Monday, January 7, 2008

Reuters - 1/7/08

High stakes in Kenya crisis for U.S. war on terror
Mon Jan 7, 2008 8:26am EST

By Mark Trevelyan, Security Correspondent - Analysis

LONDON (Reuters) - Kenya's violent crisis threatens to destabilize one of the United States' key counter-terrorism partners in Africa and could influence Washington's decision on where to site its new military command for the continent.

The official death toll stood at 486 on Monday from clashes that have rocked the East African nation since a disputed election last month.

This in a country which has suffered two major al Qaeda attacks, one of them on a U.S. embassy, and provides a bulwark against a neighboring failed state -- Somalia -- which is seen by the West as a training ground for Islamist militants.

"The last thing America needs is for Kenya to implode. Then, as far as the Americans are concerned, they basically have lost Somalia," said Knox Chitiyo of the Royal United Services Institute in London.

"An unstable Kenya means an unstable region -- and it's already a turbulent environment," said Kurt Shillinger of the South African Institute of International Affairs.

Washington has long looked to Kenya as one of the pivotal nations, along with the likes of South Africa and Nigeria, that are key to stability and economic development hopes in Africa.

Since 1998, when al Qaeda staged its first mass-casualty attacks by blowing up the U.S. embassies in Kenya and neighboring Tanzania, killing more than 200 people, it has also been a front line in the war on terrorism. Four years later, three suicide bombers blew up a Kenyan hotel, killing 15.

Kenya has proved a willing U.S. security partner: it was quick, for example, to reinforce its borders and round up dozens of suspected Islamist militants who fled Somalia after Ethiopian troops ousted them from their Somali strongholds in late 2006.

The current turmoil is likely, at the very least, to distract Kenyan authorities from international security issues.

"A destabilized Kenya will of course mean the focus on issues such as counter-terrorism will have been eclipsed by domestic security concerns," said Alex Vines, head of the Africa program at London's Chatham House think-tank.

"The Kenyans won't be watching counter-terrorism issues at all at the moment, they are focused on countering demonstrators on the streets of Nairobi and other cities."
Africa analysts said Kenya would have been a natural candidate to host AFRICOM, the new regional U.S. military command which was launched last October and is working for now out of Stuttgart, Germany, while it seeks an African home.

"The Americans have been very coy on exactly where AFRICOM would be based, but indications were that they would obviously look first towards their key allies, and Kenya is one of them," Chitiyo said.

"Now of course there's a big question mark over that."

Chitiyo said Kenya faces a long-term threat from Islamist militancy if it fails to address poverty, marginalization and the alienation of Muslims who form somewhere between 7 and 15 percent of its population of 35 million.

For now, no one is suggesting the latest upheaval will directly trigger an upsurge in al Qaeda activity or turn into a Rwandan-style ethnic bloodbath.

The concern, rather, is that a weakened state would struggle to control its borders and retain a strong intelligence and security capacity. Kenya could then become both a target for attacks and, with its good transport links to the Middle East, India and Pakistan, an attractive base for militants.

"It would certainly make Kenya an easier haven for would-be jihadists if the country imploded," Chitiyo said. "The implications for America's war on terror are very very serious."
(Editing by Mary Gabriel)

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