Kenyan ambassador: We will all pay for ignoring Somalia

Kenya’s new ambassador to the United States, Elkanah Odembo, has a message to the United States: Ignore Somalia to your own peril. For the last half-decade, Somalia’s near-anarchy has taken a particularly pernicious turn toward a brand of Islamist fundamentalism not seem since the Taliban. "You can’t make this investment in Afghanistan and Pakistan and ...

By , International Crisis Group’s senior analyst for Colombia.
STR/AFP/Getty Images
STR/AFP/Getty Images
STR/AFP/Getty Images

Kenya's new ambassador to the United States, Elkanah Odembo, has a message to the United States: Ignore Somalia to your own peril. For the last half-decade, Somalia's near-anarchy has taken a particularly pernicious turn toward a brand of Islamist fundamentalism not seem since the Taliban. "You can’t make this investment in Afghanistan and Pakistan and not worry about where the terrorists are going to," warns Odembo. "And the one place that we know for certain they are going to is Somalia." 

There's no doubt about it; Somalia is getting worse, not better. Since 2006, the Islamist militia al Shabab, and several other similar groups, have gained control of the majority of the territory. Just yesterday, Shabab stormed a hotel in Mogadishu and killed 30 -- eight of them members of Parliament. Today the fighting is roaring once again. Al Shabab has allied themselves with al Qaeda and vowed to wage regional jihad, taking vengence out of countries who have taken action in Somalia. And low and behold, earlier on July 11, the group claimed responsibility for what would be its first international attack: two bomb blasts in the Ugandan capital of Kampala, retaliation, al Shabab said, for Ugandan peacekeepers in Mogadishu. "The attack drove the point home that al Shabaab are not just a group of unhappy militants making life difficult for the federal government in Mogadishu; they are a problem for the region and therefore for the whole world," says Odembo.

Since that attack, however, Washington -- and the international community more broadly -- have turned to a African Union peacekeeping mission in Mogadishu for answers. More troops are now promised from a number of countries, boosting the ranks of the now somewhat helpless and fraught mission.

Kenya’s new ambassador to the United States, Elkanah Odembo, has a message to the United States: Ignore Somalia to your own peril. For the last half-decade, Somalia’s near-anarchy has taken a particularly pernicious turn toward a brand of Islamist fundamentalism not seem since the Taliban. "You can’t make this investment in Afghanistan and Pakistan and not worry about where the terrorists are going to," warns Odembo. "And the one place that we know for certain they are going to is Somalia." 

There’s no doubt about it; Somalia is getting worse, not better. Since 2006, the Islamist militia al Shabab, and several other similar groups, have gained control of the majority of the territory. Just yesterday, Shabab stormed a hotel in Mogadishu and killed 30 — eight of them members of Parliament. Today the fighting is roaring once again. Al Shabab has allied themselves with al Qaeda and vowed to wage regional jihad, taking vengence out of countries who have taken action in Somalia. And low and behold, earlier on July 11, the group claimed responsibility for what would be its first international attack: two bomb blasts in the Ugandan capital of Kampala, retaliation, al Shabab said, for Ugandan peacekeepers in Mogadishu. "The attack drove the point home that al Shabaab are not just a group of unhappy militants making life difficult for the federal government in Mogadishu; they are a problem for the region and therefore for the whole world," says Odembo.

Since that attack, however, Washington — and the international community more broadly — have turned to a African Union peacekeeping mission in Mogadishu for answers. More troops are now promised from a number of countries, boosting the ranks of the now somewhat helpless and fraught mission.

It won’t work, Odembo cautioned. "It cannot be this piecemeal, so and so, send us 50 troops, so and so, send us 70 troops, so and so send us a bit of money; so and so, send us a bit of equipment."

What does he suggest? Only one thing will work: seeking out the militants and fighting them. "From the figures that I have, we’re talking about a group of 3,000 or at the most 4,000 individuals," he says. "So if the int’l community is really serious about going after them, then you need to see the kind of resources that have been deployed in Afghanistan, and say let’s go after them."

That will be a hard sell — it’s already a hard sell in Afghanistan, let alone Somalia. But Kenya of all places knows what it’s like to have a failed state just next door. The country has watched Somalia dip into seemingly unending chaos over the last two decades — and it’s felt the effects. Today, no less than half a million refugees from Somalia crowd Kenya’s northern tip. So it might be worth a good listen: Somalia won’t be easily brushed away.

Elizabeth Dickinson is International Crisis Group’s senior analyst for Colombia.

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