Several weeks into its invasion of Somalia, Kenyan forces are preparing to attack the southern port city of Kismayo with the aim of stamping out the Somali terrorist group, al-Shabaab. If they succeed, Operation Linda Nchi will go down in history as having rid East Africa — and the world — of a dangerous menace. However, a prolonged occupation could bring new support for a weakened al-Shabaab.
Al-Shabaab was reeling even before Kenya's invasion, having steadily lost the support of the population in areas it controlled. Its strict interpretation of Islam was anathema to Somali culture and its refusal to co-operate with western aid agencies helped to turn a drought into a famine. Refugees had been streaming out of al-Shabaab-controlled territory for months, its leadership was fracturing and the group was forced to completely withdraw from Mogadishu. The same fanatic devotion to a cause that had made its fighters effective insurgents in the wake of the Ethiopian invasion of Somalia has made them dogmatic, inflexible and ultimately unpopular rulers.
For Kenya to succeed, it must avoid the mistakes Ethiopia made. The Ethiopian campaign was prolonged and heavy-handed, with thousands of civilian deaths. It was also unsuccessful; Ethiopia left the country with al-Shabaab more powerful than in 2006, its ability to resist an unpopular foreign occupier winning it local support and its ability to bleed a US ally winning it the support of al-Qaeda. The relationship between al-Qaeda and al-Shabaab grew after 2007 and it enjoys close ties with al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).