Trials of Somali pirates are putting Kenya at risk

Saturday February 28 2009
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Somali pirates are arraigned in a Mombasa court on November 18, 2008. The pirates were handed over to the Kenyan police by the British Navy which arrested them for trying to hijack a vessel in the Indian Ocean. Photo/REUTERS

An agreement between Kenya and the US to try pirates arrested in the Indian Ocean in Kenyan courts could have unwittingly exposed the country to terror attacks.

The risk of Somali-based terrorists, including al Qaeda-affiliated groups, launching attacks against Western interests in Kenya has risen significantly.

The agreement, announced by Prime Minister Raila Odinga, will see dozens of Somali pirates transported to Mombasa, before being arraigned in Kenyan courts. Over the past three weeks alone, more than 30 pirates have been apprehended.

A Kenyan court in Mombasa is already trying eight pirates apprehended last year by the British navy.

“The active involvement of Kenya in the anti-piracy campaign will strengthen perceptions among Somali extremists of Kenya as an ally of the Americans and the West in the so-called war on terror,” Dr Adams Oloo, a lecturer at the University of Nairobi’s political department, told The EastAfrican.

“Because the extremists cannot reach the US directly, they could settle for a symbolic attack on its interests in the region,” he added.


Over the past year, the pirates are thought to have made about $100 million in ransom after hijacking nearly 50 ships.

Part of this money, analysts say, could be used to launch attacks as far afield as Uganda and Burundi, which have contributed contingents to the African Union force in Mogadishu.

Last week, 11 African Union peacekeepers from Burundi were killed in an attack on their base in Mogadishu.

Mr Odinga justified the signing of the pirates’ treaty with the Americans on the grounds of Kenya’s national interests.

“Because of this piracy, the insurance premiums for goods that are coming into our country have gone up substantially,” the prime minister said during a joint news conference announcing the agreement with the US ambassador Michael Ranneberger.

Two weeks ago, a Kenya police brief warned that the prime minister could be a target of attack by unnamed people, and urged all formation police commanders to accord him additional security.

Last Wednesday, however, the police withdrew the brief, terming it a forgery. But according to Dr Oloo, the possible threat to Mr Odinga should not be dismissed offhand.

“The prime minister is more accessible and more outspoken on international matters, including Somalia, than the president,” observed Dr Oloo. “He is also perceived, wrong or rightly, to be close to President Barack Obama’s administration. This makes him a possible high-value target.”

Last Monday, Internal Security Minister Prof George Saitoti acknowledged that the country’s security forces were on a heightened security alert, saying that “things are not normal” along the Kenya-Somali border.

Prof Saitoti was speaking on the sidelines of a high-level security meeting in Nairobi.

“We are aware and monitoring whatever is going on, especially in Somalia,” Prof Saitoti said. “The threat is real, and we have been victims before.”

Two weeks ago, a US intelligence analysis also predicted the likelihood of terror attacks across the region in coming months, motivated in part by America’s perceived greater involvement in Somali affairs.