The beach in Mombasa, Kenya. Photo: Getty
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In Kenya, al-Shabab is using terror as a way of destroying the economy

The group’s long-term strategy is to destroy Kenya’s reputation as a safe tourist destination, damaging its economy and weakening its ability to successfully fight terrorism in Somalia.

The beach was deserted. Not just typical low season – slightly quiet, as you’d expect – but truly not another soul in sight. White sand, strewn with seaweed, stretched as far as the eye could see. It was an instant, brutally visible, result of international terror alerts.

On 16 May, the British Foreign Office warned that there was a “high threat” of terrorist attacks on the Kenyan coast. Tour operators First Choice and Thomson Direct cancelled flights and evacuated 400 British tourists. The decision to evacuate was mainly due to insurance concerns but it was high profile and understandably caused panic among other holiday-goers. The US, Australia, and France also issued travel warnings about Kenya’s coast, particularly the area surrounding the coastal city of Mombasa. The hundreds of cancellations stretch all the way to October.

A week after the alerts were issued, I was in Watamu, a small tourist village not in the area covered by these terror warnings. Booking the trip from Nairobi, my friends and I scoured the Foreign Office’s online map for the parts of coast not covered in the red that indicates that you should “avoid all but essential travel”. To reach many coastal resorts, you must fly to Mombasa – the centre of the high alert zone – but Watamu is accessible via the tiny airport in Malindi. Yet still, the restaurants were empty, bar one or two other people. Hordes of taxi drivers aimlessly drove up and down the streets, with no one to collect.

The fact that not everywhere on the coastline is considered a high risk has not helped tourism. Flying from Nairobi to Malindi, I flicked through a local newspaper. It said that 7,000 people had been laid off from seasonal tourist work in the single week that had passed since the evacuations. One evening, walking back to our villa along a silent, pitch-black street, a car slowed down next to us. “I just wanted to make sure you’re alright,” a man shouted from inside. “Can I drop you somewhere? You don’t have to pay.” In Watamu, those who had kept their jobs were anxious to make sure we – practically the sole tourists in the town – were not wanting for anything.

A week after I left Kenya, two days of violence in the coastal village of Mpeketoni and the surrounding area, close to the Somali border, left 60 people dead. Militants armed with guns and explosives slaughtered 48 people on the first day alone. Despite its proximity to the popular luxury holiday destination of Lamu island, Mpeketoni was not a tourist town but a local village. The intelligence services were right to expect something; but it was not a hit against western interests.

Responsibility for the attack has been claimed by the Somali Islamist group, al-Shabab. The group is battling the government in neighbouring Somalia, and has been responsible for a series of terror attacks in Kenya over the last few years. The most high profile of these was the assault on the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi in September 2013. The siege lasted four days and left 67 people dead. Since then, there have been frequent bomb blasts in Kenya’s major cities. Al-Shabab, which still controls sections of Somalia despite being pushed out of the major cities, says that this terror campaign will not end until Kenya withdraws its troops from the country.

The aim is not just to create terror and a loss of life, but to damage the country’s economy. Attacking the tourist industry, which makes up around 12 per cent of the economy – second only to agriculture – is one way of doing that.

The Channel 4 reporter Jamal Osman recently described a conversation he had with an al-Shabab commander in 2010:

To explain al-Shabaab’s long-term strategy, the commander used an animal analogy. “Do you watch animal programmes on television?” he asked me. I nodded.

“You sometimes see a lion bringing down an elephant and killing it. That proves size doesn’t always determine the winner.

“We are not as big as our enemies, but with the right tactics we can win the war. We need to choose the weakest one, isolate, confuse and just follow what lions do.”

The commander said their aim was to destroy Kenya’s tourism sector - and hoped it would have a knock-on effect.

There will be less money to pay soldiers and buy weapons to fight us. Unemployment will rise. There will be crisis. Eventually the elephant will get tired and give up the fight.”

Somewhat ironically given the current state of affairs, Kenya’s military incursion into Somalia was partly triggered by al-Shabab’s effect on its tourist industry – when it kidnapped a British tourist from Lamu in 2011. Many now are asking why the state could successfully fight terrorism in Somalia but appears unable to do so within its own borders. Weak security intelligence, endemic corruption among police and all levels of government, and poor anti-terror policies (which have so far focused on indiscriminately rounding up members of Kenya’s large Somali community), all have a part to play.

Ministers have made a series of statements aimed at reassuring tourists that they are taking action. But with Kenya swiftly losing its status as a safe haven in the region, al-Shabab’s strategy seems to be starting to take effect.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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Locals without borders: governments are using diasporas to shape the migration crisis

Governments of countries key to the migration crisis are tapping diaspora influence more than ever before.

Last month, on 21 June, thousands of Eritreans descended on Geneva and marched across the city, finally stopping at the Place des Nations in front of the UN. The demonstrators had come from across Europe: Italy, Germany, London, and a young man who looked blankly at my French and English questions before exclaiming “Svenska!” (“Swedish!”).

They were here to denounce a recent report by the UN Human Rights Council condemning widespread violations of basic rights in Eritrea. According to the protesters, the report was based on shoddy research and is biased and politically-motivated: “Stop regime change agendas!” said one banner.

Two days later, a similarly sized group of Eritreans marched in the same direction, for the opposite reason. This contingent, 10,000-strong according to the organisers, wanted to show their backing for the report, which highlights many of the problems that led them to leave the Horn of Africa in the first place. Forced conscription, extrajudicial killings, and official impunity, all pinpointed by the UN inquiry, have driven a mass exodus to the surrounding region and beyond. In 2015 alone, 47,025 Eritreans crossed the Mediterranean to request asylum in Europe.

Two things stood out. First was the sharp polarisation of the Eritrean diaspora community in Europe, which muddies the waters for outsiders trying to make sense of the situation: how can one side say everything is fine while the other claims massive abuses of rights?

Second was the sheer engagement of this diaspora, some of whom may never have set foot in Eritrea. They had come from across Europe, with or without the help of funding, to stand on a rainy square and fight for the narrative of their nation.

As an Irishman abroad, would I have the commitment to jump on a plane for a political protest with no certain outcome? I probably wouldn’t, but then again my country is not just 25 years old and still struggling to define itself on the international stage.

Individual stakes are also much higher for people like Abraham, an Eritrean in Switzerland who told me how he was forced into the army for seven years before managing to escape via Sudan two years ago. With two children still in Asmara, he has significant skin in the game.

As for the naysayers, they are also under certain pressure. Some reports suggest that the government in Asmara exercises extensive power in certain diaspora circles, threatening to cancel the citizenship of those who denounce the regime or refuse to pay 2 per cent income tax each year.

Ultimately, such a situation can only lead to a committed kind of polarisation where pro-government supporters need to publicly demonstrate their backing, and the anti-government kind have nothing left to lose.

But on a more benign level, the idea of states systematically harnessing the power of the diaspora for domestic gains has also been growing elsewhere – including in Ireland. Historically a nation of emigrants, Ireland has seen its diaspora swell even further following the economic downturn: OECD figures estimate that one in six Irish-born people now live abroad.

In an age of networks and soft power, this represents a sizeable demographic, and a well-educated and well-off one to boot. The government has clearly recognized this. In 2009, the first Global Irish Economic Forum was held to tap into the business know-how of expats, and has since taken place biannually.

More importantly, two years ago the first Minister for the Diaspora was appointed, tasked with taking overall charge of engagement efforts: no longer simply cultural ambassadors operating Irish bars abroad, emigrants are economic and political seeds to be cultivated. A referendum is planned next year on whether to grant them the right to vote from abroad in presidential elections.

Elsewhere, in Germany, the 3m-strong Turkish population has attracted renewed interest from the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan in recent years. According to a 2014 paper by think tank SWP, Ankara now explicitly designates these Turks abroad as a “diaspora” rather than a scattered group, and adopts clear public diplomacy efforts, channelled through cultural centres, to tap their influence.

This has sometimes rankled in Berlin: although Ankara’s diaspora policy encourages citizens to learn German and integrate into German society, the underlying motivation is one of Turkish self-interest rather than benign assimilation. In a battle for the front-foot, German immigration policy clashes with Turkish emigration policy.

Intra-EU movements, largely unhampered by visa questions, have also become substantial enough to warrant attention. For example, hit hard by the economic downturn and austerity measures, many educated Spaniards and Portuguese have flocked to Northern European cities to seek employment.

London, a melting pot of diasporas from all over the world, is reportedly home to more French people than Bordeaux: together they would make up the sixth largest city in France. As countries continue to rebuild following the financial crisis, forging a connection to the skills and political power of such emigrants is a policy imperative.

And if no other EU country, aside from Ireland, has introduced a dedicated minister for this, the growing economic potentials may spur them to do so.

Diasporas have been around for millennia. Why are governments getting so interested now? And what does it mean for the future of citizenship, nationality, and identity?

Technology is one obvious game-changer. Diasporas not only have more options to keep in touch with their home country, but with so much of daily life now happening on virtual platforms, they also have less reason to integrate in their host society.

It is now almost feasible to ignore the surrounding communities and live quite comfortably in a bubble of media and connections from back home. This then works both ways, with governments increasingly willing to use such communications to maintain links. The “imagined spaces” of nations are morphing into “virtual spaces”, with unpredictable consequences for traditional models of integration.

Marco Funk, a researcher at the EU Institute for Security Studies in Brussels, says that the growing ease of mobility compounds the idea of “people moving from one country to another and staying there” as simply out-of-date.

The coming years, he says, will be marked by patterns of “circular migration”, where citizens hop from one country to another as whim and economic opportunity arise. Governments, especially in an increasingly stagnant Europe, will likely try to beef up links with this mobile generation, especially since it is often pulled from the more educated classes.

Fearing a “brain drain”, yet unable to keep the talent at home, they may foster a more fluid system of “brain exchange”: the diaspora as a mobile resource rather than physical loss.

Of course, none of this will be straightforward, especially at a time when a major fault-line around the world is the future of globalisation and migration. An uptick in nationalist tendencies may mean that diasporas will find themselves (once again) unwilling pawns on a political chessboard, protected or manipulated by governments back home while scapegoated by segments of their host societies.

But one thing is sure: even as walls are rebuilt, diasporas will not disappear, and governments are recognising their power. All politics may remain local, but the local now knows no bounds.