How Kenya brought the Al-Shabaab cancer home
Details of how Kenya inserted itself into the messy theatre of Somalia through the training of young ethnic Kenyan Somalis against the advice of allies such as the US are revealed in great detail in leaked American embassy cables reviewed by the Sunday Nation.
Kenya had grown increasingly alarmed by the chaos in the neighbouring country from 2009 after Al-Shabaab rallied hundreds of fighters from around the world to fight the “Christian invaders” following the December 2006 invasion of Somalia by Ethiopia.
The withdrawal of the Ethiopians in 2009 had greatly strengthened the Shabaab, which strongly expanded its field of operations to the region near the Kenyan border.
Al-Shabaab smuggled goods into Kenya from the port of Kismayu, which it controlled and which was its main source of revenue. More worryingly, it started recruiting Kenyans of Somali origin especially from Isiolo, Nairobi, Mombasa and the larger North Eastern Province into its ranks. Kenya decided to act.
Cables released by the anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks, indicate that the Kenyan government started sharing with its international security partners its intentions to directly intervene in Somalia from around September 2009.
In a cable dated September 4, 2009, which was filed by US ambassador to Kenya Michael Ranneberger, Kenyan military officials asked for help from the US.
“Somali and Kenyan officials are working in concert to support a locally-driven effort in Lower Juba and Gedo to expel Al-Shabaab. Somali President Sheikh Sharif and the Kenyan government have asked us to support the plan with weapons, medical supplies, communications and intelligence,” he wrote.
The person most likely to have sold to Kenya the idea for the operation in Somalia is Ras Kamboni warlord Sheikh Ahmed Madobe, a former member of the Shabaab who defected in protest at its brutal methods, and had been engaged against Al-Shabaab for long.
As early as 2009, Madobe had been urging another Ras Kamboni warlord, Ibrahim Shukri, to close ranks with him and flush out the Shabaab militants.
Madobe, the governor of Kismayu during the reign of the Islamic Courts Union, a group of clerics who tried to impose order in Somalia after years of chaos, was well known to Kenyan security officials. He fled towards Kenya when ICU fell and was wounded and captured by Ethiopians but released later.
Now back in Kismayu, he proposed to Shukri the idea of forming a Jubaland government and started seeking the support of the US, Kenya and Transitional Federal Government of Somalia.
WikiLeaks cable indicates that the Americans first learned from Mabobe of Kenya’s intention to join hands with the federal government and the Ras Kamboni Brigade to flush out the Islamists in early 2009.
At first, the Kenyan government told the US officials that it aimed to train a group of 36 Somali nationals who would then be returned to Somalia to train a bigger, more professional force with the guidance of retired Kenyan military officers.
However, in subsequent plans, the government opted to secretly train a force of 4,000 Somali nationals to be sent to Somalia to battle Al-Shabaab. There would be no Kenyan boots on Somali soil, the Kenyan delegation told their US counterparts. However, the government hid its true intentions.
In 2009, contrary to statements that it was training Somali police, the government began secretly training about 4,000 youth, to fight the Shabaab forces.
Again, contrary to statements that these youth were Somali nationals, it turned out that all of them were Kenyan nationals of Somali ethnicity mainly from Mandera and Garissa.
About 2,000 recruits from Mandera were sent to training camps in Archers Post in Isiolo while those from Garissa were sent to Manyani, Tsavo West National Park.
“Kenyan recruits are reportedly being lured with promises of jobs, money, and an association with either the UN or Amisom (the African Union Mission in Somalia),” wrote Mr Ranneberger to his bosses in February 2010.
Most Kenyan MPs from North Eastern were enraged when they learned of the secret recruitment drive after families reported that their sons had disappeared from home. The parliamentary committee on security, at that time led by Mr Adan Keynan, strongly opposed the secret recruitment drive, saying it was not in Kenya’s national interests.
His concerns were echoed by the current Garissa Town MP Adan Duale.
“Duale said if true, Government of Kenya support for the recruitment effort would bring Somali’s war into Kenya and directly undermine his message to Garissa youth to ‘stay out of Somalia— this is not your fight,’” reads a cable filed by Mr Ranneberger.
In a cable dated October 2, 2010, Djibouti’s Foreign Affairs Minister Mahmoud Ali Yousouf also told US Ambassador William Bellamy that the recruitment could only have a negative impact on Kenya’s security.
“Extremists would quickly turn such an intervention into an excuse for undermining Kenya’s internal security,” he told Mr Bellamy.
Mr Ranneberger, like the MPs, worried about what would happen when the youth returned to Kenya with military skills but no jobs as promised by the government.
His conclusion of the situation was prophetic: “If they do in fact make up the majority of the fighting force, their tenacity and loyalty will be questionable, especially if the Government of Kenya is unable to follow through on its promises,” he wrote.
A retired director of military intelligence, who requested to speak off the record since he still does consultancy work for the government, said: “These young men became quickly disappointed when the promises that were made to them did not come through. Instead of fighting, they quickly dissolved into their clans with their weapons.”
The fate of these highly trained youths is unknown because the government can no longer track them and security officials speculate that some of them are behind attacks in Kenya.
KENYA CONTINUE LOBBYING
Nonetheless, despite these local and international concerns over Kenya’s intentions, the government stepped up its lobbying to directly intervene in Somalia.
On the sidelines of an Intergovernmental Authority on Development meeting in December in 2009 in Djibouti, Kenya’s Foreign Affairs Minister Moses Wetang’ula tried, with little luck, to win over Karl Wycoff, a senior US official.
“Wetang’ula predicted success for the initiative. Al-Shabaab was weak, he insisted, recalling that Ethiopian troops had marched into Mogadishu in December 2006 ‘like a hot knife through butter,’” reads a cable of the meeting filed by Ambassador James Swan of the US State Department.
This was just one of the many spirited fights that the Kenyan government put up in its attempt to gain wider legitimacy for the operation it had conceived.
Apart from Wetang’ula, others who lobbied hard were Prime Minister Raila Odinga, Defence Minister Yusuf Haji and Internal Security Minister George Saitoti.
Others were former Chief of General Staff Jeremiah Kianga and Director of Military Intelligence Philip Kameru, now in charge of the National Intelligence Service.
In a cable describing a January 26, 2010 meeting with Assistant Secretary of Defence Alexander Vershbow, Mr Odinga “stated that should the TFG fall, Al-Shabaab would fill the void” and said “instability in Somalia is causing instability in Kenya” and urged America’s help.
The cable further states: “Both Minister Haji and Minister Saitoti raised concerns about the increasing presence of foreign fighters in Somalia. General Kianga believes that Somalia is becoming a sanctuary for foreign terrorists. They believe that Al-Shabaab is working closely with Al-Qaeda and others to increase foreign fighters in the region. They stated that if Al-Shabaab is not contained, Kenya will have a very serious situation to deal with.”
The US stridently refused to be drawn into the plans, with one of its security officials telling the Kenyan officials “although you have our understanding, you do not have our support.”
OPERATION LINDA NCHI
In mid October 2011, Kenyan troops rolled into southern Somalia to battle Al-Shabaab militants, with the aim of establishing their long-desired buffer zone.
The Kenyan operation was largely successful, culminating in the capture of the Port of Kismayo, thus choking off Al-Shabaab’s main source of revenue and entry point for foreign fighters.
However Al-Shabaab vowed revenge for the invasion, which it characterised as a war between Muslims and Christian invaders— the same words it had used against Ethiopian forces in 2006.
The words of former US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson in 2010 to a high powered Kenyan delegation were exceptionally prophetic.
On that day, January 10, 2010, on the sidelines of African Union Summit in Addis Ababa, Mr Carson, tactfully declined a request to support Kenyan invasion of Somalia by asking a number of hard questions.
Some of his main worries were that the mission could turn out to be more complicated and expensive than the Kenyans had forecast. He queried whether the government had a plan should the Kenyan troops be defeated and whether the government was ready for the domestic repercussions of the mission.
True to its word, the militant group has stepped up its attacks in Kenya than ever before. It has got more vicious than ever before— as shown by the Westgate, Mpekeoni, Mandera and Garissa attacks.
In the wake of the repeated attacks, President Kenyatta has reiterated that KDF will remain in Somalia until its fledgling government “stabilises.”
In many ways, this stance has closed off any meaningful debate on Kenya’s presence in Somalia.
The government often accuses anyone holding a different opinion of “talking the language of terrorists,” whenever the suggestion of withdrawing troops is mooted but the debate will only intensify in the wake of the latest, brutal killing of 148 young Kenyans.