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Your Questions: Kenya's Campaign Against Al-Shabab

Al-Shabab fighters display weapons as they conduct military exercises in northern Mogadishu, Somalia, (File).
Al-Shabab fighters display weapons as they conduct military exercises in northern Mogadishu, Somalia, (File).

VOA's East Africa correspondent Gabe Joselow joined us for a live chat about Kenya, Somalia and al-Shabab. Here's a recap of all the questions and answers.

Kenya sent troops into Somalia last month in pursuit of al-Shabab, which it blames for a series of cross-border kidnappings. Since then, Kenya has faced the threat (and reality) of retaliation, confusion has emerged over which countries are supporting the military operation, and Eritrea has come under suspicion of arming al-Shabab. Most recently, Kenya said it is moving in on key militant areas in Somalia.

VOA's East Africa correspondent Gabe Joselow answered your questions about Kenya's pursuit of al-Shabab in a live Q&A Wednesday.

Watch the video to see answers to some of the most frequently asked questions, and scroll down to see a full recap of the live chat.

Frequently asked questions on the web and on Facebook:

- Jump to the live Q&A

Who is funding al-Shabab?
Asked by Godfrey, Chukwuma, Mogomotsi, Anne and Jeremiah

Gabe: Traditionally al-Shabab has relied on funding from members of the Somali diaspora community who are sympathetic to al-Shabab's cause. It's very difficult to trace these transactions because a lot of them go through an unofficial halawa network, a system of financial transactions that avoids big banks and doesn't leave much of a paper trail.

At the same time, the United Nations has said Eritrea has been secretly funding al-Shabab for years. The idea is that Eritrea is trying to support the group because it is also battling Eritrea's biggest rival Ethiopia. Of course Eritrea denies all the allegations against it and has even accused Ethiopia of spreading these rumors as part of a smear campaign.

Why did Kenya decide to use force, and why now?
Asked by Hussein

Gabe: The Kenyan government will tell you it decided to go to war against al-Shabab because it had been provoked, and because it was in Kenya's national security interest.

Over the past few months two foreigners have been kidnapped from Kenyan resort towns on the east coast, while another one was killed. Two aid workers were abducted from the Dadaab refugee camps, and Kenyan soldiers have come under attack in cross-border raids.

Kenya's Department of Defense has said that the entire decision to go to war and all the planning took place within 10 days in October. There is speculation that some of this mission may have been planned months or years in advance, but the Kenyan government is sticking to its position that this was a direct retaliation for these provocations.

Who is partnering with Kenya on this?
Asked by Mogomotsi and Mad

Gabe: The Kenyan military suggested a few weeks ago that it was getting help from international partners, but it wouldn't name who. All eyes were on the United States and France, but both countries have denied any involvement.

Of course, the United States has been training Kenyan army for a long time and has been providing logistical support for them. The U.S. also announced recently that it was sending unmanned drone aircraft into from Ethiopia into Somalia to conduct surveillance, but denied any involvement in the current operation

As for the African Union, there are about 9,500 AU forces (known as AMISOM) in Mogadishu on a peacekeeping mission. So far they have no part in Kenya's operation, though the Kenyan government has said it will rely on AMISOM forces as well as forces from Somalia's Transitional Federal Government to maintain the peace once Kenyan forces eventually pull out.

What is the United Nations' position?
Asked by Okello, Martie and Stella

Gabe: So far the U.N. hasn't come out in favor for or against Kenya's military incursion. But there has been some grumbling among some U.N. agencies who are concerned that the Kenyan military operation may complicate efforts to provide humanitarian aid to Somali famine and drought victims.

In the past, the U.N. has put embargoes on dealing arms to Somalia or Eritrea and they have put sanctions on individuals who are supporting al-Shabab.

How strong is al-Shabab? Can Kenya win?
Asked by Jeremiah, Okello and Mad

Gabe: Over the past several months there was every indication that al-Shabab was actually losing political support in Somalia. The famine and drought hit hardest in al-Shabab-controlled areas, and the group became unpopular because it was preventing humanitarian aid from reaching those in need. There were also reports of internal divisions within the group that were tearing it apart.

That being said, al-Shabab actually gained a lot of support when it was fighting Ethiopian troops during the last decade. And now it's using a similiar campaign of propaganda, saying that Kenyan troops are violating the sovereignty of Somalia and that al-Shabab is there to defend the country against these foreign invaders. If that propaganda works and al-Shabab gets the support that it had against Ethiopia then we could see a really prolonged conflict.

Your questions live:

How does Somalia feel about this? Do they support it, or are they treating it as an incursion?
Asked by Jessica

Gabe: Somalia has given mixed reactions about the incursion. The first couple of days the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) didn't even acknowledge that it was taking place, despite the fact that Kenya said it was working directly with TFG forces

Somalia's Prime Minister Abdiweli Mohamed Ali later came out in support of Kenya's action, but the President, Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, later said he was against it. A regional analyst told me Somali politicians are walking a thin line – while they agree on the need to confront al-Shabab, they are trying not to upset members of the parliament and the general public who are against anything that looks like an invasion of Somalia.

what is kenya military capability? how strong is the army and its rank in africa, the air force seems to be very effective
Asked by Mike

Kenya is said to have one of the best equipped militaries in East Africa and has worked closely with the United States and Britain for training and logistical support. As for the strength of the forces actually engaged in Operation Linda Nchi, the military has never said how many troops are on the ground. One former Major told me there were 6,000 troops involved, and a U.S. Senator recently suggested 4,000, but there's been no confirmation. The air force is well-armed – and has deployed F-5 Tiger Attack jets and MD-500 helicopters.

But, Kenya also has never gone to war in another country (though they have been involved in African peacekeeping missions). The next closest military power is Uganda, which is already contributing the bulk of troops to the African Union peacekeeping mission in and around Mogadishu.

In 2006, when invaded Somalia, Ethiopia said there are 2000 Eritrean solders in Somalia with Islamic Courts, but it was proven untrue. This time, Kenya is following the same accusation as Ethiopia. Are Ethiopia and Kenya working for USA to destroy Eritrea?
Asked by Geb

This is an interesting question. It is important to note that the Kenyan government has not accused Eritrea of arming al-Shabab – those allegations came from the Kenyan media after the Kenyan military said airplanes carrying weapons for al-Shabab had landed in Somalia. Eritrea had a legitimate complaint about these articles which merely quoted conversations on Somali internet sites. And they blamed Ethiopia for spreading rumors.

But at the same time, the United Nations did put out a lengthy report in July citing evidence that Eritrea had been supplying funds, weapons and training to militants in Somalia, in order to combat Ethiopia, and a lot of regional experts seem to agree that there is some truth to this.

the eastern africa standby force is hosted in kenya, wouldnt have been wiser to go with regional mechanism instead of going alone. what does it say for the regional organisations are they redundant, ineffective?
Asked by Fridah

Great question. Those regional organizations are really designed to serve as peacekeeping forces. Kenya will say its military offensive is much more of a direct war against al-Shabab. Kenya says it wants to incapacitate the group in order to secure the border and to protect Kenya.

At the same time, Kenya has been trying to recruit regional partners to help secure Somalia. It's called for international help to set up a blockade of Kismayo. But it is interesting to note that Kenya has refused to contribute troops to AMISOM – the AU force fighting on behalf of the Somali government in Mogadishu – but Kenya still plans to ask for AU help in maintaining the peace once Kenyan troops withdraw. So, in a way, Kenya is trying to get the best of both worlds – freedom of unilateral action with the support of regional forces.

Isn't Kenya just itching for war because they are a powerhouse in eastern Africa and just want to flex their military muscle to solidify their dominance?
Asked by Wame

Hard to say if Kenya has been itching for war. Earlier this year, Kenyan teachers went on strike when the government reallocated funds meant for education to the military. Perhaps that was an early sign that Kenya was gearing up for a fight.

Kenya does see this fight as being in its self-interest from a security standpoint. And Kenya has also said this fight is in its economic interest, since the cross-border attacks were threatening the country's tourism industry. So, whether it's economic or security reasons, yes, there are plenty of reasons why Kenya sees it as in its interest to do this.

Does Kenya have an advantage given that it is working with the TFG and allied militia?
Asked by Steve

Kenya has always been very supportive of the TFG, which was actually based in Nairobi during its early years. The two governments are now seemingly working together in this military operation. But, there have been mixed messages coming from the TFG; while the Prime Minister has been mostly supportive, the President a little while back said he was against the Kenyan incursion.

And while Kenya has hosted a huge Somali population in the refugee camps and in Nairobi, the government has said that there are certain bad elements in the Somali community that pose a major security risk, and police have been cracking down on Somali neighborhoods in the capital.

So the close ties between the two countries both serve Kenya's interest and put it more at risk.

is the ugandan and ethiopian government supporting the kenya government
Asked by Noor

The Ugandan government is supportive of the Kenyan mission in Somalia. Uganda contributes the most troops to the African Union peacekeeping force in Mogadishu and has been asking other countries in the region to contribute to the cause. Al-Shabab also claimed responsibility for two bomb attacks in Kampala last year that killed more than 70 people, so Uganda has a serious interest in defeating the group.

I'm not sure of Ethiopia's position, though the main organization of Horn of Africa nations known as IGAD – of which Ethiopia is a member – does support Kenya's mission.

In a battle field, there is always loss of life in both parties. For sure, how many Kenyan troops have perish because I always heard of Al Shabaab.
Asked by Ayuola

The last casualty figures I've heard were that two Kenyan soldiers were killed in combat while another was lost at sea.

What is the worst case scenario in your opinion? and what likely exit plan might Kenya have?
Asked by Steve

The worst case scenario is that this military action actually works to unify and empower al-Shabab as the Ethiopian invasion did in the last decade. The group thrives on having foreign enemies to fight and its been able to rally financial, material and political support for its cause by claiming it is defending the country against foreign invaders. An empowered al-Shabab would be able to shut down humanitarian operations in Somalia (even more than they already do) at a time when millions of Somalis are in need.

And so far, Kenya has not revealed a real exit plan. The government has simply said it will stay in Somalia until Kenyans can feel safe from the threat of militants, so, needless to say, that could be a while. Kenya is also trying to rally international support and is counting on the African Union to help keep the country stable if and when Kenyan troops either defeat al-Shabab or decide to withdraw.

simply why interventions? why not let leave somalis for themselves to find local solutions for their problems????
Asked by Mixed

Kenya's rationale for its intervention has mostly been about defending Kenya's interests, rather than helping Somalia. In that regard, this intervention is different from the U.S. intervention of the early 1990s and the African Union peacekeeping mission.

As for Somalia's ability to help itself, the country has been without a functional central government for over 20 years and lacks basic infrastructure and services for its citizens. Massive corruption is also a major problem. Certainly, years of war have been a major impediment to the government's ability to get back on its feet.

What type of aircraft and military weaponry is Kenya Defence Force using against the al-shebaab militants?
Asked by Anonymous

In a previous question about Kenya's military capabilities we discussed that the air force has deployed F-5 Tiger Attack jets and MD-500 helicopters. Other weaponry in use: the Chinese-made Harbin Z-9 helicopter, armored tanks and surface-to-air missile launchers.

Why are Kenyan troops slow and cautious of invading Afmadow and Kismayu...
Asked by Shady

From your point of View, are the kenyan forces able to established a blockade in the port of kismayu?
Asked by Koech

Kenya has said its troops have been on the verge of taking Afmadow for weeks. But heavy rains in southern Somalia have made it very difficult to move heavy equipment across the sand and dirt roads.

As for Kismayo, the Kenyan military spokesperson told me that Kenyan air forces were able to attack one of al-Shabab's centers of operations near the coast. But he said after that air campaign, the militants spread out into the city, mixing with the civilian population – complicating the situation. Kenya has said it does not want to attack the entire city, but only al-Shabab targets. Kenya has also called for a blockade of the port to stop aid from reaching al-Shabab, but it is hard to say whether they have the military capacity or the support from international partners to achieve that goal.

In some other smaller towns, the military says it is going door-to-door looking for al-Shabab fighters.

how many alshabab and innocent civilians have been killed since kenya's incursion in to somalia?
Asked by James Mutiso Mwania

The Kenyan military has said at least 37 al-Shabab fighters have been confirmed killed in air strikes, ground battles and fighting at sea. But a military spokesperson has said that it is difficult to account for all of those killed in airstrikes and that the number could be in the hundreds. It is extremely difficult to independently verify the casualty figures.

The military has not acknowledged any civilian casualties, but the aid group Doctors Without Borders said an airstrike last month killed at least five civilians and injured 45 others, most of them women and children near a camp for Internally displaced people. The aid group did not say who was behind the strike. Kenya admitted it was bombing in the same area, but blamed al-Shabab for the civilian casualties.

recent reports indicate possibilities of internal self destruction within the Al Shabaab, how deep are this divisions and what is the possible impact?
Asked by Steve

The divisions within al-Shabab are between the jihadist factions from the north, who allegedly trained with al-Qaida in Afghanistan, and the local Somali factions of the south, who are more concerned with local politics and defending the Somali homeland.

Some analysts say that as the famine hit south-central Somalia, al-Shabab's leaders became divided over what to do – with the northern, more globally-concerned faction wanting to keep western aid and humanitarian workers out of the country, and the Somali factions more open to bringing in the relief.

Al-Shabab has also relied on taxing local populations to sustain itself, but when the drought wiped out crops and livestock, Somali people were less willing to give up what little they had to support the group.

So the divisions are significant, but it is also possible the group could use the Kenyan military incursion as motivation to regroup and unite.

There was confusion at the beginning of the invasion between the President of the TFG and Kenya. Why was that and what does it tell us about the war.?
Asked by Anonymous

Good question. It took the TFG a few days to acknowledge that Kenyan troops had crossed over the border, and then there was later confusion about whether the Somali government supported the operation at all.

The President at one point said the move was illegal and that only African Union forces had a mandate to fight in the country, but the Prime Minister has tried to smooth things over. On a visit to Nairobi he insisted that the TFG is in agreement and supports the war, and that TFG troops are actually taking the lead.

What does this tell us? There has clearly been some miscommunication, to say the least, between Kenya and Somalia. As far as their public message is concerned, they were not on the same page when the incursion started.

As I said in an earlier answer, TFG leaders are also trying not to appear too supportive of Kenya's action because there are members of parliament and Somali citizens who likely do not support having any more foreign troops in Somali territory.

Thank you everybody for participating and reading along today. I really enjoyed answering all of your great questions. There are so many to ask about this war and I think you hit on some of the most important ones. Some I'm still trying to answer. If you have any more, feel free to find me on Twitter @gabejoselow.