Will fears of terrorism in Kenya provoke a larger US response to the situation in Somalia?
Last week I wrote about how al Shabab recruitment in Kenya demonstrated the extent to which Somalia’s civil war affects its neighbors. Now more reports are emerging about a militant presence in Kenyan refugee camps and border towns.
The Shabab has already penetrated refugee camps inside Kenya, according to camp elders, luring away dozens of young men with promises of paradise — and $300 each. It has carried out cross-border attacks, kidnapping an outspoken cleric in May from a refugee camp 50 miles inside Kenya. Last Wednesday, in one of its boldest cross-border moves yet, a squad of uniformed, heavily armed Shabab fighters stormed into a Kenyan school in a remote town, rounding up all the children and telling them to quit their classes and join the jihad.
“If these guys can come in with their guns and uniforms in broad daylight,” said one of the teachers at the school, “they must be among us.”
Then on Saturday it happened again: Somali gunmen, widely believed to be with the Shabab, stormed the offices of an aid organization and kidnapped three aid workers from a Kenyan border town before melting back into Somalia.
These developments have Washington worried:
Kenya is widely seen as a frontline state against the Islamist extremism smoldering across the Horn of Africa. Few expect the Shabab to make good on its threats to march en masse across the border. But the creeping fear, the one that keeps the security staffs at Western embassies awake at night, is that the Shabab or its foreign jihadist allies will infiltrate Kenya and attack some of the tens of thousands of Westerners living in the country, possibly in a major strike like Al Qaeda did in 1998.
Al-Shabab’s presence also alarms Kenya, of course, which is why President Kibaki has decided to boost troop levels on the border.
US officials are skeptical, though, that Nairobi can control border movement. Nomadism, corruption, and the sheer length of the 400-mile border mean that many Somalis can cross back and forth. Moreover, Kenyan troops have sometimes caused backlash in the areas they patrol, undermining the rule of law.
The regional fallout from Somalia seems to be pushing East Africa higher on Washington’s list of global priorities. A direct intervention is unlikely, but money and arms will likely keep flowing from America to Kenya, Ethiopia, and Somalia’s official government. Whether that aid ultimately helps resolve the conflict will be another story.