Source: The Standard
Offensive in Somalia heads for critical second phase but security worries pop up in North Eastern Province, [Photo: File/Standard]
Kenya is entering a more dangerous and difficult phase of its operation in Somalia, one that might see an escalation in both military and civilian casualties.
There is also growing concern over security in the wide, open spaces of North Eastern Province after a series of attacks in the area linked to the militant Islamic group Al Shabaab which has ties to Al Qaeda.
These incidents have led some to ask whether security forces in the country are doing enough to track the terrorists’ financial network and clean out its sleeper cells and command centres, even as the military confronts the militants in Somalia.
In the latest attacks, two people, including an eight-year-old boy, died at the East African Pentecostal Church in Garissa town on Saturday.
A grenade was thrown into a small house on the edge of the compound, while a second was hurled at the watchman near the gate. A mother and her two grandchildren were seriously injured.
Another bomb thrown into a busy taxi rank frequented by Kenya Defence Forces officers failed to explode, and was detonated by military personnel. Garissa hosts a large military base and the incidents happened at about 9pm indicating coordinated attacks.
Security personnel have been combing the town for explosives for the past week. In Damasa centre, Lafey, a Kenya Police Reservist identified as Kerrow Ali died when gunmen attacked the local administration police post in a dramatic incident.
Elsewhere, a police truck escorting a UN convoy to Hagdera camp struck a suspected landmine on Saturday in the Dadaab refugee camp complex, but the device did not detonate, a local police commander said.
Hagdera is one of three camps within the Dadaab refugee complex.
« The mine was removed and security has been intensified, » said the officer, who asked not to be named.
Incidents of banditry are common in this region, but landmines are rare. The incident happened not far from where gunmen seized two Spaniards working for Medecins sans FrontiËres (Doctors Without Borders), Montserrat Serra and Blanca Thiebaut, on October 13.
Police said they managed to repulse the attackers on donkey carts. The attackers were targeting the Regular and Administration Police camps in the area. One of the missiles landed at the foot of a local FM radio station mast but did not explode.
Phase two of ‘Operation Linda Nchi’ will involve direct hostile engagement with the Al Shabaab on the ground by the Kenya Defence Forces and soldiers of Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG).
The Kenya Air Force appears to have control over the skies of central and southern Somalia, and has done much to soften the resistance of the terrorists, but putting feet and weapons on the ground, not in the air, wins military operations.
The Al Qaeda-linked militia has been rearming in preparation for major KDF and TFG ground offensives in Baidoa, Afmadow and Kismayu, three towns whose capture will be decisive. Heavy rains that have made movement difficult have bogged down the offensive on Afmadow.
All indications are that this phase of the offensive might be ugly, and given that most Kenyans have never had to deal with the realities of war, they must ready themselves psychologically.
Al Shabaab is said to be concerned at the spectre of losing Baidoa, Kismayu and Afmadow, the nerve centres of its insurgency, and has upped the tone of its propaganda significantly in the last few days. It hopes that under the spectre of possible deaths of civilians, Kenya will lose the stomach to unleash its full military firepower.
This might explain why the militants are preventing civilians from fleeing towns in the crosshairs of the KDF and TFG soldiers, hoping to use them as human shields.
The towns include Baidoa, Baadheere, Baydhabo, Dinsur, Afgooye, Bwale, Barawe and Jilib. But Military Spokesman Major Emmanuel Chirchir has emphasised that the targets of the KDF and TFG are not civilians.
« We’re not attacking towns — I want to make that clear — we’re attacking Al Shabaab camps. All we’re saying is that people in Somalia, avoid being close to Al Shabaab camps, » Major Chirchir told the BBC’s Focus on Africa programme, after warning civilians in the towns to avoid mingling with the militants.
While it has emerged that Kenya’s military was active in Somalia before it officially announced it was sending in a full contingent of the KDF, what is yet to be properly tested is the weight, beyond the occasional skirmish, of Kenya’s army against an enemy that has no qualms about shedding civilian blood, and which has been rearming in readiness for a final showdown.
But in addition to battling Al Shabaab propaganda, Kenya also has another problem in the shape of wounded European and American egos, expressed in their media by so-called military analysts that consistently paint the joint KDF/TFG operation in negative light.
Britain, the US and France have not enjoyed any notable success in trying to restore order in war-torn Somalia, but their media and analysts have pulled no punches in criticising Kenya’s action as ill advised.
A tweet by Major Chirchir last Thursday about possible air strikes on large movements of donkeys within the theatre of the military operation elicited plenty of jokes in Europe and the US, as did his warning to Somalis « to be cautious of people seeking treatment from bullet wounds and report any suspicious persons to the nearest police station or security agency ».
Yet Chirchir’s statements, while not exactly tactful, reflect the realities of Kenya fighting an unconventional enemy that prefers the use of propaganda, ambushes, roadside bombs, terrorism, including suicide attacks, and using civilians as cannon fodder.
But the skepticism in Europe and America is also rooted in an emerging rivalry between France and the US for counter intelligence dominance in the Horn of Africa.
Sources indicate that the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) is concerned by the growing influence of France’s external intelligence agency, known as Direction GÈnÈrale de la SÈcuritÈ ExtÈrieure (DGSE) in the region, and the US spy agency fears snooping by the French might undermine its influence in Djibouti and Somalia.
As if to give credence to these fears, final negotiations are underway to renew a defence agreement between Paris and Djibouti where the US Africa Command is based.
The CIA is also squirming at the prospect that opening up Jubaland might shine too much light on its activities, including the use of unmanned aircraft to assassinate Al Shabaab commanders on the watch list of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Uganda’s President Museveni, for long a darling of the US, faced unusually strong criticism last week from its ally over its treatment of opposition leader Kizza Besigye.
Sources close to Uganda’s military intelligence indicated the harsh tone might have been in retaliation for Museveni openly voicing support for ‘Operation Linda Nchi’.
By Boniface Ongeri in Garissa and Cyrus Ombati in Nairobi