An Al-Qaeda force fighting alongside Somali extremists against the transitional government has sent ripples through regional capitals.
Commanded by a Kenyan, the group, called Al-Muhajirun, has 180 well-trained and battle-hardened fighters, some who have seen action in Afghanistan, Pakistan and possibly Iraq.
Al-Shabaab, the Somali militant group which has threatened to annex Kenyan territory, is not itself considered a serious threat to Kenya, a ministry of Internal Security official told the Nation, “not in the conventional sense” and because its main concerns are domestic.
But Al-Qaeda, whose dream is to create a Taliban-type super-state running from Mozambique to the north, has the potential to destabilise East Africa.
Al-Muhajirun has also internationalised the conflict and brought some of the most dangerous terrorists in the world to East Africa’s front door, said the official, who can not be named because of government secrecy laws.
“The extent to which Kenyans are being exposed to these kinds of terrorist things is a major concern,” said a senior police officer who asked not to be named so as to comment freely.
The emergence of a large and well-trained and armed group reflects a dynamic which could have disastrous consequences for Kenya’s future security.
The group is headed by Kenyan Saleh Nabhan, an old Al-Qaeda hand, and many of its members are Kenyan, some of them young people who have been recruited, turned into radicals and sent to fight in the Somali “jihad”, said a regional conflict and peace expert, who declined to be named because of his work with the security services.
Security and defence bosses are concerned that Somalia could become East Africa’s Afghanistan, a country that attracts extremists who are trained in terrorism but who return to their own countries to set up Al-Qaeda networks.
They fear that the war in Somalia will spawn a new breed of war-hardened Al-Qaeda terrorists.
The other members of Al-Muhajirun are Ugandans, Americans, Europeans and Saudis. Others are from other parts of the Middle East and Asia, said the Internal Security official, who is privy to intelligence reports.
A Mr Abu Mansur al-Meriki, a US citizen, is Nabhan’s deputy in the Al-Muhajirun chain of command.
On Saturday, the Speaker of the Somali Transitional Federal Parliament, Sheikh Aden Mohamed Nur, also known as Sheikh Aden Madobe, issued an urgent appeal for Yemen, Kenya, Djibouti and Ethiopia to send forces in Somalia within 24 hours to fight off an invasion by Al-Qaeda jihadists and save the fledgling government.
Speaking at a press conference at Villa Somalia, the State House in Mogadishu, Sheikh Madobe said the Transitional Federal Government was fighting against “international jihadists who have come to Somalia from all the five continents of the globe”.
He claimed that a “general” from Pakistan was now in Somalia and directing the Al-Qaeda. He did not name him but said he was operating out of Bakara market, the biggest trading centre in Mogadishu and around Sana’a, a strategic junction in north Mogadishu.
“This terror will pass on to the rest of the world, especially to neighbouring countries, if not confronted,” he warned.
On Thursday, suspected terrorists killed Somali National Security minister Omar Hashi Aden and 24 others. A day before, Mogadishu’s police chief was killed during a fight with insurgents.
On Sunday, Foreign Affairs minister Moses Wetang’ula said the government would not respond to statements made by the insurgents.
However, he assured the public that Kenya’s national and strategic interests would be protected at all costs.
Nominated MP Sheikh Mohamed Dor dismissed threats from the Al-Shabaab group and said Kenya and other regional countries had a duty to intervene in Somalia to restore peace.
“Al-Shabaab should not issue threats, especially against Kenya, that has hosted a lot of Somali leaders,” he said on the phone.
Sheikh Dor warned that the escalating situation in Somalia will affect its neighbours and urged members of the African Union or Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (Igad) to move in and restore order.
Ethiopia, which fought and routed the extremists in 2006, rejected the call for armed intervention and government spokesman Bereket Simon told the Nation in Addis Ababa that Ethiopia would not deploy its armed forces in Somalia without “a clear and approved mandate by the international community”.
“Any further action from Ethiopia will be done according to the international community’s reaction,” said Mr Simon.
Mr Simon, a minister in the Ethiopian government, said helping Somalia was not the responsibility of neighbouring countries, alone but of the international community.
There has been heightened diplomatic activity in Addis Ababa, with Western diplomats reportedly trying to get Ethiopia, an influential nation in the region because of its huge military, to intervene again in Somalia.
The view in Addis Ababa is that the insurgency in Somalia is largely supported by Eritrea and some Arab states. Eritrea, Ethiopia’s bitter enemy, is reported to have put thousands of troops on alert, possibly with the intention of sending them in to back up the extremists should Ethiopia respond to the call for help.
Ethiopian withdrew its troops from Somalia early this year after a tough, two-year campaign.
Defence assistant minister David Musila declined to comment on the deployment on grounds that such matters cannot be discussed in public. But he echoed Mr Wetang’ula’s statement and said Kenya’s national interests will be protected.
“It is not in our normal tradition to discuss matters on national security publicly,” he said.
There has been some speculation that some form of military action was in the offing, possibly under AU or Igad auspices.
But Kenya, which has a relatively large and influential Somali population of its own, has been reluctant to play the aggressor in Somalia and might not attack unless attacked.
But Kenyan security officials appeared to support the Ethiopian position that a multi-lateral, rather than unilateral approach, is the only hope for Somalia.