Nigeria, Africa and the boom ‘Jihadi tourism’

Posted: February 22, 2012 in travel & tourism

As the federal government of Nigeria battles the menace and carnage inflicted on the country by the al-Qaeda-styled Islamic sect Boko Haram, many tourism experts have expressed the worry that if the group is allowed to take root, the general society and tourism in particular would suffer the consequences.

Already as it is, the industry is suffering a major setback and losing any grounds it may have covered in the last year and a half following a relative political and economic stability the country has witnessed during the period.

Terrorism remains a major drawback to tourism and travel development anywhere in the world and with Nigeria’s case in point, cultural and tourism events in parts of Northern Nigeria are at risk of postponement or outright cancellation with the Argungu Fishing and Cultural Festival in Kebbi State scheduled for March, being the biggest casualty.

By allowing or prolonging the threat by the sect, the federal government is inadvertently positioning Nigeria as an attractive destination for a new trend in tourism called the jihadi tourism, which already appears to be firmly rooted in African countries like Somali and the Sahara desert regions of West Africa.

It should be noted that major destinations in Africa with the exception of The Gambia, Ghana and South Africa either have had or are still having to deal with the threat of terrorism in their travel and tourism industry, just as countries like Ethiopia, Kenya, Senegal, Tanzania, and parts of North Africa are daily faced with terror attacks that pose serious problems to revenue generation from the tourism and travel sector.

In Nigeria’s case the industry is still smarting from last November’s losses suffered when the Boko Haram sect threatened some high-profile hotels in Abuja, the nation’s capital, prompting the United States government to issue a security alert to its citizens in the country.

Although that alert has since been relaxed, the industry it must be restated cannot brave another wave of attacks on the general society which by extension upsets the peace of the hotels’ operating environment leading to low patronage and loss of revenues.

As international destinations go, Somalia has been off-the-charts for more than two decades. With no effective central government and a mindboggling array of clans, militias, Islamists and pirates, this Horn of Africa nation has turned into the farthest thing from paradise on earth.

Except if you’re on the “jihadi tourism” trail, scouting for the perfect terrorism training spot.

The term “jihadi tourism” first appeared in news reports in late 2010, when United States diplomatic cables, revealed by WikiLeaks, quoted a US diplomat in East Africa worrying about “a certain amount of so-called ‘jihadi tourism’ to southern Somalia”.

In a January 2010 cable on a classified meeting, then United Nations Special Representative for Somalia Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah warned that Somalia was turning into an “incubator” for terrorists, “including those holding US, United Kingdom and European passports”.

However, when it comes to Somalia, it’s easier to overlook the latest threat from a country that has turned into a byword for a failed state than to actually do something about it. In another leaked cable, for instance, senior British officials dismissed a request for peacekeeping troops with a terse, “there is not enough peace to keep in Somalia”.

Peace has not come to this East African nation, but right now, there are plenty of African troops fighting in the al Shabaab strongholds of southern and central Somalia. The Islamist group ceded territory to African Union troops in the Somali capital of Mogadishu last year. In mid-October, Kenya launched a military operation in southern Somalia, which was followed by an Ethiopian incursion in November.

Despite the onslaught, al Shabaab is by no means a spent force. In the face of superior firepower, the Islamist group has been employing hit-and-run tactics, slowing down the Kenyan military advance.

As for the jihadi tourism trail, it shows no sign of drying up. If anything, a recent slew of reports suggest that US and European nationals are still responding to al Shabaab’s recruitment drives.

Shortly before Christmas, Jermaine Grant, a British national, was apprehended in the Kenyan coastal city of Mombasa and charged with possessing explosive materials and plotting to explode a bomb.

Grant’s arrest came as Kenyan authorities issued an arrest warrant for another British national, Natalie Faye Webb, who is believed to have links to al Shabaab.

Until fairly recently, Somalia was an easy destination on the jihadi tourism trail, according to Katherine Zimmerman of the Washington DC-based American Enterprise Institute.

“Unlike Afghanistan and Pakistan, there wasn’t much of a foreign military presence there. Travel to Somalia was easy, the borders are porous and the flights from Kenya were largely unmonitored,” said Zimmerman in a phone interview.

Once the top destination for disaffected youth seeking jihad, Pakistan’s tribal areas these days are difficult for wannabe Western mujahideen to penetrate. Testimonies by “Times Square bomber” Faisal Shahzad and David Headley, a Pakistani-American accused of conspiring in the 2008 Mumbai attacks, show that militant groups in the tribal areas are increasingly suspicious of western intelligence infiltration following successful US drone strikes in the region.

Somalia, in contrast, is high on the jihadi propaganda list. “Al Qaeda repeatedly names Somalia as one of the regions where Muslims are encouraged to fight jihad,” said Zimmerman.

Another encouraging factor is the perception that al Shabaab is an upwardly mobile group with a number of its foreign fighters – notably Americans – climbing up the organisational hierarchy.

In October 2011, al Shabaab released high quality photographs of its militants distributing food aid to famine victims, according to IntelCenter, a US-based organisation that monitors jihadi propaganda.

While it’s still too early to say if the current Kenyan and Ethiopian military operations in Somalia have weakened Shabaab as an organisation, many experts believe the latest onslaughts can be used as an effective propaganda tool to recruit more foreign jihadists.

“The fighting in Somalia is being labelled as a ‘true jihad’ and it certainly feeds into the al Shabaab rhetoric of resistance and protecting Somalia from a Christian invasion,” said Zimmerman, noting that Shabaab views Ethiopia and Kenya as “Christian nations”. It’s the sort of discourse that has aided al Shabaab’s foreign recruitment drives in the past and chances are it will continue to attract seekers on the jihadi tourism trail.

Additional report by france24.com

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