When Kenya launched Operation Linda Nchi – the military intervention in Somalia – ten years ago this week, the target was Al-Shabaab.
For Kenyan political and military leaders, the terrorist group had continually undermined the peace process in Somalia and Kenya’s sovereignty and integrity.
At a press briefing in Nairobi, then Internal Security Minister George Saitoti and his Defence colleague Yusuf Haji said Kenya had a right to send its military to Somalia and that the government invoked Article 51 of the United Nations Charter on the country’s inherent right to self-defence.
“If you are attacked, you have the right to pursue the enemy right where he is. They (Al-Shabaab) will be pursued,” Haji said.
Starting with the July 2010 Kampala bombings, which were Al-Shabaab’s first successful outside Somalia, the group carried out several bloody raids and kidnappings in Kenya.
The Kampala bombings targeted people who were watching the final of the 2010 FIFA World Cup match between Spain and the Netherlands.
It left 74 people dead and 85 injured.
Roots in Kenya
The Kampala bombings revealed the extent to which the terrorist group had developed its roots in Kenya, inspiring the Muslim Youth Centre, also known as Pumwani Muslim Youth.
The Pumwani group had become one of the largest support networks for Al-Shabaab in Kenya.
Indeed, after the Kampala bombings, the principal suspect was a Kenyan – Omar Awadh Omar – who was affiliated with Pumwani Muslim Youth.
Mr Omar had been charged by Ugandan prosecutors in September 2010 but was acquitted in 2018 only to be rearrested before he could leave the country.
Amidst differing views as to the trigger for Operation Linda Nchi, the account of the Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) was that it was a case of “a country taking up arms after withstanding decades of provocation”.
Before the bombings in Kampala, there had been small-scale attacks in Kenya.
For instance, the terrorist group attacked Dadajabula police post in Wajir county injuring three officers in 2009.
In the same year, Al-Shabaab was accused of abducting two nuns in Elwak.
In 2010, the terrorist group attacked a General Service Unit (GSU) camp in Liboi, Garissa County, with grenades, guns and other weapons, wounding three officers.
In March 2011, the terrorist group violated the Kenyan border in Mandera County several times.
Three months before Operation Linda Nchi, Kenyan authorities accused Al-Shabaab targeting police and military officers in Mandera by laying mines and other explosives.
Two KDF soldiers were abducted around the same time.
A month before the operation, on September 10, 2011, British tourist David Tebbutt was killed and his wife Judith abducted by people believed to be al-Shabaab.
They were on the island of Kiwayu, some 40 kilometres from the Somali border.
Judith was released as Operation Linda Nchi was underway seven months later.
Just two weeks before the military intervention, on October 1, 2011, Frenchwoman Marie Dedieu, 66, was kidnapped from her home on Manda island.
She would die in Al-Shabaab custody.
A day before Kenya announced the military intervention in Somalia, two Spanish aid workers with Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) – Montserrat Serra and Blanca Thiebaut – were seized from Dadaab refugee camp, Garissa County.
Two Kenya Navy soldiers also went missing in what was suspected kidnap by Al-Shabaab.
Guard Kenya’s sovereignty
On February 23, 2012, when President Mwai Kibaki took the stage to address the London Conference on Somalia, he said Operation Linda Nchi was meant to guard the country’s sovereignty, territorial integrity and security.
“In October 2011, we launched Operation Linda Nchi, in pursuit of al-Shabaab and other armed terrorist elements, that sought to destabilise our country, economy and the region,” Mr Kibaki said at Lancaster House.
The launch of the operation, however, has attracted conflicting views.
The Wikileaks dump of US diplomatic cables in 2011 as well as a 2012 report by the Crisis Group, for instance, argued that the abductions were only a trigger for a plan that had been laid out several years before the capture Kismayu.
According to the cables, two years before the start of Operation Linda Nchi, Foreign Affairs Minister Moses Wetang’ula (now Bungoma senator) led an international diplomatic effort to secure support for KDF’s entry into Somalia and carve out a buffer zone in the south of the country (the Jubaland Project/Initiative) to stop al-Shabaab elements from crossing into Kenya.
Among those Mr Wetang’ula was reported to have met were high-ranking US government officials.
In the book Operation Linda Nchi: Kenya’s Military Experience in Somalia, KDF refutes reports of years of planning, characterising the intervention as a surprise.
Surprise to the world
“KDF’s entry into Somalia was a surprise to the entire world. It was reported as a case of a country taking up arms after withstanding decades of provocation due to her tolerant nature,” the military says in the book.
“In fact, the entry elicited mixed reactions; to the international community, it appeared a ‘mirage’. There were calls of wonder, doubt and apprehension as to whether the entry was real.”
The government said the frequent al-Shabaab attacks on Kenya had heavily impacted the local economy, especially tourism, which the terrorist group targeted by abducting foreigners.
Socially, the government stated al-Shabaab “propagated an unfounded religious ideology” calling for a “jihad” against Christians for reportedly fighting an Islamic Somalia.
It added that the reason for al-Shabaab’s “jihad” was to break the social fabric between Kenyan Christians and Muslims, thereby making the country unstable.