In a cross border raid on July 18, 2009, Shabaab militants slipped across the porous 500 mile border between Kenya and Somalia, abducted three foreign aid workers, and slithered back to Somalia encountering little if any resistance. Such abductions exemplify the phenomenon Jeffrey Gettleman explores in a New York Times article this week. The piece notes that events such as this cross border raid have great implications for Kenyans, Somalis, and the West:
“In most places the official international border is not even marked let alone protected. In the village of Hulugho, there is simply a tattered Kenyan flag and a cinderblock schoolhouse with chicken-wire windows. Then a meadow of thorn trees and donkey dung. Then Shabaab country. Few expect the Shabaab to make good on its threats to march en masse across the border. But the creeping fear, the one that keeps the security staffs at Western embassies awake at night, is that the Shabaab or its foreign jihadist allies will infiltrate Kenya and attack some of tens of thousands of Westerners living in the country.”
Since its independence in 1963, Kenya has been viewed as a bastion of stability in east Africa. But for Shabaab, which already controls great swaths of territory in southern Somalia, Kenya is a land of opportunity. Gettleman explains:
“The Shabaab has already penetrated refugee camps inside Kenya, according to camp elders, luring away dozens of young men with promises of paradise — and $300 each. Last Wednesday, in one of its boldest cross-border moves yet, a squad of uniformed, heavily armed Shabaab fighters stormed into a Kenyan school in a remote town, rounding up all the children and telling them to quit their classes and join the jihad. “If these guys can come in with their guns and uniforms in broad daylight,” said one of the teachers at the school, “they must be among us.”
With the horrors of the 1998 bombing of the U.S. embassy in Nairobi still fresh in the minds of counterterrorism officials and ordinary Kenyans alike, the threat of Islamic militants streaming across the Kenyan border is ominous. However, as Gettleman points out, corruption in Kenya has undermined efforts to control the border:
“Just this month, Transparency International listed Kenya as the most corrupt nation in East Africa. The region’s most corrupt public institution? The Kenyan police. Even though the border is officially closed, Hassan Mohamed, a refugee explained that “If you pay, you can come in.” Abdi Dimbil Alan, an elder who lives in Alin Jugul, a town near the Somali border, says that, “These guys are so corrupt that if 100 Shabaab pulled up with a truckload of weapons and said they were coming to Kenya to kill the president, the police would let them through – for the right price.”
The stakes are extremely high. An increased Shabaab presence in Kenya is a serious threat that demands a strong domestic and international response. Yet the current coalition government is increasingly dysfunctional and does not appear up to the task. Without a strong partner in Nairobi the threat is even more acute, and further attacks on aid workers will undermine efforts to assist civilians ensnared in the escalating violence in northern Kenya.