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Kenya:Al Shabaab or economic sabotage?

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Security agents in the country are analysing recent incidents of terrorist attacks to establish whether they could have been sponsored by forces other than the most obvious suspect, the Al-Shabaab, The People Saturday has learnt.

This follows a succession of events that suggest there could be more than meets the eye in a wider scheme to “punish” Kenya for one reason or the other. Speaking to us in confidence, a Mombasa-based intelligence source said:  “These attacks are not normal, if that is the word to use. We have been blaming them all on Al-Shabaab without giving thought to the possibility that some other forces may have a motive to sponsor terror attacks in the country.”

According to the source, anybody with an axe to grind with Kenya can sponsor acts of terror on our soil with full knowledge that reflexively, it will be blamed on Al Shabaab. “As intelligence we have every reason not to take anything for granted.” Kenya’s intelligence is also jittery that some foreign spy agencies are not as co-operative in sharing intelligence on counter-terrorism as has been the case before.

Without pointing blame, he cited the travel advisories issued against Kenya by the US, UK, France and Australia, allegedly based on intelligence over impending terrorist attacks, yet no such information was shared with Kenyan intelligence. Kenyan intelligence routinely shares information with the American FBI and CIA, British MI6, and Israel’s Mossad.

Others working in liaison with local anti-terror agents are German, French, Italian and Australian intelligence outfits. Contacted by The People Saturday, Mombasa County Commissioner Nelson Marwa who chairs the County Security Committee, acknowledged existence of security threats but said there was “nothing alarming to warrant evacuations”.

He said: “Terrorism is a global menace. You can’t just pick on Kenya and say this is the most dangerous place to be,  yet even the countries issuing the advisories have previously been targeted.” Asked whether the Coast-based foreign spy agents have shared any alarming intelligence with his security committee, Marwa said:

“What they have done is to give us vague information that did not pinpoint any specific targets.”  He went on: “There are no issues that should warrant issuance of advisories and evacuation of visitors. We have taken necessary precautions and would be happy if security agents from friendly countries can join us in the exercise. Issuing travel alerts is counter-productive as it only helps to instil fear which is what terrorists aim to achieve.”

The intelligence source who spoke to The People Saturday concurred with the County Commissioner, saying:  “From where I sit, I can tell you there is no alarming intelligence we have shared with our foreign counterparts. What we have is the routine exchange of notes. If it exists, the particular intelligence that made them slap us with travel alerts was never shared with us as is expected in the brotherhood of fighting international terrorism.”

Of the travel advisories issued, the one from Britain was most devastating as it had tour agents in London abruptly evacuate about 500 British tourists at the Kenyan coast. The British High Commission in Kenya has since denied involvement in the evacuations. But the denial could merely be an academic exercise granted that a travel advisory issued by British authorities automatically translates to drastic rise in insurance cover for tourists, which in turn leads to cancellation of bookings by tour agents.

Players in the tourism sector say Kenya could lose up to Sh5 billion between now and October due to cancellations and evacuation of British tourists. The abrupt cancellations threaten closure of about 20 hotels at the Coast and subsequent job losses for an estimated 4000 workers in the sector. Kenya has described the travel advisories as “unfriendly acts coming from countries who have borne the brunt of global terrorism.”

In a statement, Foreign Affairs Principal Secretary Karanja Kibicho pointed out that the advisories only serve to embolden terrorists. Ironically, the evacuated holiday-makers who talked to The People Saturday at the Moi International Airport moments before they left the country complained they had been forced to leave against their wish.

Some said their government had exaggerated the insecurity situation in Kenya and termed the evacuation as “stigmatisation.” Stefan Arraw, a UK tourist from Peterborough told us: “I feel safe in Kenya and I am upset our government has forced us to return home. The security threat is an exaggeration. Kenya is a nice place to be.”

Asked why he couldn’t have just refused to go back home, the tourist said: “The travel agency has threatened to cancel my travel insurance cover. They have told us that they will refund us our money within 28 days based on the number of holiday days cancelled. I have no choice but to go back but I will come again.”

However, dozens of visitors from Britain have opted to stay put and declined to fly back home, whatever the consequences. Questions have also been raised as to why the UK is only concerned about safety of British tourists in the country and not about the many other British nationals here. “Could they be targeting tourism which is the mainstay of Kenya’s economy?,” posed Millicent Odhiambo, the chief executive officer of the Kenya Coast Tourist Association (KCTA).

The sector earned Kenya Sh 93.9 billion last year down from Sh 96 billion the previous year. The travel advisories and subsequent evacuations can only hurt further. Concerns have also been raised why it is only UK tourists leaving the country yet four other countries issued the travel alerts but no evacuations have taken place.

Says Odhiambo: “The US, France and Australia issued travel warnings but did not go to the extent of having their nationals airlifted back home. Does the UK want to tell us they have information they cannot share with other countries including their number one ally, the US? There is more than meets the eye here, and it has nothing to do with security!”

She went on: “As players in the industry, we see international politics in it. Otherwise, if security were the issue, they wouldn’t just have targeted tourists. What about the many British expatriates, diplomats and businesspeople at the Coast?” Are they not as threatened as the tourists are?” Political analysts also find it intriguing that the travel advisories and evacuations came only three days after much publicised visit to Kenya by Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang.

The visit, a climax of the Kenya Look-East policy that began with administration of retired President Mwai Kibaki, saw the Chinese sign a co-financing deal for the region’s biggest infrastructure project, the standard gauge railway. The Look-East policy has not sat well with the Western countries who see Chinese presence in the region as unwelcome encroachment on their pressumed “territory”.

Others have interpreted the tiff with the UK as continuation of the “unfinished business” British government has with Kenya over the outcome of last year’s presidential election. The tourism sector was once the highest foreign exchange earner for the country but has since been outpaced by tea due to a drop in number of visitors.

Last year, foreign tourists stood at 1.09 million down from 1.23 million the previous year, representing a 11.3 per cent drop. The number of tourists from the UK slumped by19.5 per cent, the highest for any country, followed by the US and Italy.

-The People

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