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Inside Kenya's war with Al Shabaab

A fighter allied with the Federal Government of Somalia in Bur Gabo, Southern Somalia, on December 14, 2011.

Story highlights

  • Kenyan forces have entered Somalia with the aim of taking on Al Shabaab
  • The aim is to liberate locals from the rule of Al Shabaab, an Islamic militant group
  • While Kenyan forces have the firepower, Al Shabaab know the terrain
  • Commanders say they hope to strike across the line "within a week"

We had tried for weeks to get access to Kenya's incursion into lawless Somalia. The go finally came from the Kenyan military in a text message late one Saturday night. We're told to be at the Nairobi's military airbase before dawn.

"Bring our own flak jackets," we were told.

In October, the Kenya defense forces surprised many by sweeping into Somalia to take on Al Shabaab, an Islamic militant group bent on overthrowing the weak transitional government.

At first, the "spin" by generals and politicians was that it was a swift reaction to punish Al Shabaab for its suspected involvement in a series of kidnappings.

But peering through the window of a rattling Mi-8 transport chopper, it is clear that what soldiers and security analysts have been telling us is true. The combat base on the Kenyan side of the border is well established -- an area of cleared ground dotted with orderly rows of tents and military hardware -- including artillery pieces. It's obvious the soldiers here have have been preparing for some time.

This is no rescue posse thrown together. Kenya aims to obliterate Al Shabaab.

"The reason for this campaign is to liberate the locals here from the rule of the Al Shabaab," Major Seif Said Rashid tells me, several magazines of ammo in his front pockets. "My troops are committed and they are out ready to sacrifice so that they are able to achieve the objective that has brought us here."

The major says his biggest military challenge is that Al Shabaab's weakness is its strength. Militarily they couldn't match Kenya's firepower. But their small and mobile forces know the territory and terror.

"The war here is a blend of both conventional and asymmetrical," he says, "and that poses some peculiar challenges."

Not that the thrust of this front is being spearheaded by truly conventional forces. We are traveling with the 20th Parachute battalion -- an elite and sometimes-controversial group -- within the Kenyan army.

With them are Somali militia and forces of the transitional government. Their uniforms are a bit more tatty -- but their firepower no less impressive.

We drive into Somalia in Hummers and Armored Personnel Carriers-no passport control necessary. A maxim in Somalia, though, is that armies come and go. Skill and training often has little to do with it.

The American military came and went in the 1990s (remember the film "Black Hawk Down"), U.N. peacekeeping forces made a hasty exit, Ethiopian ground forces took the capital and then left it, and Ugandan and Burundian soldiers have been fighting tooth and nail for Mogadishu for years.

The Kenyan and Somali commanders on the front are very aware of their predicament. Winning the hearts and minds of the population will be a crucial step.

But at the southern front line near Bur Gabo, a village perched right on the Indian Ocean, the elders say that it's gotten worse since the war came to their village. The charcoal trade has been suspended and fishing is discouraged by the military. There is little to put food on the table, they say.

It would seem that speed is important, and Somali commanders say they hope to strike across the line "within a week."

At the very front of the front line, a Kenyan paratrooper sits atop a Somali Technical (an SUV with a anti-aircraft gun bolted to the back). He peers across the river that marks the border between their territory and Al-Shabaab's. The soldiers say they are ready to go.

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