IN the Swahili language it's been dubbed Operation Linda Nchi or Protect the Nation.

But as Kenya’s army continues its push into neighbouring Somalia in pursuit of insurgents from Islamist group al Shabab, a picture is emerging that suggests this is much more than an attempt by the Kenyan Government to prevent the al Qaeda franchise from reaching its own turf.

Much has been made in the media of late about how US diplomats based in the Kenyan capital Nairobi were taken by surprise when the operation got under way and the Kenyan army trundled into a rainy season Somalia for its first cross-border military campaign in 44 years. Don’t believe a word of it.

To begin with, it’s long been known that both the US and UK run fairly elaborate counter-terrorism operations out of Nairobi.

Like many people who have flown through Nairobi airport on numerous occasions, I’ve often been struck by the presence of US military aircraft sitting around the runway there.

Mainly they tend to be large C-130 transport aircraft used for ferrying personnel and material.

This, however, is only the most visible and benign evidence of what, on a more covert level, is a substantial US military and intelligence presence that is bedding down and acting assertively in the region like never before.

In Kenya itself the CIA has it own network of personnel and listening posts while at Camp Lemonnier in nearby Republic of Djibouti it has a strategically vital military base that monitors troop movements in sensitive countries such as Ethiopia and Eritrea as well as the activities of groups like al Shabab.

As things have gone from bad to worse across the Horn of Africa, most notably in Somalia, Washington’s approach to the threat al Shabab poses has, in the first instance, been to neutralise the international terrorist elements within the organisation.

It’s not coincidence that, just before Operation Linda Nchi got fully up to speed this month, US targeting of al Shabab stepped up a gear itself.

In the last week of September, US unmanned Predator drones carried out strikes against the training camps and leaders of the internationalist jihadist faction of al Shabab, led by commanders Godane Abu Zubayr and another individual known commonly as al Afghani.

What is interesting is that is was only these, the internationalist factions deemed to be the most threatening, that were struck.

Elsewhere, efforts continued to negotiate with the more nationalist factions through Somalia’s US-backed Transitional Federal Government (TFG) based in the capital Mogadishu.

It was this same TFG that is said to have both “requested” and “welcomed” Kenya’s latest intervention into Somalia.

“The governments of Kenya and Somalia are co-operating in the fight against al Shabab, which is an enemy of both countries,” said a Somali Government spokesman.

Almost certainly such remarks were music to the ears of the Americans, who undoubtedly shaped and instigated this whole collaborative strategy.

For some time US officials are said to have been urging Kenya to “do something” in response to al Shabab, while all the while maintaining the facade that Operation Linda Nchi came out of the blue. When the operation did get under way, Scott Gration, US Ambassador to Kenya, wasted no time in pointing out Washington “would go out of its way to help Kenya restore its territorial integrity” and that the US “respected Kenya’s decision to go into Somalia to rout out al Shabab militants”.

There have been suggestions US special forces are already acting as battlefield advisers and air support co-ordination is being supplied for the advancing Kenyan forces.

But there are other, wider questions worth pondering with regards to a beefing up of the US presence in East Africa.

As elsewhere across the continent, there is a new scramble for Africa going on. A rush to secure access to the region’s phenomenal natural resources.

In Washington’s case there is growing concern global rivals, particularly China, have already staked their own substantial claim, potentially threatening US hegemony in Africa.

This, in the end, is what recent events such as those in Kenya and Somalia really boil down to – strategic advantage and access to economic resources. Much as the transnational terrorist threat from al Shabab is a real one, both east African countries are but the latest simultaneous bit players in this bigger struggle.

With Somalia’s long coastline flanking the navigation routes of oil-carrying tankers traversing the Indian Ocean, the Gulf of Aden and Red Sea, this area is vital to the world economy.

But it’s not just the likes of Kenya and Somalia Washington is keen to have a say over.

Improved US military links and collaboration with Uganda, the Republic of South Sudan and the Central African Republic, among others, also provide key clues to Washington’s longer term African political ambitions.

All of this takes place under the auspices of what is known as United States Africa Command, or Africom, that was established in 2008 and whose mission statement makes clear its aim of “protecting and defending the national security interests of the United States by strengthening the defence capabilities of African states and regional organisations”.

Somewhere in all of this grand strategy, Kenya – whose successive governments studiously avoided any military involvement in Somalia – has suddenly changed tack to become Washington’s latest proxy African player. And for that, in the longer term, it may pay a heavy price.

Some Somali groups have warned that Kenya’s military campaign might encourage young and frustrated Kenyan Somalis to join al Shabab’s ranks. There are some 2.4 million Kenyan Somalis and already it’s said al Shabab have stepped up recruitment inside Kenya.

Over the past few weeks the Kenyan Government has mounted a crackdown on al Shabab sympathisers and illegal immigrants in the densely populated communities of Nairobi and elsewhere.

Yesterday saw the latest in a series of terrorist-inspired attacks inside Kenya by gunmen who ambushed a vehicle, killing four people. Under US pressure, the Kenyan Government may have launched Operation Linda Nchi ostensibly to protect its nation.

In acquiescing to Washington’s needs, however, it may only have served to rile the terrorist mad dogs in its own backyard.