HULUGHO, Kenya — A thin, dusty line is about the only thing separating Kenya, one of the Western world’s closest allies in Africa, from the Shabab, a radical Islamist militia that has taken over much of southern Somalia, beheading detractors, stoning adulterers and threatening to kill any Americans or Europeans who get in their way.
In most places this line, the official international border, is not even marked, let alone protected. In the village of Hulugho, there is simply a tattered Kenyan flag and a cinderblock schoolhouse with chicken-wire windows. Then a meadow of thorn trees and donkey dung. Then Shabab country.
Kenya is widely seen as a frontline state against the Islamist extremism smoldering across the Horn of Africa. Few expect the Shabab to make good on its threats to march en masse across the border. But the creeping fear, the one that keeps the security staffs at Western embassies awake at night, is that the Shabab or its foreign jihadist allies will infiltrate Kenya and attack some of the tens of thousands of Westerners living in the country, possibly in a major strike like al-Qaida did in 1998.
In June, Western counterterrorism experts in Kenya sent out text messages warning expatriates to stay away from malls in Nairobi, Kenya’s usually calm capital, because of possible suicide attacks by the Shabab. A few weeks later, the group threatened to destroy Nairobi’s “tall, glass buildings.”
The Shabab has already penetrated refugee camps inside Kenya, according to camp elders, luring away dozens of young men with promises of paradise — and $300 each. It has carried out cross-border attacks, kidnapping an outspoken cleric in May from a refugee camp 80 kilometers inside Kenya. Recently, in one of its boldest cross-border moves yet, a squad of uniformed, heavily armed Shabab fighters stormed into a Kenyan school in a remote town, rounding up all the children and telling them to quit their classes and join the jihad.
“If these guys can come in with their guns and uniforms in broad daylight,” said one of the teachers at the school, “they must be among us.”
Then on July 18 it happened again: Somali gunmen, widely believed to be with the Shabab, stormed the offices of an aid organization and kidnapped three aid workers from a Kenyan border town before melting back into Somalia.
American and British advisers are working closely with Kenyan counterterrorism teams, but the area along the Somali border is known to be a gaping hole.
“The Kenyans don’t have the skills to close the border, even if they wanted to,” said one Western diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing diplomatic protocol. “People are very concerned. But on some level, we can’t defend Kenya’s border for them.”
The raging war in the country next door, between Somalia’s weak transitional government and the Shabab, is rapidly becoming a proxy war — with Western arms and money keeping the transitional government alive, while Arab and Pakistani jihadists with links to al-Qaida fight for the Shabab.
In late June, American officials acknowledged that they had shipped 36 metric tons of weapons to Somalia’s transitional government, a disclosure that has only sharpened the Shabab’s anti-American sentiments.
Kenyan security forces are now flooding into their borderlands, marching along the shimmering roads and across the unforgiving landscape, their assault rifles slung over their shoulders.
But the 645-kilometer border is inevitably porous, and Somali-speaking nomads from both countries flow seamlessly back and forth in diaphanous shawls and worn-out wooden carts. And the biggest proverbial holes may be in the police officers’ pockets.
In July, Transparency International listed Kenya as the most corrupt nation in East Africa. The region’s most corrupt public institution? The Kenyan police.
Even though the border is officially closed, Hassan Mohamed, a refugee who used to build houses in Somalia but got driven out by war, explained how thousands of Somali refugees find their way into Kenya each month.
“It’s easy,” he said, rubbing his thumb and index finger together in the universal sign of a bribe. “If you pay, you can come in.”
The cracked wooden shelves in the border-town markets are heaped with the telltale signs of a flourishing smuggling business: sacks of Pakistani sugar, foreign brands of sodas and soaps, cigarettes with Somali labels — all illegal imports from Somalia that somehow made it past the dozen police checkpoints on the Kenyan side.
Abdi Dimbil Alan, an elder who lives in Alin Jugur, a town near the Somali border, says that nearly every night he witnesses the same Somali businessmen paying off the Kenyan police to allow consumer goods and even assault rifles to slip through the border.
“These guys are so corrupt,” Abdi said, referring to the border police, “that if 100 Shabab pulled up with a truckload weapons and said they were coming to Kenya to kill the president, the police would let them through — for the right price.”
Erick Kipkorir, a district officer in Alin Jugur, said Kenyan forces were hardworking and honest.
“We can’t say that nothing is coming in, because, as you see, the border is very expansive,” he said. “But as for bribes, that has never happened.”
Ever since al-Qaida blew up the American Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, killing more than 200 people and wounding thousands, American counterterrorism officials have been watching East Africa warily. But in the areas along the Kenya-Somalia border, it seems that anti-Americanism is still spreading despite the millions of dollars the American government has spent on a hearts-and-minds campaign.
Take an American-built well in the village of Raya. No one is using it, though Raya is desperately poor and dry.
“The Americans wanted to finish us,” said one villager, Ibrahim Alin, convinced that the American water engineers who built the well had poisoned it to sterilize him.
The Somali-speaking areas of Kenya have always been an uneasy fit, and Kenya has often responded brutally.
“We’re trying to find a way that when they do deploy,” the Western diplomat said, “they do more helping than hurting.”