When Kenya decided to go to war against the Somali offshoot of al-Qaeda terrorist group, al-Shabaab, it looked like a straightforward affair: go in with powerful hardware, smoke out these little irritants all the way to their port base of Kismayo and get back by Christmas. That was October. A month later, the Economist lamented that the Kenyans had spent more time tweeting than fighting.
Take for instance Afmadow, which fell to the joint force of the African Union and the Kenya Defence Forces in late May. This southern Somali town—al-Shabaab’s stronghold—should have been captured just days into the offensive: “Our troops are heading to Afmadow now, and we expect to capture it either today or tomorrow,” the head of a Somali militia collaborating with the Kenyan army told Britain’s Guardian on October, 18.
Just three days before al-Shabaab rebels abandoned Afmadow, allowing the African Union team a walkover, another stinging reminder of the cost of war hit Kenya. Police blamed the Islamist militant group for a blast in downtown Nairobi that killed at least one and left 35 injured. International news agencies reported on the blast with typical breathlessness and urgency. Both Mount Kenya University, the building next to the blast site, and Moi Avenue, where it happened, were trending worldwide on Twitter within minutes. For the outside world, more evidence that Kenya was unsafe, had just presented itself.
Britian’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and the US Department of State both keep helpful guides on travelling around the world with updated travel warnings. “The US Department of State warns US citizens of the risks of travel to Kenya. US citizens in Kenya, and those considering travel to Kenya, should evaluate their personal security situation in light of continuing and recently heightened threats from terrorism…” stated the official website.
Kenya’s former colonial master, Britain, also advises “…against all but essential travel to within 60km of the Somali border (including Kiwayu and coastal areas north of Pate Island), to Garissa district…” on the FCO website. All the reconstruction work done by hard working Kenyan entrepreneurs and the government are rubbished within a single mouse click.
The country had little choice but to take al-Shabaab head on. In the months leading up to October, the militant group was responsible for a sequence of kidnappings and attacks in coastal areas of the country. When two Spanish aid workers were abducted, it was time for decisive action.
Screwed if you do, screwed if you don’t
In 2011, Kenya earned about Ksh98 billion ($1.1 billion) from one of its largest foreign exchange sources—tourism. The notable take-away from this was that the increase from Ksh74 billion ($863.5 million) in 2010, was mainly because of improved arrivals from high spending Emiratis, Chinese and Indians. The traditional source markets of Europe and America were slowing down as the constant fear mongering by their governments took effect. Not that bureaucrats in Washington, London, Paris or Zurich are to blame, they are merely doing their job. The same way the Kenyan government is doing its best to secure homeland security.
Al-Shabaab has threatened to carry out more retaliatory attacks in Kenya’s highly populated urban centers within the next six months. The American ‘private contractor working for intelligence agencies’ warned, in a report in early June, that a huge attack against Kenya was imminent because of the increased Kenyan activity in Somalia.
What Kenya has on its hands is a perfect storm. Al-Shabaab continues to cause fear at home with their spontaneous attacks, the international community is afraid to visit or invest in the country because of the security concerns and everybody is on edge. If it were to pull out of Somalia before conquering the militant group’s Kismayo headquarters, there is no telling what harm they could do. If it continues advancing to the port town, just 115 kilometers from Kismayo, its people remain targets for retaliatory attacks. Either way, tourism suffers, investor confidence dampens and the economy slows. Just how costly is a march to Somalia?