In West Africa, a rising middle class takes brunt of luxury hotel attacks

Though the recent spike in hotel attacks appears aimed at foreigners, the destruction of these hotels often leave citizens without access to important spots for business and social life. 

Luc Gnago/Reuters
A police cordon is seen while Ivorian police prepare to inspect the area of the hotel Etoile du Sud following an attack by gunmen from al Qaeda's North African branch, in Grand Bassam, Ivory Coast, March 14, 2016.

For Joseph Ngoh, the palm tree-lined beach resorts of Grand Bassam, with their glossy blue pools and white sand beaches, were always a place of calm, worlds away from his home in Ivory Coast's frenetic capital of Abidjan, 30 miles away. He visited at least once a month, at times simply to sit by the water and decompress from the stresses of city life.   

But that image of tranquility was shattered Sunday when gunmen stormed three resorts in the seaside town, killing 18 people. The north African affiliate of Al Qaeda – Al Qaeda in the Islamic Mahgreb – claimed responsibility for the massacre. 

“I come to Bassam always to relax, but after the recent attacks I’m going to wait a bit before going back,” says Mr. Ngoh, who works as an IT manager. “I would love to go back to Bassam next week, but I’m not sure I will feel safe then. You know these jihadists have tried to change how we live – I don’t want to live in fear, but I also have to be smart and protect myself from danger.” 

Recent attacks on West Africa’s luxury hotels reveal many things about the landscape of Islamist terrorism – from the global creep of Al Qaeda-branded extremism to its ability to rattle even the most stable countries in the regional neighborhoods of sub-Saharan Africa, where borders are often porous and security unsteady. 

The repeated decision to strike luxury hotels is, in part, based on the calculation that resorts are expatriate hubs, and expatriate deaths garner international attention. But the attacks struck at something deeper: the majority of those who frequented the resorts of Grand Bassam were members of a newly flourishing Ivorian middle class – its entrepreneurs, school teachers, and aid workers. It was their prosperity, as much as that of their Western counterparts, that was under siege last weekend. 

Tunisia, Egypt, and Turkey have all seen brutal attacks on resorts in the past year. But these attacks have special significance in sub-Saharan Africa, where luxury hotels seem to leapfrog over massive development challenges, grafting a new vision onto places that often struggle to provide their citizens with even basic services. Such hotels are often the site of many African cities’ best restaurants, bars, and pools, and popular spots for both local business and social life. 

“It’s quite a diverse spectrum of the middle class [in West African cities] who use hotels,” says Billie McTernan, a Ghanaian arts and culture reporter. Because of a lack of upscale social spaces, she says, “hotels are often your one-stop-shop for business meetings, dinners out, clubbing, pool time.” 

Attacking a new consumer class

Last November, Islamist militants affiliated with Al Qaeda took 170 hostages and killed 20 in a siege of a Radisson Blu Hotel in Mali’s capital, Bamako. Thirty people were murdered in a similar attack at the popular Splendid Hotel in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, in January. In Somalia, meanwhile, Al Shabab has made attacking hotels in Mogadishu, the capital, one of its signature acts of terror, striking at least two in the past four months.  

After the 2013 Westgate Mall attack in Nairobi, writer Eve Fairbanks wrote that attacks on hubs of African consumption and prosperity  send a potent message to local people. Such attacks, she noted, strike at a country’s “emotional heart, at its new consumer-class vision of itself, like the attack on the World Trade Center towers struck at America’s core vision of itself as a place where hard work lets you touch the sky.” 

For Haimond Neikha, a web designer from Abidjan, Grand Bassam has long been a place of accessible luxury – a cheap shared taxi ride from his home in Abidjan and a town where people “are kind and they like strangers – compared to Abidjan, a stressful and noisy place where people are focused on working and getting money.” 

But that tranquility will be hard to get back, he says. Resorts will have to increase their security. Visitors will have to be more vigilant. 

“These little things we don't think about, but now we must pay attention,” he says.

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