Kenyan fighter jets have bombed bases of Somalia’s Al-Qaeda-linked Shabaab with scores of fighters killed, the African Union force fighting the extremists said Monday.
The strikes come a week after the Al-Shabaab claimed responsibility for twin massacres on Kenya’s coastal Mpeketoni town, in which at least 60 people were killed, although Nairobi blamed those attacks on local political networks.
The militants said they carried out those attacks in revenge for Kenya’s military role in southern Somalia, where the country now has troops who are part of the 22,000-strong UN-backed African Union mission in Somalia (Amisom).
The strikes came as a suicide bomber on Sunday rammed his car into a military checkpoint in northeast Nigeria’s Borno state near the border with Cameroon, killing three soldiers in an attack blamed on Boko Haram Islamists, residents said.
The two extremist groups have put the Kenyan and Nigerian governments under huge pressure following a string of attacks on civilians, and the governments’ seeming inability to protect their citizens.
Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta has dismissed calls by the opposition and civil society activists to pull the troops out of Somalia, saying they will stay until the “clear objective” for the 2011 incursion is met.
In Nigeria, the head of the military was last week forced to deny claims of an impending army coup. The Boko Haram uprising, which has killed thousands across Nigeria’s north since 2009, and combined with ethnic and sectarian strife as well as a weakened government, has led some commentators to openly suggest that the situation could lead to a military takeover.
Claim and counter-claim
The Kenya air strikes on the impoverished villages of Anole and Kuday in the southern Lower Juba region are part of the offensive Amisom launched in March in a fresh bid to wrest remaining towns from the Islamists.
“Amisom forces have conducted airstrikes… as part of a sustained effort to destroy Al-Shabaab’s military capabilities,” the force said in a statement, adding it was Kenyan air planes that carried out the bombing.
Shabaab spokesman Abdulaziz Abu Musab said Kenyan troops with the AU were also fighting the Islamists on the ground Monday, with jets and attack helicopters firing in support.
At Anole, the AU said airstrikes “left more than 30 Al-Shabaab fighters dead”, while in Kuday, the strikes “killed more than 50 insurgents.”
The Shabaab dismissed this and on the other hand boasted of having ambushed a Kenyan army convoy inside Somalia.
“Several Kenyan soldiers were killed and their bodies are lying in the battle zone,” Musab told news agency AFP.
“Kenya’s army is using helicopters and fighters jets to rescue their surrounded troops.”
After being forced out of their fixed positions in the capital Mogadishu nearly three years ago, the Shabaab have lost most large towns to the AU and government soldiers. However, they still regularly launch guerrilla raids, what Amisom calls “asymmetrical warfare”.
Recent Shabaab attacks in Somalia have targeted key areas of government, or the security forces, in an apparent bid to discredit claims by the authorities and AU troops that they are winning the war.
Amisom officials last week told Mail&Guardian Africa that they and the Somali National Army have just completed the first phase of their countrywide offensive against the Shabaab, and count 11 districts as having been liberated from the militants.
Another 14 are targeted “in coming months”, an official said.
Foreign diplomats say the extremists threaten several nations in East Africa, including Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda, who all have troops in Somalia.
A recent attack in a Djibouti restaurant popular with Westerners left at least one person dead and several wounded. Al-Shabaab said the attack was also in retaliation for Djibouti hosting an American military base, its biggest in Africa. France also has a base in Somalia.
Nigeria particularly seems to be in the throes of extremism, with Boko Haram showing no signs of relenting despite a major army operation in the hardest hit north-east.
The attack in Gwoza, 100 kilometres (60 miles) from the regional state capital Maiduguri, happened when the bomber rammed his explosives-laden car into the checkpoint outside a secondary school in the town that has come under repeated attack by the insurgents, leaving dozens dead.
Last month, the traditional monarch of Gwoza, Idrissa Timta, was killed when Boko Haram gunmen ambushed the convoy of three emirs on their way to the funeral of another influential emir.
Potency of new wave
Boko Haram is also posing a serious regional threat, roping in Niger, Cameroon and Chad as addition playgrounds.
Analysts say Kenya and Nigeria’s unsuccessful struggles to contain the resurgent militant groups is testimony to the potency of the new wave of Islamist militancy sweeping across Africa, and the limits of conventional counterinsurgency techniques to stem the tide.
These campaigns of violence have created a sense of alarm and despondency and are undermining faith in the military, security services, and the political class.
President Goodluck Jonathan is growing increasingly vulnerable as he goes into an election year, while President Kenyatta is cultivating a siege mentality that has seen him seek to blame the opposition for growing national insecurity.
President Kenyatta last week unified the country’s security under the head of the police, David Kimaiyo, making him according to commentators the second-most powerful man in the country, while his government is also looking to hand a $245 million national security project to Kenya’s biggest telco.
The fear is that terrorism is making security states very attractive, as they are thought to be better at dealing with terrorism in Africa.
Algeria’s Abdelaziz Bouteflika, Egypt’s Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Mauritania’s Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz have all romped home to easy victories this year, partly on the strength of their battle or hard line against militant Islamists.