The curious case of Kenya in Somalia

It was probably only a matter of time. After years of consternation about the crisis unfolding on its northern border, yesterday Kenyan troops at last made their move and entered Somalia, chasing down the militants who allegedly kidnapped aid workers in a refugee camp earlier this week. For months, the situation along the border had been escalating; renewed fighting and an ongoing famine pushed Somali refugees in ever greater numbers over the border into the world’s largest refugee camp.

Meanwhile, Islamist militant group al Shabaab was pushing the international border, crossing intermittently. When aid groups threatened to pull out of northern Kenya, leaving a fragile humanitarian situation in the hands of the Kenyan authorities alone, it was apparently too much to sit idly by. Frustrated by the inability of international forces, including the African Union-United Nations joint peacekeeping operation in southern Somalia, to control the situation, Kenyans took matters into their own hands, unleashing both troops and air power on the militant controlled areas of neighboring Somalia.

But if it’s clear why Kenya needed to undertake this intervention — certainly justifiable out of self defense — it’s not clear at all why they wanted to. In recent years, militant groups in Somalia have thrived off of the local vs. foreigner narrative — a story that pits Somalis against the plethora of foreign occupiers who have come in and out of their country over the last century. It’s a true story in many ways; Britain, Italy, the Soviet Union, the United States, Ethiopia, Uganda, and Burundi have all had troops there in the not-so-distant history. Now Kenya has added itself to that list — one that comes with ominous complications. Last year, al Shabaab proclaimed that it would be targeting Uganda and Burundi in retaliation for their participation in a peacekeeping mission in the country. Today, the militants made the same promise to target Nairobi.

This raises the question: was it a trap? Al Shabaab has recently been down (if not yet out.) Recruitment was falling, morale was dropping, and the reason for the fight was dissipating. Since Ethiopian troops who had invaded in late 2006 pulled out of the country in 2009, the anti-foreigner story has been a harder one to sell. If al Shabaab can find a new enemy (Kenya) and a new place to strike (potentially Nairobi), they stand to score a PR coup.

It raises one more question too: How this will affect the Somalis living in Kenya, who have already been under the tight scrutiny of authorities there. As the pressure of the refugee situation grows, and fears of al Shabaab worsen, it could seriously strain an already fracturing relationship between Kenyans and the growing Somali diaspora community.

Entering Somalia yesterday was a risk — and it was also a one way street for Kenya. It has always been intimately close to the conflict as a neighbor; now it’s involved.