Al-Shabaab still a threat to Kenya’s tourism

Al-Shabaab still a threat to Kenya’s tourism

One year since the Westgate shopping mall terrorist attack, Al-Shabaab still poses a political risk to Kenya’s tourism industry.

On 21 September 2013, militants linked to Harakat Al Shabaab Al Mujahidin (commonly known as Al-Shabaab) claimed attacks on Nairobi’s Westgate Shopping Mall – a retail center in the heart of Kenya’s expat community. The attack left more than 70 people dead, according to some reports, and placed Kenya and Al-Shabaab under the global spotlight.

Nearly a year later, while Kenya might be receiving less media attention globally, attacks by Islamic militants are still prevalent and will continue to pose a risk, especially to Kenya’s lucrative tourism industry.

Terrorism and tourism

Terrorist attacks have had a significant impact on specific sectors of the country’s economy, but the duration of the impact is subject to question. Although the glut in income from tourists has been cushioned by increased revenue from construction, manufacturing, and financial services, there is still reason for concern.

A superficial analysis of Kenya’s economy would give cause for celebration. The economy accelerated in the second quarter of 2014 with gross domestic product rising 5.8% from a year earlier. However, this is not due to Kenya’s once blossoming tourism sector, which used to account for 10% of GDP and support half a million jobs, most notably along coast lines. Indeed, despite assurances to tourists that national parks are far off the Islamists’ radar, the number of Britons visiting Kenya fell from a peak of 203,290 in 2011 to 149,699 last year.

The government’s response

The Kenyan government has taken a heavy-handed approach to stamping out threats from militants. This has seen some success. According to latest reports, at least five suspected members of Al-Shabaab were killed in a military raid along the Ethiopia-Kenya border in October. Moreover, a strong military response from the Somali National Army and African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) will stem immediate threats. AMISOM troops successfully liberated Barawe from al-Shabaab earlier this month.

However, the Kenyan government’s national strategy needs to entail more than just firefighting. Some of the areas worst affected by the decline in tourism, are home to a significant parts of Islamic population and Somalia diaspora and geographic centres of support for Al-Hijra (e.g. on the Muslim Swahili coast of Kenya and Tanzania).

According to a recent report released by the International Crisis Group, little has been done to address the marginalization of Muslim communities in Nairobi, on the coast and the north east. Counter-terrorism operations need to be better targeted at the perpetrators of terrorist activity. The government’s current strategy takes a broader approach and runs the risk of persecuting wider ethnic and faith communities.

This is a risky strategy given that Al-Shabaab deliberately agitates historic divides are only emphasized by a decline of income and opportunity from the withering tourist sector. This makes it easier for feeder networks such as Al Hijra, who have two decades of radicalization and recruitment experience behind them and will find immediate grievances easy for the group to recruit. More importantly, International Crisis Group notes that with no common Kenyan Muslim agenda or leadership there will be little resistance to the extremist message.

Will a weakened Al-Shabaab pose a threat to Kenya?

Initial analysis of recent military wins might suggest there is little reason to worry about the Kenyan government’s approach. Ahmed Abdi Godane, former Emir of Al-Shabaab, was killed by a US airstrike on 1 September 2014. According to some this is a significant blow to the group’s power. To others, Al-Shabaab are fighting a losing battle regardless of leadership. Indeed, under Godane’s leadership the group had suffered repeated military setbacks due to offensives effectively conducted by AMISOM.

These initiatives have resulted in a reduced presence of Al-Shabaab in Mogadishu and South Central Somalia and the loss of Kismayo Port, a previously lucrative revenue stream for the terrorist group. In light of this, and with the UNSC deciding to augment on the ground troops to over 22,000 at the beginning of 2014, it is likely Al-Shabaab will be unwilling to relinquish more Somali ground. However, this does not mean Al-Shabaab will pose no cross border threat to neighboring countries.

Despite setbacks, under Godane’s leadership the group claimed many attacks. Indeed, the group have continued to undertake attacks outside of Somalia’s borders, including an attack on the Djiboutian capital in 2014. Indeed with the possible loss of resources, it might be expected that ambush attacks in a neighboring country, which are relatively low-cost, may be a strategy preferred by the terrorist organization. With depleting resources Al Shabaab is likely to maintain a strategy based on attrition rather than direct combat.

It is also unknown whether Godane’s replacement, Ahmad Umar, can balance the internal struggles that exist within the ranks. However, Umar was reportedly part of the elite “Amniyat” internal security service and some sources suggest he was pivotal in Godane’s purges of the internal threats to his leadership. Regardless, an increasingly fractured Al-Shabaab would not decrease the terrorist threat facing Kenya, nor facilitate the success of the fire fighting approach undertaken by the government.

Even if Umar is unable to neutralize threats to his leadership, a weaker or splintered Al-Shabaab poses a threat, as well. More than 900 Al Shabaab militants are thought to be from outside Somalia’s borders, and many are being referred through Al Hijra. If Umar does not maintain a unified outfit, foreign militants would return to Kenya and, without effective government intervention, meet aggrieved, marginalized Kenyan citizens with little income and little prospects of jobs.

We will see an increase in regional attacks by Al-Shabaab, give the likely depletion of Shabaab revenue, territory, and resources. Should the group fracture, foreign fighters will likely return home, focusing attacks in the country. The tourism industry has already seen a steep decline due to increased attacks. This will exacerbate the already existing marginalization and religious divide within Kenya and runs the risk of being further exploited by Al Hijra.

This should be a concern for the Kenyan government, which needs to take heavy and targeted military action, supplemented by work with local Muslim populations to address issues of marginalization. Terrorism will continue to pose a risk to Kenya’s economy in the medium term.  Expect a continued decline in Kenya’s tourism industry, and an increased risk to national security for the next year.

About Author

Rebecca Cockayne

Rebecca is an international development professional working on projects across Africa and Asia. She holds a Masters in Global Politics from LSE and previously worked in global banking. All views are her own.