The kidnapping of two Western tourists from their beachfront holiday homes in an upmarket resort on Kenya’s north coast has raised fears of a worrying shift in tactics of both Somalia's pirates and its Islamist insurgents.
Both attacks took place in the Lamu archipelago, a string of white-sand islands that are the first significant settlement south of the Somali border, and one of Kenya’s major tourist draws.
In the most recent raid, a retired French journalist, Marie Dedieu, was seized early Saturday from the thatched cottage she rented for half the year on Manda Island.
Somalia-watchers are confused. For both pirates and Islamists, taking Westerners hostage from Kenya would be a major change in tactics. Al Shabab has never gone this far out of its way to kidnap foreigners, and the pirates have never struck on land before.
“Two instances doesn’t equal an increasing trend,” says Roger Middleton, a Somalia expert at Chatham House, an independent think tank in London. “But if somebody has success in carrying out an attack like this, and shows the possibility of benefitting from that attack, you’re likely to see other people replicate that model.”
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The reason why attackers seem to be choosing tourists on the northern Kenyan coast is that they are “soft targets,” adds Mr. Middleton. “There’s a general assumption that tourists are easy targets, and easy to get money out of them if you hold them for ransom. It’s much harder, of course to get money from tourists than it is from journalists or aid workers or a shipping magnate, but there’s no shortage of people in Somalia who are looking for soft targets and an easy way to make money.”
As a result of the attacks, both France and Britain have advised their citizens to avoid the district of Lamu. But Middleton says that the twin kidnappings would be of concern all up and down the tourist-friendly Kenyan coast, and as far away as the Seychelles. “It’s worry for Kenya of course,” Middleton says, “but also for someplace like the Seychelles, which has had a number of pirate attacks in the past, and which certainly has tourists on the beach.”
In the Saturday attack, armed men shot their way into the property, which like many has no fence, no locked door, and is sold on its rustic simplicity right on the beach. Kenyan police said Sunday that Ms. Dedieu had already been taken into Somalia, 60 miles to the north. Dedieu uses a wheelchair, which her attackers left behind. Stephen Ikua, District Commissioner for Lamu, said he strongly suspects that Al Shabab, Somalia’s Al Qaeda-linked Islamists, were responsible.
No group to date has taken responsibility for either the kidnapping of Dedieu, or of a previous attack three weeks ago on a British couple staying at a high-end beachfront lodge in Kiwayu, 30 miles closer to the border than Lamu.
In that raid, gunmen killed David Tebbutt, a publishing executive, as he tried to protect his wife, Judith, a social worker.
Mrs. Tebutt was taken hostage, bundled into a fast boat and sped north over the border. In the intervening weeks, she was first spotted in southern Somalia, at Kismayo, Al Shabab’s stronghold. But pirates based far to the north, close to Haradheere, have now said that they are holding Tebbutt. Regional authorities have confirmed that she is in the area.
In previous kidnappings of journalists and aid workers, carried out inside Somalia, victims have often been captured by one group and then sold on to another group to seek ransom.
With no group taking credit in these two cases, it’s difficult to know if Al Shabab carried out the attack The Islamists are under pressure: They have been forced to abandon positions in Mogadishu, and famine plaguing their territory has robbed them of the ability to tax the now destitute local population.
The pirates, facing increased international patrols in the Indian Ocean, are perhaps also looking for softer targets.
If pirates had carried out the kidnappings, one would expect them to have tried to contact their victims’ relatives. If Shabab had carried out the attack, they would have paraded their trophy, probably in a video posted on an Islamist website, said one security source in Nairobi, the capital of Somalia’s neighbor, Kenya.
Tourism takes hit
That hasn’t happened. Equally, sources with the British foreign office have confirmed that as of late last week, they were unaware of any credible contact from anyone claiming to be holding Tebbutt for ransom.
In Lamu, where more than 80 percent of locals’ income derives from tourism, there is deep dismay at the twin attacks, which have prompted both France and Britain to advise their citizens to avoid the area.
There have already been significant cancellations, including one couple who were due to marry there in front of 100 friends.
“We’re two months from Christmas and New Year, our busiest time, and already people are pulling out,” says Muhudin Athman, who owns a guesthouse in Shela, a village at the head of Lamu island’s famous eight-mile beach.
There is deep anger in Lamu at the Kenyan police, who stand accused of failing adequately to increase security following the first attack.
Kenyan tourism has repeatedly bounced back from such shocks before, first following Al Qaeda attacks in 2002 on a hotel popular with Israelis, and then from post-election violence in 2007-08.
Monitor staff writer Scott Baldauf contributed to this report from Boston.