Some American government officials as well as independent experts on the Horn are expressing fears that the war inside Somalia could spill into Kenya, probably in the form of terrorist attacks.
Other US-based analysts say, however, that Somalia’s Islamic Courts Union (ICU) lacks both the capacity and the motivation to open a front inside Kenya.
Somalia experts offered these varied interpretations in interviews last week with The EastAfrican.
The courts are unlikely to become involved in Kenya because they appear to be battling for their survival in Somalia, says David Shinn, a former US ambassador to Ethiopia. The Islamists were kicked out of the capital, Mogadishu, on Thursday.
Ted Dagne, a Horn specialist with the Washington-based Congressional Research Service, agrees with that assessment, saying, “I don’t see how it’s in the Courts’ interest to get involved in Kenya.”
Mr. Dagne also takes a sceptical view of reports suggesting that ICU leaders have laid claim to parts of Kenyan territory with large ethnic-Somali populations. “That talk of irredentist claims seems overblown to me,” he says.
Prof. Ken Menkhaus, a Somalia expert based at Davidson College in the state of North Carolina, accepts those assessments in part, but he also offers a scenario whereby Somali Islamists might decide to carry out or encourage terrorist operations in Kenya.
“Rational decision makers in the Courts would probably decide to leave Kenya alone,” Prof. Menkhaus says. “The Somalis have everything they want now in Kenya, where they run a virtual state-within-a-state. The Courts draw a lot of benefit from the status quo.”
The danger lies with more extreme elements in the Islamist militias that are fighting on behalf of the ICU, Prof. Menkhaus adds. They could well resort to guerrilla tactics, including terror bombings, now that Ethiopia has achieved full battlefield supremacy, he says.
“If groups within the militias decide that asymmetrical warfare should be the next step, Kenya does provide a lot of targets that they would see as inviting,” Menkhaus observes.
Other non-governmental analysts in the United States say the possibility of attacks inside Kenya, as well as Ethiopia, is of growing concern to Bush administration officials.
The US government would do well to consider the ramifications of the Somalia war not only for the Horn as a whole but for the entire Muslim world, Mr Dagne adds.
Many analysts dispute claims that the ICU is controlled by Al Qaeda. Jendayi Frazer, the Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, said recently that “East Africa Al Qaeda cell individuals” are directing the Courts’ council.
Mr. Dagne, who travels to the Horn regularly, says he has seen no evidence to support Ms Frazer’s claims.
Mr. Shinn and Prof. Menkhaus also say Al Qaeda does not wield as much influence over the courts as Ms. Frazer suggests, although they add that factions inside the ICU do have links to terrorist groups.
Mr. Shinn says that some radical measures taken by the courts, such as banning miraa, had been proving unpopular among many Somalis. At the same time, Prof. Menkhaus adds, the ICU’s generally favourable standing ensures that “the Islamist movement is going to be part of the Somali scene for a long time to come.”
The Bush administration itself is divided on the degree to which international terrorists influence the ICU, Prof. Menkhaus says.
“Among even those who agree with Ms. Frazer’s view, there is a fear that Ethiopia’s policy will make things worse,” he notes.
Prof. Menkhaus points to the possibility that Ethiopian forces will become bogged down by guerrilla-style resistance inside Somalia. Ethiopia’s intervention could also “allow hardliners in the ICU to rally broad Somali support and attract foreign jihadists,” he adds. “There’s also the real risk that the war will eventually be taken to Kenyan and Ethiopian soil.”
All three independent analysts suggest that the United States is not unreservedly supporting Ethiopia’s actions inside Somalia. A State Department spokesman’s recent comments on Ethiopia’s role are being wrongly interpreted, they say.
“Ethiopia has genuine security concerns with regard to developments in Somalia and has provided support at the request of the legitimate governing authority, the Transitional Federal institutions,” State Department spokesman Gonzalo Gallegos said on December 26.
But Gallegos added, “We, the US, have urged, and continue to urge, the Ethiopian government to exercise maximum restraint in intervening or responding to developments in Somalia and to assure the protection of civilians.”
Each of the analysts says the best interim outcome in Somalia would involve an agreement whereby all foreign forces leave the country. United Nations monitors say that roughly 2,000 Eritrean troops are operating in Somalia in support of the ICU.
Prof. Menkhaus argues, however, that withdrawal of foreign forces can be achieved only in tandem with other concessions, including a decision by the ICU to renounce irredentist claims to Ethiopian territory.
The Courts have been supporting anti-government forces in eastern Ethiopia while also forging close ties with Eritrea, Ethiopia’s arch-enemy, Menkhaus notes. He cites these factors in arguing that, “The Courts have baited Ethiopia into war.”
But Mr. Dagne says internal problems in Ethiopia are longstanding and “were not created by the Somalis.” Rebellions in the Ogaden region broke out during the time of Emperor Haile Selassie and during the Mengistu dictatorship in the 1970s, Mr. Dagne notes.
Ultimately, the analysts agree, security can be achieved in Somalia only with the assistance of international peacekeeping troops.
The Intergovernmental Authority on Development (Igad) cannot provide the needed resources, they say. President George W. Bush did telephone Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni last week, however, to thank him for offering to dispatch troops for an Igad peacekeeping mission in Somalia.
The African Union could play an effective peacekeeping role, observers say — ideally in conjunction with a settlement between Ethiopia and the ICU as well as with Eritrea.