Amphibious Assault on Somali Port

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Aaron Schachter: I am Aaron Schachter; this is The World. 'Operation Sledgehammer executed as planned.' That's what a Kenyan military spokesman wrote on Twitter today, announcing what may be a major setback for al-Shabab — the al Qaeda-linked Islamist group in Somalia. Al-Shabab used to control large parts of Somalia and the port city of Kismayo was its stronghold, but Kenyan troops say they have now captured the port with an amphibious assault. The situation on the ground may still be uncertain though. Jeffrey Gettleman is the New York Times East Africa correspondent. Jeffrey, remind us who al-Shabab is and why Kenya felt it needed to go into Somalia.

Jeffrey Gettleman: The Shabab is a militant group that has controlled large parts of Somalia for several years. They have ruled their areas quite brutally. They have chopped off hands, stoned people to death, and implemented a very draconian version of Sharia law. They have also staged suicide bombs and pledge allegiance to al-Qaeda, so they are considered a wider threat to the region and even to the United States. Kenya has been struggling for years what to do about this problem. Somalia and Kenya share a long border. So, last year the Kenyans decided to go into Somalia to send their troops across the border. Publicly, they said this was to secure the border. Privately, I had Kenyan officials tell me that one of the main reasons why they went in was to protect their economic interest in the region because they plan to build a big port near the Somali border and that was impossible with the Shabab next door.

Schachter: Even so though, they were welcomed by the fledgling Somali government. Were they not?

Gettleman: It's hard to really answer that. The areas outside of Mogadishu, the capital, are controlled by different clan militias. The government holds very little sway there. So, we really should think of Somalia as a patchwork of different authorities, one is the government in Mogadishu but there are many others.

Schachter: Okay. So, here is the big question. Is this a good thing that the Kenyans have now rolled into Kismayo? They helped wrestle Mogadishu from al-Shabab and now Kismayo?

Gettleman: It's a bad thing for the Shabab because Kismayo was one of the biggest ports in Somalia and it was a way that the Shabab could bring in weapons for their guerrilla activities. Kismayo was also an economic resource in Somalia because whoever controls it can levy taxes and fees on all the things that are brought through the port. So, the loss of Kismayo, if that's indeed what's happening right now, is a serious setback for the Shabab. However, they have vowed to go underground and to take their struggle even more in the guerrilla direction and that could make them just as dangerous as they have ever been.

Schachter: Now, as we've said, these are Kenyan forces taking on al-Shabab in Somalia. Is this okay that Kenya is involved in Somalia? What are relations between the two countries like?

Gettleman: Kenya has gotten a lot of support for its operations in Somalia. The U.S. government, for one, is firmly behind the Kenyans. The U.S. government has been helping this overall African Union peace keeping mission in Somalia that has steadily whittled away at the Shabab's capacity and controlled territory. The Kenyans are now a piece of that. But the big question is, "What's gonna happen next?" Somalia has been at this point before where militants have been defeated only to pop back up and to create more chaos.

Schachter: The one thing that is certain is that the Kenyan military mounted an amphibious assault which strikes us here as a bit shocking. Who knew they could do something like that?

Gettleman: Yeah, they're very proud of this amphibious assault and said today in a Twitter message that this was the first ever launched by an African military. I don't know if that's true or not, but they explained that they had this multi-pronged defensive with their air force, their navy, their army and that they even brought Somali soldiers in on boats with them so they could have a Somali face on the operation.

Schachter: Jeffrey Gettleman is based in East Africa for the New York Times. Jeffrey, thank you for your time.

Gettleman: Thank you.