Kenya may have downplayed the threat of Al-Shabaab to protect its tourism industry

“Do you come here often?”
“Do you come here often?”
Image: Reuters/Joseph Okanga
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As Kenya grapples with the news of another devastating terror attack by the Somali militant group Al-Shabaab that has left 147 students dead and 79 injured, questions are starting to emerge as to why the Kenyan security services appeared to have been caught so flat-footed.

Terror attacks by their very nature always have an element of surprise, but this is a rare case where there had been loud and clear warnings via local and international intelligence sources that an attack was imminent.

On Friday, the British government tightened its Kenya travel advisory alert warning its citizens to limit non-essential travel to parts of the country, including Garissa, the site of this morning’s tragedy, as well as the coastal areas. Last week the Australian government issued an advisory to its citizens traveling to the east African country warning against a militants’ strike. ”Current information suggests that terrorists may be planning attacks against crowded locations in Nairobi in the near future,” a government website said. Meanwhile, the U.S. State Department, despite the announcement that President Barack Obama will visit the country in July, has kept its 2014 advisory warning that Kenya is vulnerable to terror attacks.

A Kenya Defense Force soldier runs for cover
Running for cover
Image: Reuters/Noor Khamis

But Kenyan government officials have pushed back hard against such announcements.

And as recent as Wednesday, President Uhuru Kenyatta attacked the British government for its latest advisory and encouraged tourists to visit his country, proclaiming “Kenya is safe.”

Joseph Nkaissery, the cabinet secretary for Interior and Coordination, told a press conference in late March that such warnings were misplaced. Nkaissery said that he was “shocked and concerned at the latest advisories given by our friends from the international community.” He went on to claim that the government’s counter-terrorism efforts were making progress.

Today, Nkaissery had the difficult task of telling Kenyans and the world that the Al Shabaab attack had been much more devastating than the Westgate Mall attacks in 2012, confirming 147 people had been killed, much higher than the 67 killed at mall.

Tourism’s pull

The danger for Kenyan leaders is that they may start to look like they were more concerned with prioritizing the economic agenda than security.

“This has long been a contentious issue between the Kenyatta government and Western partners obviously due to the fact that the tourism sector has been handicapped as a result of the rising insecurity along the coast,” Ahmed Salim, an analyst at advisory firm Teneo Intelligence, told Quartz.

Tourism is a big part of Kenya’s economy, contributing 11% of the country’s GDP in 2014. But since the Westgate Mall attack in 2013 and the instability on the coast, the sector has struggled. Last month, Kenya Coast Tourist Association chairman Mohamed Hersi complained that the advisories were contributing to the downturn. Mr. Hersi, who is also the CEO of Heritage Hotels, a chain of luxury brands operating in East Africa, claimed that 25 hotels in the coast have shut down because of them. ”Close to 20,000 employees have lost their jobs while multi-million investments are looking at gloomy future,” he said. This may explain why the Kenyatta administration wished to downplay the threat of terrorism.

But after today, such a stance is untenable.

Reports suggest that in the early hours of Thursday morning, gunmen stormed through the dormitories of Garissa University College, in northeastern Kenya, and began shooting at sleeping students. Witnesses said that the attackers separated students based on their religion, taking Christian students hostage and allowing their Muslim colleagues to leave. Analysts say this is typical of Al-Shabaab, who has claimed responsibility for the attack.

Kenya’s National Disaster Operations Centre has declared the siege over, nearly 12 hours after it started.

And the government has put out a $220,000 bounty for a Mohammed Mohamud, an alleged Al-Shabaab operative who it claims is the architect of the siege.

This is the worst terrorist attack in Kenya since the 1998 U.S Embassy bombing that killed over 200 Kenyans and the most devastating by Al-Shabaab since Westgate which claimed 67 lives.

At the time Kenyans must have believed that the government will be more vigilant against the militants.

Not so.

“The advisory explicitly warned about the Garissa county,” Salim says. “The lack of coordination within the security apparatus is still an issue demonstrated by the fact that warnings of an impending attack in Garissa were largely ignored.”