By Paul Cruickshank, CNN Terrorism Analyst, and Zain Verjee
While the world's attention has been focused on events in north Africa, events thousands of miles away on the coastline of the Indian Ocean could have just as great an impact on the continent's security.
Kenyan troops have now advanced deep into Somalia, along rutted tracks and pot-holed roads leading north from the border toward the port of Kismayo, a stronghold of al Shabaab, the Islamist militant group affiliated to al Qaeda.
The Kenyans sense an opportunity to deliver a knock-out blow against Shabaab, which has already been driven from most of the capital, Mogadishu.
The operation was launched a week ago followed a string of kidnappings of Westerners in northern Kenya, which Kenyan authorities blame on al Shabaab.
Though held up by heavy rains, the Kenyan military claimed Saturday that Kenyan forces had advanced beyond Oddo, a town ten miles up from the border, and had met little resistance so far. Kismayo is a further 90 miles north; Kenyan military sources say they plan to occupy the town before Christmas.
The ultimate goal, they said, was to work with Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG) for no less than the complete elimination of Al Shabaab from all of Somalia.
The Threat to Kenya
But regional observers say the Kenyan mission carries high risks. Al Shabaab has threatened to launch retaliatory attacks in Kenya if their military operation continues.
"The Kenyan public must understand that the impetuous decision by their troops to cross the border into Somalia will not be without severe repercussions," the group stated last week.
Al Shabaab has an extensive presence in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, home to an estimated quarter million Somalis, and operates a network of safe houses in the Eastleigh district of the city known as "Little Mogadishu" because of its high concentration of Somalis.
According to Ken Menkhaus, an expert on the terror group, Al Shabaab "has the capacity to launch terrorist attacks in Nairobi but has opted not to, because Kenya has been so important to the group for recruitment, logistics, and fundraising."
Menkhaus, professor at Davidson College and author of "Somalia: State Collapse and the Threat of Terrorism told CNN: "This is a dangerous moment. What we’re seeing is a level of brinkmanship that we’ve not seen before."
"But launching attacks in Kenya would be very risky for al Shabaab because a crackdown by law enforcement on Somali interests in Kenya would be devastating to the Somali business community," he says.
Even so, a Kenyan assault on Kismayo would raise the stakes for al Shabaab. "Then you might see Al Shabaab lash out because that’s an existential threat to them – at that point I’d be very nervous about what might happen in Nairobi," Menkhaus told CNN.
Al Shabaab’s control of Kismayo is critical to the group’s revenues. According to the UN every year the group collects an estimated $35-50 million in custom tolls and taxes on businesses in Kismaayo – and two secondary ports higher up the coast – about half its entire estimated annual income stream in Somalia in recent years. Al Shabaab needs such funds more than ever because the acute famine in central and southern Somalia has reduced its ability to tax and extort money from the local population, according to Somalia analysts.
Al Shabaab attacks against Kenya could take two forms, according to Somalia analysts. The group could mount direct attacks using Somali operatives. "They could easily tear apart Nairobi," Michael Taarnby, a Danish al Shabaab expert at the University of Central Florida told CNN.
The second is a reprisal attack from home-grown Kenyan Islamist militants inspired and mentored by Al Shabaab. A report issued by the UN Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea in July 2011 found that while "in the past al Shabaab’s presence in Kenya was concentrated primarily within the ethnic Somali Community, since 2009 the group has rapidly expanded its influence and membership to non-Somali Kenyan nationals."
The UN Monitoring Group says that a Nairobi group called the Muslim Youth Centre, which was founded in 2008, openly supported al Shabaab and now had chapters in several Kenyan cities including Mombasa. "Members of the group openly engage in recruiting for Al-Shabaab in Kenya and facilitate travel to Somalia for individuals to train and fight for ‘jihad’ in Somalia," the report stated.
"A serving MYC member independently informed the Monitoring Group that members have been returning to Kenya from Somalia since late 2010, with a view to conducting possible operations in Kenya," the UN report said. The Monitoring Group said it was investigating whether the MYC had a role in a trio of suicide bombings claimed by al Shabaab that killed 79 in Kampala, Uganda in July 2010.
Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki acknowledged the threat last week – saying "Our security forces have begun operations within and outside of our borders against militants who have sought to destabilize our country."
Monday's edition of the Daily Nation in Kenya reported that detectives comprising bomb experts and anti-terror officers visited parts of Nairobi in a covert operation to flush out terror suspects.
In September, the U.S. Africa Command warned that Al-Shabaab, Boko Haram in Nigeria and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb were trying to synchronize their efforts to launch attacks on U.S and Western interests, but had yet to show a significant capability to export terror. There is also evidence, according to Western intelligence officials, of cooperation between Al-Shabaab and the al Qaeda affiliate in Yemen.
Menkhaus, the American al Shabaab expert, says that the gravest threat to the region does not come from Al Shabaab’s Somali fighters, but from non-Somali east Africans closely affiliated with al Shabaab who have been training in southern Somalia and have violent agendas in countries such as Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania. If they lost their safe-haven, "they may end up on the move, " Menkhaus warned.
The Kampala attacks "signaled a new and alarming trend, in which East African extremist groups inspired and mentored by Al-Shabaab, including the Muslim Youth Centre in Kenya, might represent the next generation of extremist threats in East Africa and the wider region," the UN report stated.
Candyce Kelshall – a military and national security analyst at the Centre for Security and Intelligence at Buckingham University in England says the Kenyan operation is "a declaration for jihadists around the world to turn their attention fully in the country’s direction. Every Kenyan now becomes a target and a focus of emnity."
"The risks to Kenya are significant," she says. "There will be nothing short or sharp about this involvement. The ire of the Shabaab, international jihadists and on the other end of the scale the wider Somali diaspora has been raised."
"Kenyan troops and Kenyan nationals are visible but these combatants will be unseen until they strike and as such impossible to eradicate as each death swells the ranks with new recruits to the cause," Kelshall told CNN.
Will Somalis Rally Round Shabaab?
It is not yet clear whether the Somali group rather than pirates or bandits were responsible for the recent kidnappings, but several Somalia analysts told CNN it is possible that factions within Al Shabaab commissioned the abductions to provoke Kenya in order to rally support against a foreign (and infidel) invader.
They say al Shabaab commanders may be looking to repeat the "Ethiopia effect." The group rose to prominence as a result of the 2006 invasion and occupation of Somalia by Ethiopia, a country which many Somalis have long held with great animosity.
Some analysts believe it is also possible that the Kenyan intervention will inspire more ethnic Somalis and other foreign jihadists to travel from the West to join forces with al Shabaab.
Ken Menkhaus is skeptical that the Kenyan invasion will boost support for al Shabaab. "Circumstances have changed. Somalis, whether they are in Somalia or overseas, are exhausted by al Shabaab. And an operation by Kenyan forces does not carry the same cachet as one by Ethiopia. I don’t think there will be the same backlash."
However, holding and pacifying the territory they take will be a challenge for the Kenyans according to Somalia analysts. To keep al Shabaab out, they say, Kenya will need to induce the co-operation of local tribes currently acquiescing to al Shabaab rule in southern Somalia.
It already has some local allies. Kenya has provided training and support to a number of Somali tribal militia groups including the Ras Kamboni a militia group from southern Somalia previously allied with Al Shabaab, according to Somalia analysts. The main faction of Ras Kamboni fell out with al Shabaab in the fall of 2009 over control of Kismayo, and turned to Kenya for help, after being driven out of the city, according to Somalia analysts. Ras Kamboni fighters reportedly helped the Kenyan military take control of Ras Kamboni last week, a town two miles across the Somalian border.
Despite such alliances, Kenya’s offensive, like any military operation could produce unintended consequences. Somalia analysts say that it could, for example, upset the delicate balance of power between tribes in southern Somalia, setting off a new cycle of clan warfare.
Kelshall believes that ultimately the Kenyan operation could backfire. "A declaration of better border security and a commitment to the enhancement of the ability of Kenya’s Defence Forces to protect their borders would have ultimately made Kenyans safer."
The Threat to the West
Somalia analysts believe if al Shabaab feels increasingly cornered in Somalia, it may lash out with attacks in the West out of revenge and as a way to boost its recruitment and prestige. According to Somalia analysts a significant loss of territory in southern Somalia may – in the short term – also increase the likelihood of the group launching overseas attacks because those factions most sympathetic to al Qaeda’s cause will not be so moderated by al Shabaab commanders currently unwilling to jeopardize their control of southern and central Somalia by provoking a foreign response and alienating powerful Somali interests.
"It's difficult to know how to rank Al-Shabaab as a threat," says Taarnby. "It's not clear how serious they are about attacking the West and what sort of networks they really have. There are too many unknowns and that's what really scares counter-terrorism officials."