On October 16, Kenyan forces entered southern Somalia. The invasion is aimed against the Islamist militia al Shabaab. It is in response to a recent rise in cross-border kidnappings of Westerners, with four abducted in the past month.
Kenya is not the only regional country with soldiers in Somalia, which has not had a functioning government since 1991. An African Union force of 9000 Ugandan and Burundian troops has been in the country since January 2009, when it replaced an Ethiopian force.
AU troops have launched their own offensive against al Shabaab.
On October 21, al Shabaab displayed the bodies, some decapitated, of 70 Burundian soldiers killed in the capital, Mogadishu, the previous day, the BBC said.
The AU, however, said it had only had 10 soldiers killed and two missing and that al Shabaab had augmented the bodies with its own dead, dismissing the grisly display as a sign of weakness.
Kenya’s offensive is undoubtedly putting pressure on al Shabaab. However, even if the ultra-violent Islamist group is wiped out, this is unlikely to stop cross-border kidnappings for the simple reason that al Shabaab is almost certainly not responsible.
The most recent kidnapping was on October 13, when two Spanish doctors working at the Dadaab refugee camp were abducted.
Dadaab, the world’s largest refugee camp, has more than 463,000 inhabitants. More than 190,000 of these fled famine and violence in Somalia this year.
On October 18, the organisation the kidnapped doctors worked for, Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), issued a statement saying they had “no verifiable information on the identity or motives of the abductors”.
They opposed the military response. Jose Antonio Bastos, president of MSF in Spain, said: “We want to strongly distance ourselves from any military or other armed activities, declarations or presumptions of responsibility related to this case.”
Since the government collapsed in Somalia in 1991, kidnapping for ransom has been widely practised by various militias, warlords, bandits and others.
Along the coast, fishing communities deprived of their livelihood by foreign corporations overfishing and dumping toxic waste have turned to piracy.
Luxury tourist resorts on Kenya’s north coast have inevitably become a target for amateur pirates and kidnappers from Somalia.
The October 1 British Daily Telegraph described the scene of a kidnapping as “one of the country’s more exclusive destinations, and celebrities including Princess Caroline of Monaco, Jude Law and X-Files actress Gillian Anderson have regularly been spotted on the island’s 12 mile beach”.
As well as the two Spanish doctors, an English couple on holiday were attacked on September 11, the wife kidnapped and the husband murdered.
On October 1, a disabled French expatriate was abducted. She died because of lack of medication for chronic medical conditions, the French foreign ministry announced on October 20.
Al Shabaab has denied involvement in any of these attacks. The extremely violent group generally admits responsibility for its attacks. Its violence is ideologically motivated ― a major aim being the imposition of a rigid form of Sharia law that has no tolerance for piracy or banditry.
In fact, al Shabaab first rose to prominence suppressing highway gangs engaged in kidnapping for ransom.
Kenyan security forces have also launched a crackdown in Eastleigh, a suburb in the capital, Nairobi, that has a high population of Somali immigrants and ethnically Somali Kenyans.
Two doctors were arrested in the crackdown, Reuters said on October 21.
Nairobi youth worker Michael Mungai wrote in the Huffington Post on October 20: “For decades, Kenya has offered sanctuary to Somalia’s refugees fleeing from the political turmoil in their motherland.
“Most of these immigrants are now bona fide Kenyan citizens, having acquired their citizenship through legal channels.
“Moreover, there’s a large population of a Somali ethnic group that is part of Kenya’s diverse ethnic composition, with Kenya as their ancestral home as it is to any other Kenyan community.
“The government’s crackdown, primarily directed towards distinctively-looking Somali individuals, will be discriminatory towards an undeserving Kenyan minority.”