Is Nairobi merely desperate or eager to parade a powerful ally? After weeks of consultations with foreign officials and few immediate results, Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga traveled to Jerusalem for a “surefire” boost of international support. Israel maintains an active military presence in Africa - think Hamas weapons, al-Qaeda camps and Somalis fighting with Hezbollah - and the two countries have steadily expanded their mutual security ties.
“Kenya's enemies are Israel's enemies,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Odinga, according to a statement from the latter’s office. “We have similar forces planning to bring us down. I see it as an opportunity to strengthen ties."
Although few details were released and the Israeli government hasn’t confirmed Odinga's statement, there’s no reason not to trust its validity. Netanyahu supposedly spoke of “a coalition against fundamentalism," which would include Ethiopia, South Sudan and Tanzania (all Christian-majority countries), and accepted Odinga’s invitation to visit Kenya early next year. Israeli President Shimon Peres was also quoted as saying, “Kenya has stood on the side of Israel at its hour of need. Consistently, Kenya has shown a very positive attitude towards Israel and Israel is ready to help.”
Odinga’s office is unlikely to fabricate such remarks.
Meanwhile Nairobi is searching for allies who will gear up now, not in the future; AU reinforcements to Mogadishu are idling due to lack of funds and Kenyan officials are beginning to publicly question U.S. policy. Today UN Ambassador Macharia Kamau told the Associated Press that he submitted a new appeal for a naval blockade around Kismayo: "Why this has not happened is actually a little bit beyond us because it does not require any troops on the ground, neither does it really put anyone at any risk.”
"We would like to see the US and the international community taking advantage of basically what Kenya is doing,” he added, “which is putting troops on the ground, taking risks that need to be taken to achieve the goals that we all say need to be achieved, which is to bring peace and security to Somalia.”
Nairobi is clearly desperate for international support and justified in its demand - enhanced regional cooperation is essential to counterinsurgency. Yet reluctance to pursue a naval blockade suggests that Western cooperation is, in fact, more tenuous than suspected. This hesitation has left Kenya to draw on all available support, including Israel’s. Beyond political support and possible financial aid, Netanyahu made "everything available” to safeguard Kenya’s internal security, suggesting that Israeli personnel will assist Kenyan police in tracking al-Shabaab cells and offshoots. It seems logical that the Mossad would carry their operations into Somalia if requested.
That Israel’s strategic disadvantage could outweigh its tactical advantages is another possibility.
al-Shabaab commanders, Somalis and the rest of the world saw Odinga’s statement come across BBC’s newswire at the same time. Outside analysts couldn’t believe that Israel would broadcast its intentions, even if Odinga’s office was used as a proxy (an outside possibility remains that Jerusalem didn’t sign off). al-Shabaab probably couldn’t believe its luck either, and the bare mention of Israel’s presence shot to the top of its propaganda.
"We want to tell the Muslim world that we have the same religion, the same faith and the same god," Mohammed Ali Rage, al-Shabaab's spokesman, said in a local radio broadcast. "It is their responsibility to support their Muslim brothers in Somalia because the Kenyan Christians are seeking support from the Jews in Israel."
While Israel can militarily enhance Kenya’s Operation Linda Nchi, this support is weighed down by ideological blowback. As much as Nairobi needs international assistance, Somalia’s political and social spheres are the primary battlegrounds for reestablishing government authority. Progress on the security front cannot overrule political factors; Israel’s declared support will boost al-Shabaab’s ideology and alienate those Somalis opposed to any foreign intervention. These sources of friction add time to Kenya’s relatively small window in southern Somalia.
The idea of a “Christian coalition,” however, appears to be the deadliest of all psychological errors, and Netanyahu’s use of the word “fundamentalist” further increases the potential for chaotic outcomes. This isn’t to say that al-Shabaab isn’t ruthless and unIslamic in its behavior, but to observe how Western actors are also perceived as fundamentalists. This word inadequately defines Somalia’s environment to suit Christian-Jewish propaganda, and ups Somalia’s disorder by vividly branding Operation Linda Nchi as a “religious war.” Israeli officials might not even see al-Shabaab, only al-Qaeda.
Nairobi should realize that Israel’s high-profile presence is counterproductive to defeating both groups.