Kenya Defence Forces soldiers

Kenya Defence Forces soldiers.

| File | Nation Media Group

War on terror: 12 years since Somalia incursion, is Kenya safe?

On the 15th day of the Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) incursion into Somalia, then Chief of General Staff Julius Karangi declared that the war's success indicators would manifest themselves in the form of a severely degraded al-Shabaab capacity.

Kenya, angered by the continued kidnapping of tourists by al-Shabaab terrorists along the Kenyan coast, had killed hundreds of the group's militia within a week of the invasion, kicking off one of the country's most expensive missions in terms of lives lost in combat over the past decade.

From the outset, the mission, codenamed ‘Operation Linda Nchi’, had a clearly defined military and national objective: to defeat the terrorists and maintain Kenya as a safe and secure tourist destination. Kenya understood that the operation would be open-ended.

"When the Kenyan government and people feel safe enough from the threat of al-Shabaab, we will withdraw. This campaign is not time-bound, there is no timeline, we will leave it to the people of this country to decide that ... our warriors can come back home," General Karangi announced a week after the incursion.

About a year later, the KDF rejoined the African Union Mission in Somalia (Amisom) and continued the war, taking over the areas near the Kenyan-Somali border. Last year, the mission became the African Union Transition Mission in Somalia (Atmis) with a clear mandate to implement the Somali Transition Plan.

Over time, however, terrorists have expanded their reach, including establishing recruitment networks in Kenya, which carried out three major attacks at Westgate Mall in 2013, Garissa University in 2015 and Dusit in 2019, killing hundreds.

Security agencies argue that they thwarted even more plots over the same period, including one targeting parliament and a planned anthrax attack in 2016, successes attributed to multi-agency cooperation.

As the KDF begins to withdraw from Somalia along with other Atmis forces, it will leave its formerly occupied areas under the supervision of the Somali National Army (SNA), whose ability to secure the nation against al-Shabaab remains in question.

According to analysts, the withdrawal appears to have given the militia leverage to move across borders, as attacks have been recorded in some of the areas the SNA took over from Atmis troops.

In July, for example, the KDF handed over to the SNA the Gherille Forward Operating Base, which had contributed to the security of the region by facilitating operations against al-Shabaab and other armed groups.

A few days later, however, the base, located about 12 kilometres from the Kenya-Somalia border in Gedo region, came under heavy militia attack, raising concerns about the SNA's ability to provide a buffer zone between Kenya and Somalia.

A sharp rise in small-scale terrorist attacks in recent weeks has also raised questions about the impact of more than a decade of war, with many Kenyans arguing that the cost has been too high, especially in the lives of security officers killed inside Somalia and along the border in northern Kenya and Lamu.

"There have been milestones that have been achieved because as of today, we can confidently argue that al-Shabaab is no longer a direct threat because of the infiltration and the multi-agency intelligence approach that has been adopted to fight this war. What is happening with these sudden small attacks could have a different meaning, and the local population is not helping much with intelligence. Is there a political angle? Underlying land issues? Or someone trying to send a message?" an analyst, speaking on condition of anonymity, posed.

Others argue that Operation Linda Nchi campaign failed from the outset to discern what constitutes victory over winning the war. In addition, lax intelligence gathering on the terrorists' exploitation of the country's political grievances, as well as loopholes in the financial and communications systems, created vulnerabilities that the evolving militia exploited to the country's disadvantage.

"If Kenya had responded to the manipulation of issues and the misuse of religion much earlier, it could have put in place preventative measures and we would not have seen the kind of recruitment we saw in 2010, 2011 to 2015. We started to put in place robust ideological measures in 2015," notes Dr Mustafa Ali, an expert on violent extremism.

Analysts agree that the withdrawal of the KDF from Somalia will not stop al-Shabaab attacks on Kenyan soil.

Dr Mustafa notes that, before the incursion, al-Shabaab was still attacking Kenya under different guises, which later morphed into religious propaganda and now calls for the KDF to leave Somalia.

"Terrorist groups are anarchist groups and they don't care about religion. The claim that they will stop if KDF leaves Somalia is part of the propaganda they are using. They are interested in political power and money, once they have political territory they will have power and money," he says.

On whether the country is in a worse state than it was before the invasion, Dr Oscar Githua, a forensic psychologist, acknowledged in an interview with NTV last week that the security agencies had made significant gains in thwarting attacks that would have claimed so many lives if action had not been taken in time.

"Back then there were fewer attacks and more hits, but now there are more attacks and fewer hits. If you look at it proportionally, I think we are doing well as a country," he said.

KDF agrees, noting that the AU mission to pacify Somalia has achieved progressive milestones over the years.

"The military operation ... has led to the restoration of peace and created a conducive environment for communities to flourish in their political, social, religious and economic well-being. Had al-Shabaab remained undeterred, it would have posed a greater threat not only to the Somali government but also to the Horn of Africa," KDF said in its response to Nation.

Frontline security forces remain a critical resource that is not expendable and must be generously protected at all times as they risk everything to defend the country.

However, as in any war, casualties are part of the collateral damage, and the KDF has paid the ultimate price in pacifying Somalia. Soldiers have been wounded, maimed and killed, while others are still missing.

"While the best war is won without firing a single bullet, paying the ultimate price epitomises our commitment to defend Kenya against any threat. When our story as a country and as a military is told about our mission in Somalia, our experiences, and the visible and invisible results give accuracy to the war we fought to pacify Somalia and protect our brothers. As a professional force bound by our culture, training and doctrine, as soldiers we leave no one behind," KDF said.

Major General Jeff Nyagah, who led the troops during the incursion as a lieutenant colonel, echoes the statement, saying, he believes being on the front line is like a rite of passage, full of shared risks and opportunities.

"The most honourable thing for a soldier is to serve his country in defence of its sovereignty and territorial integrity," he says. Defence Cabinet Secretary Aden Duale has announced plans to set up bases along the Kenyan-Somali border. This, insiders say, will help identify, neutralise and return the threat from across the border, while supporting the SNA's capacity and intelligence coordination.