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October 23, 2011 / Dan Whipple

The tourism war

Somalia mapAbout a week ago, the Kenyan army entered Somalia to confront the Al Shabaab militia which has caused everyone so much trouble over the years. This invasion—though that word is not used to describe the action here—came after several kidnappings along the Kenya-Somali border, of a tourist (whose husband died in the incident), a part-time resident who died during her captivity, and, finally, two aid workers from Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders).

The kidnapping of the two Spanish aid workers was the final straw. Kenya has been remarkably patient over the years with Al Shabaab’s incursions and provocations. But when—on top of the two earlier tourist kidnappings—MSF said they would be forced to curtail aid efforts in the region, Kenya moved in with troops.

Al Shabaab is a fundamentalist terrorist militia whose support, even in Somalia, seems thin. The organization reacted with some predictable bluster. Al Shabaab spokesman Ali Dheere issued a statement saying they were prepared to fight. “We are telling the government of Kenya and its people that they have declared war. They don’t know what war is.” He said that Al Shabaab will destroy Kenya’s economy, specifically focusing on damage the group can cause to nation’s tourist industry. Kenya relies very heavily on international tourism. Terrorist threats are usually bad for it.

The opinion on the street in Nairobi, though, seems to be that Al Shabaab is overextended already, in no position to cause serious damage. The group is fighting in Somalia, is fighting a sluggish war with Ethiopia, has declared its hostility to Uganda (which has peacekeeping troops in Somalia under the African Union banner) and now has to deal with the Kenyan army. On Saturday, U.S. drones joined the fighting, killing 44 people*, and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) endorsed the Kenyan actions.

It’s not clear how ambitious Kenya’s military objectives are. The intention at present seems to be to capture the port of Kismayu, controlled by Al Shabaab, which generates “billions of shillings … in port fees and illegal sale of contraband goods,” according to Kenya’s Daily Nation newspaper. IGAD has urged the United Nations to impose a blockade on Kismayu. Whether this new coalition of combatants can offer any hope to war-weary Somalia is unknown—but the history of the country doesn’t make one optimistic.

Here in Nairobi, the U.S. embassy has issued a strongly worded warning for us wazungu “of an imminent threat of terrorist attacks directed at prominent Kenyan facilities and areas where foreigners are known to congregate.” We get about one of these a month, and if you worried about all of them, you’d stay in the middle of a room with a blanket over your head. But now there is in fact a war under way. The question is whether the enemy is too distracted by the actual combatants to try to terrorize the noncombatants.

*The information about U.S. involvement was apparently incorrect, according to a later report from the Daily Nation.

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