For the past few decades, visitors from around the globe have been flocking to Kenya’s Indian Ocean beaches, its many national parks and game reserves, Mount Kilimanjaro and more. Well, they did – until recently.
The Kenya tourism industry, the country’s second largest source of foreign exchange revenue, is today facing devastation. After witnessing a renaissance following the 2007 to ’08 post-election turmoil, which killed over 1,700 and threatened to tear the country apart, Kenya’s tourism is now in tatters. Travellers have been cancelling reservations, governments are advising their citizens to avoid visiting the East African country and hotels are experiencing dwindling occupancies, all as a consequence of escalating violence and terrorism in the country.
Violence is rife since Somalia-based Al Shabaab insurgents began a persistent cross-border terror campaign against multiple Kenyan targets. This campaign drove Nairobi to undertake substantial military intervention in southern Somalia in October 2011, prompting warnings of revenge attacks.
On 3 August 2012, the day before US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was due to arrive in Nairobi for a visit, a grenade attack killed at least one person in Eastleigh, the Somali suburb of Nairobi. The explosion injured dozens and was just one in a string of bombings, shootings and attacks that have blighted Kenya since its government’s intervention last October.
Al Shabaab, loyal to Al Qaeda since 2007, is actively engaged in guerilla warfare and increasingly establishing itself at the grassroots level of local population groups. Al Shabaab are causing chaos, while Kenyan ethnic Somalis and those who have fled more than two decades of war in their own nation are involved in violent destruction within Kenyan towns. In a country where the legal institutions have been widely discredited as corrupt and where money and influence can buy impunity, there is deep unrest. The population is in the grip of terrorism from both within and without. This turmoil comes on top of the fact that Kenya’s government has been trying to show the world that, after the deadly clashes during the 2007 elections, it is now squeaky clean.
Abductions of foreign tourists in Kenya have hit the headlines. British holidaymaker David Tebbutt was murdered last September in the popular Kiwayu Safari Village, a luxurious and idyllically remote resort on Kenya’s northern coast. His wife Judith was forced into a speedboat and spirited away to Somalia, where she spent six months in captivity before a ransom was paid for her release through a private security company in March this year.
Two weeks later, a 66-year-old disabled French woman was abducted in Luma. She later died in captivity because her captors had left behind her vital medicines and her wheelchair. Then, two weeks after this incident, two further foreign nationals were kidnapped while working at the Dadaab refugee camp, a sprawling complex in northern Kenya which has been rocked by grenade attacks in the recent past. The perpetrators, again, were Somali pirates. The kidnapped medical aid workers were eventually released in January this year by US Navy Seals.
‘Despite the precision-like effectiveness of their operation, however, the US Navy Seals and the Kenyan military appear to be swimming against the tide,’ said Stuart Poole-Robb, CEO of KCS Group, one of the world’s leading strategic intelligence and risk management consultancies. Poole-Robb’s company has, for years, been operating covert missions in Kenya and its surrounding neighbours and has built up a dossier of intelligence in both the country and the East African region as a whole.
‘The latest information we have is that the SAS is assisting Kenyan commandos who are preparing to free the Somali port of Kismayo from the clutches of Al-Shabaab,’ Poole-Robb continued.
‘Kismayo, situated in southern Somalia, is already resembling a ghost town as people flee the Al Shabaab stronghold for their lives. Overrun by Al Shabaab militia, the town has become home to a lawless melange of local fundamentalist rebels, foreign jihadist fighters and pirates.’
Over the past few months, Al Shabaab in Kismayo has been forcing civilians to help dig trenches and prepare buildings for defence. Some civilians have been armed and told to fight the Kenyans when they attack – or be killed by Al Shabaab if they refuse.
The Al Shabaab may be gung ho, but their strategies lack coordination. They are at a vulnerable stage whereby an all-out attack by a coalition of African Union armies aided by SAS and even US Navy Seals could eradicate them once and for all from Kismayo.
However, ‘Niger and Mali are also “home” to some of these extreme groups and should Al-Qaeda need to regroup outside Somalia, this is where they would go. At this time, the Al-Qaeda faction in Northern Mali is causing concern to the Algerian authorities in the North of Algeria. In addition, factions in Niger loyal to Gaddafi appear to be creating concern in Libya; all areas where splinter groups of Al-Qaeda would see opportunities for creating further unrest and violence,’ said Poole-Robb.
Al Shabaab is rapidly filling the political vacuum in the wake of state failure in Somalia’s south. As Somalia suffers from civil war, weakened quasi governance and population starvation, it will continue to be a breeding ground for Al Shabaab.
‘The situation is reminiscent of the manner in which the Iran-backed terrorist group Hezbollah penetrated the fabric of war-torn Lebanese society during the 1980s, while continuing guerilla operations against Israel in parallel,’ said Poole-Robb. ‘And there is evidence that Iran is meddling again in Kenyan affairs following the arrest of two Iranians in late June who are suspected of planning terror attacks in Kenya.’
The pair, reportedly agents of the elite Al Quds division of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, has been charged with possessing 15kg of a powerful explosive known as RDX which is a component of the deadly Semtex. According to anti-terrorist investigators, the Iranians planned to detonate a large number of bombs, their targets being American, Israeli, British and Saudi Arabian establishments as well as tourist facilities and prominent buildings in Kenya. Analysts believe that the attacks on Kenya were a direct reaction to the West’s involvement in the country, through Kenya’s involvement in Somalia. It is also suspected that, had the attacks been carried out, Al Shabaab would have been the first group the Kenyan government would have pointed a finger at for the atrocities. Kenya would have remained in the dark as to Iran’s involvement had the pair not been arrested.
Does this then point to Iran? Is Iran funding Al Shabaab? ‘Given the circumstances of Iran’s current situation, highly likely,’ said Poole-Robb.
Of course, the Iranians deny any involvement – but the incident has prompted the Israeli Prime Minister to declare publicly that ‘Iranian terrorism knows no borders.’ ‘Regardless, there are groups with Al-Qaeda kidnapping tourists in and around the borders of Mali and Niger,’ says Poole-Robb. ‘The payments made are used to buy drugs; the drugs are sold in Europe and the UK and the money used to buy more weapons.’
But funding is also coming from Kismayo itself: it is proving to be a key economic asset for Al Shabaab, which has been collecting fees from merchants bringing in goods via the seaport or the airport outside town.
The fact that Al Shabaab is actively recruiting in Somalia and trying its best to infiltrate refugee camps such as Dadaab spells danger for Kenya and its neighbours, and could see full-out terrorism across countries such as Uganda, Zimbabwe, Angola, Ethiopia and Mozambique, amongst others, which are all breeding grounds for Al-Qaeda. With terrorism on the rise throughout the sub-Saharan region, there is a danger that it will spread through countries with violence and Islamic uprisings, reaching the Magreb (Algeria, Libya, Tunisia and Morocco) and spilling out across the Mediterranean to the Spanish/European mainland.
But the West, particularly the US and UK, is ignoring what is going on. ‘At their peril,’ Poole-Robb added. Security experts including KCS have been suggesting for some weeks that Al Shabaab is seeking to undermine Kenya’s economy by destabilising the areas of the region that are of interest to international oil companies.
This would threaten the licenses of Western oil and gas firms drilling in places such as Somalia’s semi-autonomous Puntland region, where, in July, police seized a Yemen-owned boat found to be carrying weapons allegedly sent by Al Qaeda to a local warlord with connections to Al Shabaab. KCS analysts suggest that Al Shabaab may start targeting Western installations in the Puntland region.
‘Indeed, risks for foreign oil groups prospecting for hydrocarbons in East Africa may start to evolve in a similar manner to those in Nigeria’s oil rich Niger Delta, where oil firms have often been targeted in acts of violence by insurgents linked to the Movement of the Emancipation of the Niger Delta,’ said Poole-Robb. ‘Whether this put off the likes of Africa Oil, Red Emperor and Range Resources which are reportedly planning to recover 300 million barrels of oil in Puntland, remains to be seen,’ he added.
As the skirmishes on Kenya’s borders continue and the West keeps turning a blind eye, there is no sign of the problems within Kenya abating. Hotels continue to close, the tourist industry is in stagnation and the stability of the country’s current government is weakening. Kenya is, for the time being anyway, not a happy place to be. KCS experts predict that before autumn sets in, there will be further instability. www.kcsgroup.com