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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The struggles of Huma Abedin

On the behind-the-scenes story of Hillary Clinton’s closest aide.

In a dreary campaign, it was a moment that shone: Hillary Clinton, on the road to the caucus in Iowa, stopping at a Mexican fast-food restaurant to eat and somehow passing unrecognised. Americans of all political persuasions gleefully speculated over what her order – a chicken burrito bowl with guacamole – revealed about her frame of mind, while supporters gloated that the grainy security-camera footage seemed to show Clinton with her wallet out, paying for her own lunch. Here was not the former first lady, senator and secretary of state, known to people all over the world. This was someone’s unassuming grandmother, getting some food with her colleagues.

It might be unheard of for Clinton to go unrecognised but, for the woman next to her at the till, blending into the background is part of the job. Huma Abedin, often referred to as Clinton’s “shadow” by the US media, is now the vice-chair of her presidential campaign. She was Clinton’s deputy chief of staff at the state department and has been a personal aide since the late 1990s.

Abedin first met Clinton in 1996 when she was 19 and an intern at the White House, assigned to the first lady’s office. She was born in Michigan in 1976 to an Indian father and a Pakistani mother. When Abedin was two, they moved from the US to Saudi Arabia. She returned when she was 18 to study at George Washington University in Washington, DC. Her father was an Islamic scholar who specialised in interfaith reconciliation – he died when she was 17 – and her mother is a professor of sociology.

While the role of “political body woman” may once have been a kind of modern maid, there to provide a close physical presence and to juggle the luggage and logistics, this is no longer the case. During almost 20 years at Clinton’s side, Abedin has advised her boss on everything from how to set up a fax machine – “Just pick up the phone and hang it up. And leave it hung up” – to policy on the Middle East. When thousands of Clinton’s emails were made public (because she had used a private, rather than a government, server for official communication), we glimpsed just how close they are. In an email from 2009, Clinton tells her aide: “Just knock on the door to the bedroom if it’s closed.”

Abedin shares something else with Clinton, outside of their professional ties. They are both political wives who have weathered their husbands’ scandals. In what felt like a Lewinsky affair for the digital age, in 2011, Abedin’s congressman husband, Anthony Weiner, resigned from office after it emerged that he had shared pictures of his genitals with strangers on social media. A second similar scandal then destroyed his attempt to be elected mayor of New York in 2013. In an ironic twist, it was Bill Clinton who officiated at Abedin’s and Weiner’s wedding in 2010. At the time, Hillary is reported to have said: “I have one daughter. But if I had a second daughter, it would [be] Huma.” Like her boss, Abedin stood by her husband and now Weiner is a house husband, caring for their four-year-old son, Jordan, while his wife is on the road.

Ellie Foreman-Peck

A documentary filmed during Weiner’s abortive mayoral campaign has just been released in the US. Weiner shows Abedin at her husband’s side, curtailing his more chaotic tendencies, always flawless with her red lipstick in place. Speaking to the New York Observer in 2007, three years before their marriage, Weiner said of his future wife: “This notion that Senator Clinton is a cool customer – I mean, I don’t dispute it, but the coolest customer in that whole operation is Huma . . . In fact, I think there’s some dispute as to whether Huma’s actually human.” In the film, watching her preternatural calm under extraordinary pressure, you can see what he means.

In recent months, Abedin’s role has changed. She is still to be found at Clinton’s side – as the burrito photo showed – but she is gradually taking a more visible role in the organisation overall, as they pivot away from the primaries to focus on the national race. She meets with potential donors and endorsers on Clinton’s behalf and sets strategy. When a running mate is chosen, you can be sure that Abedin will have had her say on who it is. There’s a grim symmetry to the way politics looks in the US now: on one side, the Republican candidate Donald Trump is calling for a ban on Muslims entering the country; on the other, the presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton relies ever more on her long-time Muslim-American staffer.

Years before Trump, notable Republicans were trying to make unpleasant capital out of Abedin’s background. In 2012, Tea Party supporters alleged that she was linked to the Muslim Brotherhood and its attempt to gain access “to top Obama officials”. In her rare interviews, Abedin has spoken of how hurtful these baseless statements were to her family – her mother still lives in Saudi Arabia. Later, the senator and former Republican presidential candidate John McCain spoke up for her, saying that Abedin represented “what is best about America”.

Whether senior figures in his party would do the same now remains to be seen.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad