Kenya fears falling victim to Somalia conflict [Archives:2008/1166/Reportage]

June 23 2008

Daniel Ooko
The Media Line

As fighting rages on in Somalia after years of wars between Ethiopia and Eritrea, Kenya fears the bloodshed may soon be headed its way – lead by Al-Qa'ida.

After pushing for African forces to be deployed in support of Somalia's transitional government, Kenya is having second thoughts about a possible showdown in neighboring Somalia.

A growing number of politicians and analysts fear a new war in Somalia could trigger hostilities against a badly-prepared Kenya, and turn it into a second battlefield of the Eritrea-Ethiopia conflict.

With Washington hostile towards the Mogadishu Islamists – some of whose members are close to Al-Qa'ida – the Horn of Africa may be set to become the next theater in the “war against terror.”

Speaking about the Somali conflict, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has noted that any potential partner of the U.S. could not “allow terrorists in your midst.” However, she said, “anyone who is willing to fight terrorism” in Somalia could expect Washington's support.

There are fears that the Al-Qa'ida cells in Somalia plan to retaliate for the killing of Al-Shabaab leader Sheikh Aden Hashi Ayro on May 1 in a U.S. air strike, by staging attacks on American interests in Kenya, according to an anti-terrorism officer familiar with the details of the threat.

Al-Shabaab is classified by the U.S. as a terrorist organization.

The May 1 attack, which Washington has described as a major blow against an insurgency that has raged since 2007, was the fifth U.S. air strike in Somalia since the beginning of 2007.

On March 3 this year, the U.S. Navy fired two Tomahawk missiles from a submarine off the coast of Somalia at Dobley, in southern Somalia, killing several people, including at least three women and three children and wounding another 20.

Ayro, trained in terrorist and insurgency methods in Afghanistan and believed to have been in his 30s, was killed in a house in the small central Somalia town Dusamareb, 250 miles north of Mogadishu, together with another five insurgents, including his brother and another commander, Muhiyadin Muhammad. At least a dozen civilians in neighboring houses were also killed by the missiles.

The missile strikes were carried out in advance of a U.N.-sponsored meeting in Djibouti, at which TFG officials and Islamic leaders are negotiating a possible truce.

Regional security analysts rank Somalia as a “secondary front” in the war against terrorism. They say that the country's profile was raised greatly following the Ethiopian invasion and the subsequent U.S. air strikes.

Al-Shabaab's spokesman, Sheikh Mukhtar Robow, has vowed the group will retaliate.

“This does not deter us from continuing our holy war against Allah's enemy,” Robow told The Media Line

“We will target all Americans irrespective of who they are, because the American government is killing all our people,” he said.

“Our leader Aden Hashi Ayro is a hero. Ayro's killing by the Americans will not deter fighters of Al-Shabaab from stepping up their battle. The infidel and their cohorts will pay dearly for their deadly act…We shall avenge the death of our leader,” Robow said.

Several months before Ayro's killing, the group intensified its daily attacks on Somalia's Transitional Federal Government (TFG), which is backed by Ethiopian army soldiers, taking control of substantial territories in central and southern Somalia.

Analysts said Al-Shabaab's aim was to destabilize the Ethiopian forces by increasing the chaos in central and southern Somalia, thus drawing off forces from the capital. It is also aiming to increase insecurity to the point that the population will call on the Islamists to save it.

But with the killing of Ayro, it is possible Al-Shabaab may either stage quick and violent revenge attacks or make a tactical withdrawal to plan their next move.

A Kenyan anti-terrorism official told The Media Line the May 1 operation succeeded after some Al-Shabaab members fell out and passed information to the Americans.

Kenya and the U.S. have been sharing anti-terrorism intelligence especially since the August 7, 1998 bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi and the Kikambala Hotel in November 2002. Their joint efforts have led to successful operations against Al-Qa'ida cells in Somalia.

According to Kenyan officials, the anti-terrorism unit is concerned the group may launch revenge attacks against Kenya following the killing of its leader. This has led to the beefing up of security along the Kenya-Somalia border, the officials say.

“We are very much prepared to avert these attacks. We have intelligence information that the terror groups are regrouping for possible attacks,” said an anti-terrorism police officer, who declined to be named.

Two Kenyans and two Britons were killed in Somalia in mid-April when Islamist insurgents carried out an overnight raid on a school in central Somalia.

The move by the Kenyan defense forces to increase security comes only days after the U.S. said, in a global counter-terrorism survey, that the country lacked the laws needed to wage an effective war on terrorism.

The report, however, applauded Kenya's response to the upheaval in Somalia after the Ethiopian invasion in 2006. It noted that the Ministry of Defense's efforts largely prevented the flight of violent extremists across the Somalia-Kenya border.

War crimes

Amnesty International (AI) has called for an investigation of the role of the United States in Somalia, following publication of a report on May 6 accusing its allies of committing war crimes. The human-rights group listed abuses carried out by Ethiopian and Somali government forces, and some committed by Al-Shabaab.

According to the report, based on the testimonies of refugees who have fled Somalia's capital, Mogadishu, in recent weeks, Ethiopian troops have killed civilians by slitting their throats. Ethiopian and Somali forces were also accused of gang-raping women and attacking children.

The Ethiopian government last week issued a statement strongly rejecting the Amnesty allegations and criticizing the organization's “uncritical use of sources.”

AI has called for an international commission of inquiry into the allegations of war crimes in Somalia and said the role of other countries that have given military and financial support to perpetrators should also be investigated.

AI's report describes widespread human-rights abuses by all sides in the conflict in Somalia.

The group said that armed groups, including remnants of the Islamic Courts Union, act “as bandits, perpetrating raids, robberies and other abuses against civilians, including rape and other forms of sexual violence.”

“There are major countries that have significant influence,” AI researcher Dave Copeman told journalists in Nairobi on May 6. “The U.S., the EU and European countries need to exert that influence to stop these attacks,” he said.

“The international community has recognized the Transitional Federal Government and they have some level of influence and they need to use this influence to ensure that the people who are committing the crimes, particularly within the Ethiopians and the TFG, are aware of the fact that they are going to be held to account, because at the moment they are not,” Copeland added. “There is an absolute sense of impunity.”

However, the Somali and Ethiopian governments rejected AI's accusation that Ethiopian troops in Somalia had killed people by slitting their throats “like goats.”

Zembkun Tekle, a spokesman for Ethiopia's minister of information, said: “We are not confident of the report that Amnesty is giving. They should be careful and need to see the facts on the ground.

“They should make every effort to include [the] other side of the story. Our forces are not known for robbery and other problems that are facing the Somali people. They are known for their discipline and for their good relations with the public,” he said.

“This is an outright, and deliberate, lie, fed to Amnesty by groups affiliated to Al-Shabaab, groups that use the cover of human rights to promote their terrorist agenda. We must deplore that one of the world's most prominent human-rights organizations should descend to the level of publicizing deliberately invented stories about the activities of Ethiopian troops.”

The Somali government also denied claims by a rights group that its forces and their Ethiopian allies were committing atrocities against the civilian population, even as a civil society source said the report did not go far enough.

“Some people may get caught in crossfire but no civilian is deliberately targeted,” said government spokesman Abdi Haji Gobdon.

Gobdon said the report was “pure propaganda and fabrication.”

The United States has been a particularly strong backer of the Ethiopians and the transitional government, with some analysts and organizations saying that American cooperation with these groups on counter-terrorism issues has come at the expense of pushing for improvements in humanitarian access and human rights.

Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, a leader of the Alliance for the Re-Liberation of Somalia, said from the Eritrean capital Asmara, where the group's leadership is based, that the group's fighters do not threaten civilians. “Our aim is to fight for the rights of all Somalis and not to threaten civilians. Those who facilitate attacks against enemy forces should be considered an enemy,” he said.

He also denied the accusation that insurgents, along with Ethiopian forces, knowingly fire shells into civilian areas of Mogadishu, saying only Ethiopian troops have done so.

The faction Aweys leads, which brought together many of the leaders of the Islamic Courts Union that was dislodged from Mogadishu by Ethiopian forces in December 2006, is seen as more moderate than the Shabaab group.

U.S-Ethiopian Reactions

The United States and Ethiopia are calling Ayro's killing a victory against terrorism.

Addis Ababa said the attack by the U.S. would weaken the terror group in the Horn of Africa nation.

Ethiopian Information Minister Berhane Hailu said, “This will further weaken the cells of Al-Qa'ida in Somalia. It has some value for peace and stability in Somalia.”

Ethiopia deployed troops in Somalia to support its embattled transitional government in late 2006. The following year they defeated Islamist militants who had taken control of large parts of south and central Somalia. Remaining Islamist militia fighters have since waged a guerrilla campaign against the government as well as against allied Ethiopian forces and African Union peacekeepers.