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Kenyan Troops Pursue Shabab Militants In Somalia

NEAL CONAN, host: As of last weekend, Kenya became the latest African nation to send troops into Somalia. Hundreds of Kenyan soldiers crossed into the drought and famine-stricken country with helicopters and tanks. The avowed goal is to push al-Shabab militants away from the frontier, but some Kenyan officials suggest their troops may push deep inside Somalia. On Monday, Shabab vowed to attack Kenya's capital city in retaliation.

New York Times East Africa bureau chief Jeffrey Gettleman joins us from his home in Nairobi. Nice to have you with us again.


CONAN: And how far have Kenyan troops pushed into Somalia thus far?

GETTLEMAN: About 50 miles. But there's a lot of concern in Kenya that Kenyans are going to get drag into this ugly war inside Somalia, and that one of the repercussions could be terrorist attacks in return in Kenya. And there's a real kind of sense of gloom right now in Nairobi with people talking about staying away from shopping malls and populated areas because there's just this, you know, growing fear that the Shabab could attack here.

CONAN: The Shabab, of course, al-Qaida's franchise now in Somalia, who demonstrated the capacity to attack outside the country when they launched an attack in Uganda last year.

GETTLEMAN: That's right. And a lot of people think Kenya's playing with fire, here. The Shabab are a problem inside Somalia. They have blocked Western aid groups at a time of famine. They have instituted a brand of Islam that's incredibly harsh. They've stoned women to death. They've chopped off hands. They've banned the soccer, music, even bras. So there's not a lot of fans of the Shabab here in Kenya, but they haven't really affected life in Kenya yet. There's been a few kidnappings along the Kenya and Somali border. The Kenyan government immediately blamed it on the Shabab, but most people don't think it was the Shabab. They think it was, maybe, a Somali pirate gang that was doing this.

CONAN: And that included the French woman who died, I guess, just earlier this week.

GETTLEMAN: That's right.

CONAN: As these go on, we've heard about the cautious reaction there in Nairobi. What about in Somalia?

GETTLEMAN: Well, it's interesting. There's a deep history here. Part of Kenya is ethnic Somali. The northeastern part of Kenya is populated predominantly by Somalis. So there's always been this long-standing tension between Kenya and Somalia about whether this part of Kenya should actually be part of Somalia. So right now, inside Somalia, many Somalis are very worried. They see the Kenya troops coming into their country, and they're suspicious that maybe Kenya has designs on other parts of Somalia, and that this is part of a grander scheme to seize Somali-speaking territory.

CONAN: And there was a war some years ago, as some Somali irredentists try to liberate that Somali-dominated part of Kenya.

GETTLEMAN: That's right. In the '60s, part of the Somali government's policy was to try to free up all the Somali-speaking areas in East Africa. There's the Ogaden Desert in Ethiopia. There's Djibouti, and then there was this part of Kenya. So the Somali government sponsored rebels to stir up trouble and to fight the governments in these areas, and it didn't really work. But those feelings have never died. The Somali nation is a very homogenous group of people. They speak the same language, have the same culture, same religion. It's divided into clans, but it's a group of people with a strong sense of nation, even though that sounds kind of hard to believe with all Somali's problems on display. So those feelings are strong, and I think it's just not clear where this is going to go.

And to add, in 2006, the Ethiopian military stormed into Somalia to fight an Islamic movement. And they stayed for three years, lost hundreds of men. And Ethiopia is a country with an enormous military that's fought several wars in the region. Kenya has not been involved in a serious conflict since the '60s.

CONAN: And its army is not regarded as among the best in East Africa, which is not saying a lot. And it - why, then, is Kenya, as you suggest, playing with fire?

GETTLEMAN: Well, I think they really felt like they had to do something in response to these kidnappings. The, you know, whether it was the Shabab or not, I think the Kenyan government felt like they were getting humiliated by these kidnappings inside Kenya, and the Shabab is a threat to Kenya. They're right along the border. They've shown that they can do suicide attacks, like in Uganda. They have destabilized this whole part of Africa. So the Kenyan government made this calculated decision that we can go in there. We can push them back from the border. Maybe we can even help take them out.

But the problem is, when Ethiopians tried this a few years ago, yes, they took out this Islamic group that was in control Mogadishu, but what that created was the Shabab, which was more brutal and ruthless and dangerous than the previous Islamic administration. So the worry is, yes, maybe the Shabab are going to be defeated in the next few weeks, but they're just going to go underground and something else is going to pop up.

CONAN: We're talking with Jeffrey Gettleman, East Africa correspondent for The New York Times. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

There is also the United States, which has been taking attacks at al-Shabab leaders and al-Qaida leaders in Somalia, drone attacks for the most part. The Kenyan military is trained and, to some degree, supported by, not just the United States, but Britain. Is there some suspicion that they are working hand-in-glove?

GETTLEMAN: Well, that's what we originally thought. We thought there's no way the Kenyan military could have sent all this firepower into Somalia without the American government at least knowing about it, and for all we know, maybe the American government was even helping them covertly. But the information that we've been given in the last couple of days from a number of independent sources is that the American government was taken by surprise and that they probably wouldn't have approved this operation.

Now, that may be hard to believe. There's a huge embassy in Nairobi. There are hundreds of American diplomats here. It's a big operation. They've cooperated with the Kenyans before. So we're not exactly sure, you know, what the Americans knew, but we've been told by several different American officials that they didn't know about this operation. The Somali government didn't know about this operation, and it appears to be something that Kenya did on its own.

CONAN: As you said just a moment ago, the Somali government, the Transitional National Council now, it does not control a lot of Somalia. It doesn't control a lot of Mogadishu, in fact, just a few blocks, really. There are African Union peacekeeping troops there that sustain its authority in that very small area. But they weren't told, either?

GETTLEMAN: They say they weren't told, and they even have some spokespeople going on TV on Monday night after it was very clear that Kenyan troops were inside Somalia. And the Somali officials were saying, no, we insist that they're not. They're just along the border. But here's the thing. It gets a little complicated, but Kenya has been working with these militias, clan-based militias, along the Kenya-Somali border. They are allied with the transitional government in Mogadishu, but just barely. What unites all these groups is an antipathy toward the Shabab. That's about it. So Kenya has been sort of meddling in Somalia over the last a couple of years, not sending in their own troops, but arming these proxy militias. And I don't think the government in Mogadishu like that at all.

So it makes sense that Kenya may have told their local proxies they were planning this operation, but not told the government in Mogadishu. And like you said, this government is really a government in name only. They control very little territory, and they only control that because of African Union peacekeepers who are helping them.

CONAN: You reported in the paper that military movements in the region have been bogged down by rains. On the other hand, of course, rains are, I'm sure, a blessed relief. This is a drought-stricken area. How is this going to play into efforts to bring aid to people in southern Somalia who are suffering famine?

GETTLEMAN: Well, my feeling is, in the short term, it's not going to help at all. Whenever you have a conflict, you displace people, which makes them even more vulnerable. You're pushing very poor, malnourished people to then leave their homes suddenly and run away from the conflict. That's not going to help the situation. And then if the conflict is sustained in some of these famine areas, aid workers aren't going to be able to go in there. They can't, you know, just kind of, you know, slip through the warring parties in the middle a firefight. That's not going to happen.

But maybe in the long term, if the Shabab are uprooted, aids groups will be able to work in these areas, because part of the Shabab's policy has been - they're so anti-Western. They won't even let Western aid groups bring food to starving people at a time of famine.

CONAN: There's another point that one of the people you interviewed made, and that is that even though Shabab is widely unpopular, maybe young Somalis will now join this organization as the way to defend their territory against an invader.

GETTLEMAN: Well - and this goes back to what I was saying about Somali nationalism. It's still there, even though Somalia is one of the most failed states in modern times. It hasn't had a government for 20 years. There's no signs in horizon that there's going to be a stable government anytime soon.

Somalis feel very strongly about being occupied by other countries, by being interfered with by other countries. So the worry is that this - that the Shabab were kind of getting weak over the last few months. They had pulled out of Mogadishu. Their areas were struck by famine, which means that a lot of people didn't have the resources for the Shabab to tax, and they were a dying force, and that this could be, you know - the Kenyans going in could be a real injection for them. It could be a recruiting bone for them. I don't know if that's going to happen, but a lot of people were telling us that, in Mogadishu, that there's a possibility this could play straight into Shabab hands.

CONAN: Jeffrey Gettleman, thanks very much for your time.

GETTLEMAN: Glad to help.

CONAN: Jeffrey Gettleman, East Africa bureau chief for the New York Times, with us from his home in Nairobi. Stay tuned to NPR News for the latest developments out of Libya after the death of Moammar Gadhafi. This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.