Kenya in the Somali crossfire – ISN

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Somalia map (BBC)

Somalia map (BBC)

The assassination of a Somali al-Qaida affiliate overshadows peace talks, with Kenya vulnerable to terrorist attacks in response.

By Daniel Ooko and Simon Roughneen in Nairobi

As Somalia engages in another round of peace talks, the security and humanitarian situation in the country deteriorates. Some 2.5 million of the country’s estimated eight million people now need humanitarian assistance, according to the UN – a 40 percent increase in 2008 alone. Hundreds of thousands are displaced, including 250,000 in what is thought to be the world’s largest refugee/IDP camp outside Mogadishu.

Yet another round of peace talks held in Djibouti last week ended without a face-to-face meeting between the US/Ethiopian-backed Transitional Federal Government (TFG), and the opposition Alliance for the Re-Liberation of Somalia, which encompasses many of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) routed by the invading Ethiopian army in late 2006.

All told, there seems to be scant hope for a viable political settlement in a country that has lacked effective government since 1991.

Since taking office in November, Somali TFG Prime Minister Nur Hussein has engaged Somalia’s Islamist opposition, unlike his predecessor, Ali Mohamed Gedi – a move also opposed by TFG President Abdullah Yusuf.

However, the non-meeting was compromised by the 1 May US airstrike that killed Al-Shebab leader Aden Hashi Ayro in the central Somali town of Dusamareeb, about 480 kilometers north of Mogadishu, coming just weeks after the US State Department designated Al-Shebab as a “global terrorist entity.”

Afghanistan-trained Ayro was linked to the murder of 16 foreigners, including a number of aid workers and BBC journalist Kate Peyton.

As Somalia expert Matt Bryden told Voice of America radio later that day: “Ayro was a key and recognized leader of the Shebab, al-Qaida’s affiliate in Somalia. And as an individual, he was certainly one of those who had close links to the members of al-Qaida known to be in Somalia.

“And it shows that the efforts of the US, and presumably others – the Somali partners and possibly Ethiopians on the ground – are paying off. That they do have actionable intelligence on the Shebab and are able to conduct a strike like this. So, it shows the vulnerabilities of the Shebab leadership. And symbolically because Ayro was a known and visible figure, it’s a very important development.”

A Kenyan antiterrorism official speaking on condition of anonymity told ISN Security Watch that the Ayro operation succeeded after an internal Al-Shebab row saw disgruntled members pass intelligence to the Americans.

Assassination implications

But Ayro’s elimination could have regional implications. Ethiopia keeps its troops in Somalia, and continues its brutal counterinsurgency in its own Somali provinces. A combination of local grievances, links to Somalia-based terrorists and the financial and military backing given by Ethiopia’s other nemesis – the Afewerki regime in Eritrea – could leave Addis Ababa vulnerable to the type of unexplained bomb attacks seen in spring 2006.

However, US interests in East Africa are concentrated in Kenya, the regional economic hub, and civilian targets in that country may be easier for terrorists to hit than US Special forces embedded with Ethiopians troops in Somalia. After a violent and uncertain beginning to 2008 prompted by a flawed election count process, Kenya could face a renewed threat from terrorists out to avenge Ayro’s death.

Al-Shebab spokesman Sheikh Mukhtar Robow told ISN Security Watch that there would be retaliation: “This does not deter us from continuing our holy war against Allah’s enemy; we will be on the right way, that is why we are targeted.

“We will target all Americans irrespective of who they are because the American government is killing all our people,” he said.

American and western interests in Kenya have been hit by al-Qaida previously: the 1998 embassy bombing in Nairobi, and the 2002 attack on a Mombasa hotel and an Israeli passenger jet.

According to Kenyan police, over 240 Kenyans have been killed by terrorists in the past decade, yet the country’s anti-terrorism bill remains stalled. Kenya’s long border with Somalia is porous and difficult to police comprehensively, lying adjacent to a sparsely populated, partly Somali region in Kenya.

This all lends credence to the widespread belief in Kenya that potential terrorists have easy access to their country, while Kenyan and East African Muslim leaders have accused Nairobi of harassing Muslims on a counterterrorism pretext.

Back in November 2006, Kenya’s The Standard newspaper reported local officials’ claims that Kenyan Somalis living along the border between the two countries had been recruited by the ICU, which briefly controlled much of Somalia before being ousted by Ethiopian troops crossing the border in December 2006.

In June 2003, the US Embassy in Kenya closed for five days following reported specific threats of imminent “terrorist” attacks, including the flying of a plane and the driving of a truck full of explosives into the new US Embassy buildings in Nairobi. Three people were later charged with “conspiracy to bomb” the buildings.

David Shinn is adjunct professor in the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University. He told ISN Security Watch: “I doubt that Kenya alone has the intelligence system in place to stop a terrorist attack from al-Shebab. The record based on successful terrorist attacks against the American Embassy in Nairobi in 1998 and Israeli interests in Mombasa in 2002 raises serious questions.

“On the other hand,” Shinn continued, “several terrorist plots have been prevented in Kenya in recent years. With the help of friendly nations’ intelligence services, Kenya will have a much better chance of averting a successful attack by al-Shebab.”

The Kenyan anti-terror official told ISN Security Watch that fears persisted that al-Qaida cells in Somalia were planning to retaliate by staging attacks on American interests in Kenya, a view shared by Shinn.

“I have no doubt that al-Shebab will attempt to avenge Ayro’s death by attacking American, Kenyan and/or Ethiopian interests in the region. The question is whether al-Shebab has the capacity to carry out attacks against these interests,” Shinn said.

Back in Somalia, caught in the middle

Meanwhile, in Somalia, civilians are caught in the middle of fearsome fighting, with all sides accused of gross human rights violations, a charge denied by both the Ethiopian occupiers, their Somali warlord allies and their Islamist foes.

Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys is on a UN terrorist list, and as former leader of the ICU, remains a prominent Islamist opposition spokesman. He told ISN Security Watch from the Eritrean capital Asmara that the group’s fighters “do not threaten civilians.”

More ominously, he added that “anyone who facilitates attacks by enemy forces should be considered an enemy.”

The faction Aweys leads is seen as more moderate than the Shebab group, though the real separation between the two may be somewhat contrived, and any such comparison must acknowledge Ayro’s brutality and ruthlessness, not to mention Aweys’ patronage of Ayro during the 1990s and the more recent ICU rise to power.

Aweys did not attend the Djibouti peace talks last week, calling them “a waste of time,” and dismissing any notion that Somalia could be stabilized prior to an Ethiopian withdrawal.

Even still, all the chips seem placed on political reconciliation within Somalia, as a precursor to other policy initiatives, such as deploying a UN peacekeeping force to replace the current African Union deployment, or an Ethiopian withdrawal, or a fuller engagement in Somalia by the aid sector.

However, it appears that neither the political will nor the creativity is available to implement a workable process or timetable, and moreover, any logical sequencing of what needs to be done politically has not been worked out – which, to illustrate, results in the type of non-event that took place in Djibouti last week.

Meanwhile, one of the world’s longest-running and most debilitating humanitarian crises seems set to run on.

While the UN Security Council voted on 16 May to reestablish a UN political mission in Mogadishu, real international action to end Somalia’s suffering has been notable only for its absence.

The EU has just allocated €10 million (US$15.5 million) “for victims of continuing insecurity and climatic hazards,” and while the US and Ethiopia have what John Prendergast of the Enough Project describes as “legitimate security concerns” in Somalia, the decoupling of the war on terror from Somalia’s political and humanitarian concerns seems unlikely even to reduce the likelihood of terrorist attacks in Somalia and the East Africa region.

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