Kenya’s foray into Somalia sows seeds of backlash at home

As Kenya attempts to pacify the Islamist Al Shabab movement in Somalia, issues of poverty and security may go unaddressed back home, says guest blogger Alex Thurston.

Ben Curtis/AP/File
A Kenyan army soldier sits on top of an armored personnel carrier and drinks from a hydration pack in Ras Kamboni, southern Somalia, Dec. 13, 2011. Kenya's military concentration on Somalia may be causing backlash at home as issues of poverty and security go unaddressed.

By most accounts, Kenya’s incursion into Somalia has succeeded militarily, as measured by Kenya’s goals of taking territory and inflicting casualties on the Muslim rebel movement Al Shabab. In a sense, the Kenyan advance has also succeeded politically: Kenya has gained some international legitimacy for its mission by moving to join the African Union forces there, a step the United Nations seems to be endorsing.

But on other political fronts, seeds of a backlash are being sown.

For one thing, there is the question of radicalization inside Kenya. A wave of minor attacks have occurred in Kenya this winter, and Britain warned earlier this month that more attacks are on the way. A Kenyan Muslim organization now says it is officially representing Al Shabab in Kenya, reports the Associated Press:

The statement by the Kenya-based Muslim Youth Center came amid a flurry of warnings from embassies about planned terror attacks in Kenya. The Somali militant group al-Shabab has promised to attack Kenya for its decision to send troops to Somalia in October.

The Muslim Youth Center was named in a United Nations report last year for recruiting, fundraising, and running training and orientation events for al-Shabab. An official al-Shabab spokesman did not answer questions about whether the center now represents al-Shabab in Kenya, but a statement published on the center’s blog on Wednesday was unequivocal.

“There can be no doubt that Amiir Ahmad Iman Ali’s elevation to become the supreme Amiir of Kenya for al Shabaab is recognition from our Somali brothers who have fought tirelessly against the kuffar on the importance of the Kenyan mujahideen in Somalia,” the statement said.

The UN Monitoring Group report that the AP mentions can be found here.

Announcements of open support for al Shabab in Kenya not only increase fears of upcoming attacks, they also threaten to increase political tensions in Kenya. The large Somali community in Kenya has become a target of violence and repression by other groups and by authorities in the past. In a year when Kenya will hold a potentially tense election, where ethnic hatreds could flare up, increased religious tension will only make the situation more precarious.

Another potential area of fallout stemming from Kenya’s operations in Somalia concerns the quality of life in northern Kenya. This region has long suffered from crippling drought and poverty, and is home to hundreds of thousands of refugees from Somalia. Human Rights Watch reported this month on the abuse of civilians by security forces currently going on in parts of the region:

The Kenyan police and military have been responsible for a growing number of serious abuses against civilians since the Kenya Defence Forces entered southern Somalia in October, with the stated aim of eliminating al-Shabaab, an Islamist militia. The same month, suspected al-Shabaab sympathizers initiated a series of attacks against police, military, and civilian targets in Kenya.

In response, members of the security forces have been responsible for rape, beatings, looting, and arbitrary arrests of civilians. The crackdown has largely targeted Somali refugees and Kenyan ethnic Somalis, but residents of other ethnic backgrounds in North Eastern province have also been victimized.

This kind of treatment of civilians could leave bitter memories among civilians, memories that outlast Kenya’s mission in Somalia. Those memories could further weaken the legitimacy of the Kenyan government in the north.

Let me be clear: I am not saying that Somali communities in Kenya are inherently a security threat. Far from it; almost all of these people are simply struggling to survive and to build normal lives. What concerns me more is the possibility of greater political division in Kenya, and greater regional fragmentation within the country. As Kenya attempts to pacify its neighbor, the risk grows that core issues of poverty and security will go unaddressed back home.

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

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