The Last Stand of Somalia’s Jihad

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Can Kenya’s invasion of Kismayo put an end to al-Shabab for good?

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KISMAYO, Somalia — Incredibly, this small port city, a study in ruin in a country that is a parable of ruin, boasts two airports. There is the new airport, as it’s known, laughably to all who touch down there, which lies 10 miles inland and consists of a couple of mostly tarmacked runways and the carcass of a terminal. Kismayo International Airport, in blue block letters, is just barely visible above the building’s sun-bleached cornice. Stencil-painted on the wall below that, and more legible, is the flag of the Islamist insurgent movement that until recently controlled Kismayo, Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahideen, or al-Shabab — a black rectangle over white classical Somali script that reads “There Is No God But God.”

A half-hour drive away, hidden among the sand dunes just outside Kismayo, is the long-dormant “old” airport. It offers one dirt runway and, in the place of a terminal, a half-century-old army personnel carrier, rusted to the color of primeval toast, left over from the days when Kismayo was part of Italian Somaliland. What it lacks in infrastructure the old airport makes up for in exclusive coastal access. The beach nearby was once popular with European sunbathers, but after two decades of civil war, it’s so deserted one could walk along the Indian Ocean for days without encountering another person.

Both airports now belong to the Kenya Defense Forces (KDF), which swept into Kismayo in early October with three mechanized battalions, backed up by soldiers from the Somali National Army and a local militia called Ras Kamboni; they are the poles in the southern axis of Sector 2, as the KDF calls its new domain in Somalia, which spans the country’s Lower Juba and Gedo provinces. The southern axis is one of the more cinematic war zones Africa has to offer at the moment; aside from the airports, it includes an encampment overlooking the ocean and the Kismayo port, which on most days calls to mind a Turner painting, with carved-wood barges tethered two deep to its dock.

Operation Linda Nchi is the first combat deployment ever undertaken by the KDF; until now it has been confined to supporting U.N. peacekeeping missions. The original aim of Linda Nchi, which means “Protect the Nation” in Kiswahili, was to keep the al Qaeda-affiliated al-Shabab out of Kenya. But the KDF has now been in Somalia for over a year. It has 2,500 troops here and plans to deploy 2,000 more by next year. According to commanders, the new mission is to “mop up” what is left of al-Shabab — that is, to end the Islamist insurgency for good.

The KDF soldiers have made a convincing show of going to war. At headquarters, at the new airport, they’ve dug hundreds of bunkers into the red earth and undergrowth and have set up tarp-roofed tents and makeshift showers. Artillery guns and tanks sit among them in a manner that suggests imminent battle; but the troops here haven’t seen action in months. Lots of green plastic sandbags are everywhere, as well as trucks and armored personnel carriers with AU, for African Union, printed on their doors. A surveillance drone sits in the hangar.

Nearby is the officers’ lounge, a thatched hut outfitted with thermoses of lemon tea and a television with satellite-dish service. In early December, Col. Adan Hassan, commander of the 3rd Battalion, who oversees the airport, greeted me and three other reporters there. A tall, stoop-shouldered man, Hassan wore well-pressed fatigues and wire-rim glasses. By way of introduction, he told us that the area around us was still alive with al-Shabab holdouts. “They usually start firing in the evening. When they fire, don’t move; just look there,” he said, pointing vaguely toward the desert. He looked at the female reporters. “For the ladies, you can sleep in the armored personnel carriers if you want.”

At the far end of the hut a bedsheet was draped on the wall. A projector sat before it. A soldier at a laptop, his helmet strapped on tightly, a semiautomatic rifle leaning against his chair, brought up a PowerPoint presentation. A series of slides outlined the obstacles facing Kenya in Somalia. Hassan read them off. Commenting on a slide titled “Demography,” he pointed out that, in Somalia, “Loyalty revolves around clan” and “Clan is unifying and divisive factor.” Under “Challenges in Local Areas,” he listed “nonexistent government structures” and “vastness of sector.”

I asked Hassan how many al-Shabab fighters Kenya had killed or captured on its march to Kismayo. “I don’t have the number at my fingertips, but I assure you we degraded them,” he said. “When we entered this town, it was deserted. Many people had fled. But now, you wouldn’t believe it. They are welcoming us. It’s because of the confidence we’ve given them, the security we’ve given them.”

All the officers in the hut, I noticed, including Hassan, wore new white-and-green AU armbands with gold trim. They were clearly fresh out of the box, meant to emphasize to us that the Kenyan troops are part of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). I asked Hassan how Kenya’s and AMISOM’s objectives coincide, or don’t. They are one and the same, he assured me. “We’re not an occupational force,” he said. “If the Somali people are secure, we’re secure.”

Kenya’s particular security interests kept creeping back into his answers, however. When another reporter asked how a spate of recent bombings in Kenya, believed to be al-Shabab-related, influenced the operation, Hassan made clear that “what is happening in Kenya has nothing to do with what we’re doing here.” But then, he added, “We’ll finish them here in Somalia; then we’ll look for them in Kenya.” Asked about Kismayo, he said it “was not an objective of the KDF. It was an AMISOM objective.”

This both is and isn’t true. Since AMISOM decided to assemble a multinational force to go after al-Shabab in 2010, taking Kismayo has been viewed as the endgame, at least of the military phase of the mission. The city was al-Shabab’s base and the port its economic engine, providing an estimated $35 million to $50 million a year to the group. And as the interests of the United States and European Union, Somalia’s largest bilateral and multilateral donors, respectively, have shifted in the last few years from targeting high-value al Qaeda in East Africa figures to degrading al-Shabab and shoring up Somalia, Kismayo began to be viewed as a priority by them too. In the West, the capture of the city is now seen not just as a win against Islamist political extremism, but a symbolic victory in the battle for what may be the world’s most dysfunctional country. The United Nations covers AMISOM’s budget, and most of that outlay is covered by Europe. Washington has put at least $500 million into AMISOM and the Somali army since 2007. The Pentagon and CIA, which have hugely increased operations in Somalia since the 9/11 attacks, provide intelligence support to AMISOM, along with the British, French, and Israelis. Despite all this help, Kenya’s victory in Kismayo was greeted with surprised joy. No one expected the KDF to prevail so quickly.

But it is also the case that Kenya was never interested in pitching into the bloody battle for the capital, Mogadishu, which has killed over 500 AMISOM troops. Kenya has always wanted to get in and out of Somalia as quickly as possible, and it has known all along that taking Kismayo, just 180 miles from the Kenya-Somalia border and the nearest city, with a massive show of force could be the way to do that. Capturing Kismayo was “significant for Kenya because there were serious questions about its willingness to fight,” a Western diplomat told me.

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