Nairobi on high alert as US warns of Shabaab reprisals

 Kenyan soldier stands on guard in Eastleigh estate as a military helicopter flies past. Security has been tightened around the capital in response to Al Shabaab’s threat of reprisal attacks.  Xinhua
Kenyan soldier stands on guard in Eastleigh estate as a military helicopter flies past. Security has been tightened around the capital in response to Al Shabaab’s threat of reprisal attacks. Xinhua 

Kenyan authorities tightened security in the capital Nairobi as the US embassy issued its latest warning of an ‘imminent threat’ of reprisal attacks from Somalia’s militant group Al Shabaab.

The embassy said it had credible information of a looming “threat of terrorist attacks directed at prominent Kenyan facilities and areas where foreigners are known to congregate, such as malls and night clubs.”

The alert, issued late Saturday, said the Islamic militants were planning to attack Nairobi, East Africa’s commercial hub, with a large population of international civil servants and diplomats, in retaliation for the military offensive Kenya has launched against them in Somalia.

The warning came as Kenyan authorities intensified efforts to secure the capital and commercial hub that accounts for up to 55 per cent of the country’s $35 billion gross domestic product (GDP).

Undercover and uniformed police, who have thrown a security cordon around the city since the Kenyan forces moved into Somalia last week to take on the Shabaab, at the weekend got the backing of the military in the eastern suburb of Eastleigh.

Soldiers from the nearby Moi Airbase supervised the demolition of informal settlements around the military installation that is situated at the heart of the densely populated Eastlands district of Nairobi in a swift operation that betrayed how serious the government is taking the Shabaab threats.

The tightening of security around Nairobi came a day after Kenya’s Internal Security minister described the al Shabaab as a large animal with its tail in Somalia and its head in Nairobi’s Eastleigh estate – a suburb of Nairobi that is mainly inhabited by people of Somali origin.

Informal settlements around other key installations such as the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA) were also demolished and extra security personnel deployed around major facilities in the capital.

Besides being Kenya’s commercial and industrial hub, Nairobi is also the epicentre of the country’s Sh73 billion tourism industry, the third largest foreign exchange earner.

JKIA is a key entry point for the thousands of foreign tourists coming to the country.

Any threat to the tourism industry also risks slowing down the performance of auxiliary sectors such as airlines and airports. Of the 1.6 million foreign tourists who visited Kenya last year, 95 per cent or 1.5 million entered the country through JKIA – which is also an important hub for international airlines flying to other parts of Africa.

Nairobi’s hotels and conference facilities are also important drivers of the tourism industry’s growth having hosted more than 80 per cent of the estimated 400,000 business and conference tourists who visited Kenya last year.

The US embassy’s definition of the Shabaab threat as targeting foreigners in Nairobi should be of particular interest to Kenyan authorities who must secure the more than 20,000 international civil servants, diplomats and aid workers in the city or risk a damaging public relations coup in the capital.

The foreigners, most of whom earn their salaries in hard currency, are a significant source of foreign exchange — especially at this time when Kenya is struggling to keep its currency afloat. International civil servants and aid agency workers are also the engine that drives the top end of Nairobi’s consumer market that was valued at Sh110 billion last year.

Shabaab’s focus on foreigners also puts Nairobi’s top hotels in the list of possible targets, a threat that authorities have responded to by cordoning off some of the installations.

On Saturday security personnel moved bystanders further away from the entrance to the Hilton hotel in downtown Nairobi and conducted identity checks on those entering the hotel.

Defer travel

Tourism industry observers said the US embassy’s warning alone risked discouraging a significant fraction of American citizens who had planned to visit Kenya.

“The embassy has taken measures to limit official US government travel to Kenya and US citizens should take this information into account when planning travel and consider deferring travel at this time,” the embassy said in a statement provided by a State Department spokesman in Washington.

The State Department issued a travel warning for Kenya in December that remains current and warns of “continuing threats from terrorism and the high rate of violent crime.”

The US is Kenya’s second most important source of foreign tourists. Last year, a total of 51,302 US citizens visited Kenya — only second to the 78,785 Britons and ahead of 43,282 Italians who visited the country.

The alerts could further slow down the flow of FDI’s adding to the recent cuts by nearly half to Sh2.2 billion the value of new investment flows in the three months to September, according to data from the Kenya Investment Authority.

Kenya has sent troops across its border with Somalia to hunt the Al Shabaab insurgents it blames for the abductions of a British tourist, a disabled French woman who has since died in captivity and two Spanish aid workers.

Kenya has not said how many of its troops are deployed, but analysts estimate the number at between 2,000 and 3,000.

Kidnap foreigners

The troops have been advancing in a three-pronged movement towards the Al Shabaab-held port city of Kismayu but their movement has been slowed down by bad weather.

The radical Islamist Shabaab, who deny kidnapping foreigners, have repeatedly warned of bloody retaliation against Kenya for its cross-border incursion.

The latest threats came on Saturday from the Shabaab’s leader Mohamed Abdi Godane.

“The Islamic regions in Somalia are all on high alert to prepare for the open war that is our response to the incursions by some neighbouring countries who are taking part in the global Christian invasion against Somalia,” he said.

In response to the warnings, officials have beefed up security in Nairobi’s Central Business District.

Kenya has a large Somali population, made up both of Somali nationals, many of whom have fled war and famine back home, and of ethnic Somalis who are Kenyan citizens.

In 1998, 224 people were killed in truck bombings at the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.