,” Mr. Turki was quoted by AFP news agency as saying on a pro-Shabab Somali radio station.
"Are you ready to live under Christians?" shouted another Al Shabab official on a militant radio station, reports the Associated Press. "Get out of your homes and defend your dignity and religion. Today is the day to defend against the enemy."
Al Shabab – a Somali militant group that claims an association with Al Qaeda, but which has a much more narrow nationalist mission than Al Qaeda’s dreams of global religious conflict – has suffered a number of military defeats in the past month or so.
An African Union-sponsored peacekeeping mission, AMISOM, has managed to push Al Shabab out of most of its strong-holds in Mogadishu, giving the Western-backed Transitional Federal Government (TFG) of Somalia its first chance of actually governing the city.
In addition, various other militias, including a popular religious militia called the Ahlu Sunna wal Jamaa, have chipped away at Shabab’s control in towns around southern and central Somalia.
The United States officially has no troops inside Somalia, but its military drones have been used over the past few years to target senior Al Shabab leaders.