Kenya's military finally defeats al-Shabaab
22 October 2012
Defence analyst Anthony Tucker-Jones ponders the significance of the liberation of the Somali port of Kismayo
In late September, amidst much fanfare, Kenyan troops stormed ashore and liberated the Somali port of Kismayo, which had been held by the al-Qaida affiliated Islamist militant group al-Shabaab.
This operation had been a long time coming, in fact an entire year, and is symbolic of how grindingly slow it is to achieve anything amongst the shattered ruins that are the failed state of Somalia.
Kenyan troops invaded southern Somalia back in October 2011 with the express intention of driving the troublesome militants away from their border and liberating Kismayo. A year on they finally acted.
Last month al-Shabaab had ample warning of an impending attack and prudently chose not to resist it; they are a guerrilla army not a conventional fighting force. The militants were very alert to the fact that the Somali government was again moving to erode their control of the south of the country.
At the end of August, in the preparation for the African Union-backed assault on Kismayo, pro-government forces seized control of Merca from al-Shabaab. This is the third largest port in southern Somalia and just 70km south of the capital Mogadishu.
Kenyan jets then bombed targets at Kismayo airport in late September; reconnaissance aircraft were also seen flying over the city. According to the Kenyan Army, three bombs destroyed an armoury and warehouse used by the militants. Militant targets were also subject to frequent naval bombardment.
All this activity clearly tipped off al-Shaabab that a major attack was looming and they withdrew most of their forces into the dense Ras Kamboni forest.
Before dawn on 28 September Kenyan troops launched a beach assault from four ships and airborne landings north of Kismayo. Al-Shabaab claimed they resisted these operations.
According to Kenyan sources resistance was minimal and no casualties were incurred amongst the Kenyan and Somali National forces operating under the African Union banner.
A militant radio station called on the city's population to take up arms against the invaders, but this appeal went unheeded. When al-Shabaab fighters gathered in the district of Buulu Abliko in northern Kismayo they came under AU artillery fire forcing them to disperse.
Nevertheless the advancing Kenyan forces were cautious for there was some concern that the al-Shabaab withdrawal might mask an ambush. The militants claimed to have destroyed one Kenyan armoured personnel carrier using a rocket propelled grenade and two other with improvised explosive devices (IEDs).
By the afternoon, Kenyan and Somali Government forces had taken control of the airport and the university. Once in the city they "established no-fire zones around markets, schools, mosques and hospitals." Troops were also witnessed securing police stations and nearby tall buildings.
Over the weekend the remaining al-Shabaab forces withdrew and the organisation closed down its HQ in the city ending a five-year 'administration.' Perhaps predictably they left their main offices and military bases booby trapped and Kenyan bomb disposal experts had to deal with IEDs at the airport.
Clearly, the loss of Kismayo is a blow to al-Shabaab. Last year it relinquished its foothold in Mogadishu in the face of the African Union's 17,000-strong peacekeeping force.
Kismayo was al-Shabaab's last major stronghold and an important source of revenue. This came through taxing local businesses and charcoal exports shipped out through the port. It was also a centre for local pirates and a point where the militants could import weapons and ammunition.
Despite the AU securing Kismayo for the Somali government, al-Shabaab is far from defeated. A potentially dangerous power vacuum has been left in the city that local pro-government militias are likely to seek to fill. There are fears that there will be in-fighting amongst these various factions.
In Somalia nothing is easy.