BBC radio and television asked me to comment 17 October on Kenya’s military intervention in Somalia. While acknowledging that Kenya had other options to pursue, including taking the matter to the United Nations, I suggested that the frustration of recent attacks inside Kenya against tourists and non-governmental organization personnel pushed the Kenyans to the limit. They decided they had to respond militarily. Obtaining some kind of UN sanction for the operation would have taken considerable time.
It is not clear whether al-Shabaab carried out the attacks inside Kenya, but it is clear that the perpetrators took the hostages to territory inside Somalia controlled by al-Shabaab, thus making al-Shabaab complicit in the attacks.
The objective of the Kenyan military operation and the length of time the Kenyan forces intend to remain inside Somalia remain unclear. The longer they remain, however, the greater will be the animosity of the average Somali against Kenya.
The Kenyan forces may intend to clear a buffer zone along the Kenya-Somali border and then install Somali forces who oppose al-Shabaab and are friendly with Kenya. Kenya may go as far as the important al-Shabaab port city of Kismayu and try to put friendly Somali forces in charge of the port so that al-Shabaab can no longer use it as a major source of revenue, including the transit of products that are smuggled into Kenya.
This action does raise the possibility of al-Shabaab terrorist attacks inside Kenya such as occurred in Kampala, Uganda, in July 2010. So far, al-Shabaab has avoided terrorist attacks in Kenya because, I believe, it benefits from the illegal trade into Kenya and receives financial support from sympathizers in the large Somali community in Nairobi. Al-Shabaab did not want to jeopardize this cozy relationship by attacking Kenya. It may now conclude that retaliation is more important than continuing the economic advantages that it had in Kenya.
Kenya almost certainly consulted key allies such as Ethiopia, the United States and United Kingdom on this operation but the decision to send troops into Somalia was, I believe, Kenya’s alone. The United States has in the past provided counterterrorism training and shared intelligence with key allies in the region, including Kenya. Although I doubt that the United States had a direct role in the intervention, there is no reason to believe that it objected to the operation.