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Islamic Courts Union Stirs Kenya

The Islamic Courts Union (ICU) has seemingly made their first strategic misstep in Somalia. This blunder, in turn, could provide the Transitional Federal Government (TGF) with additional support and it could also provide the United States an opportunity to help counter the ICU’s advance.

The recent escalation of provocative activities in Somalia has seen the ICU steadily advance towards the Kenyan border. Last Thursday, the ICU pressed to the border village of Liboi with 15 technicals (small pickup trucks with mounted weapons) before retreating back to their base in Afmadow. According to Abu Zeynab, a spokesman for the ICU, their advance was to “check the security in the area.” In response, Kenyan military helicopters flew over their side of the border, which caused the Islamists to retreat back to Afmadow.

This most recent provocation may be the first strategic miscalculation that the ICU has made. It might not seem like a miscalculation to the ICU, who may have an interest in spreading to northeastern Kenya. Many of the refugees who have fled to Kenya still have clan or family ties in Somalia. However, Kenya’s defense minister, Njenga Karume, declared that “anybody who might touch Kenya will face the full force of our military.”

For the past few months, the ICU has been extremely strategic in the way that they have advanced. They have seemingly made it a point to not threaten their neighbors while systematically surrounding the TGF in Baidoa. Additionally, they have generally been able to put on a good face for the international media, though the journalists and other media in the region reporting on a regular basis should be able to see through the facade. Nonetheless, the Islamic Courts Union has been very insistent that their advance forward has been peaceful. This most recent advance seems provocative enough to call the ICU’s “peaceful expansion” into question.

In addition, the Islamists appear to be reneging on their reputation of being peaceful. The BBC reported that the Islamists have vowed a “holy war” on Ethiopia.

Among other things, one reality was revealed in this most recent ICU advance and retreat: the ICU doesn’t stand a chance against a state military, and they know it. These recent advances have caused Kenya to toy with the idea of re-establishing its support for the Transitional Federal Government in Baidoa. If the ICU continues to provoke Kenya, it will likely result in Kenya’s entrance into this conflict.

Herein lay the opportunity. As of now, the US has already given Kenya six speed boats to help patrol its coastline. US Ambassador Michael Ranneberger indicated that “this is timely in view of the heightened concerns by Kenya about the potential exploitation of the Kenyan coast by criminal groups and terrorists.” Although the boats are ostensibly to be used to patrol the Kenyan coast, they may also be strategic in the event of an ICU invasion of north-eastern Kenya.

In addition, it is reported that Kenyan troops are now being deployed on the border of Somalia, near the El-Wakh village. Clearly, Kenya has become much more of an interested player in this crisis. With aid coming from both Ethiopia and Kenya, the TFG has now bolstered its defenses.

The United States is in a very unique position to help counter the ICU’s advance. Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi recently called on the international community to provide strong support for the TFG. The United States should heed this call. If the US continues to provide support for them via its neighbors, it is very possible that the TFG could gain the support it needs to re-take Somalia.

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