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Targeting Tourists: A Dual Agenda

Posted: September 27, 2005

The terrorist attacks in Sharm el Shiek, Egypt, in July 2005 are the latest warning to Western tourists around the world that they have become principal targets of terrorist groups pursuing a dual agenda of driving out Western influences from Muslim and Arab lands and destabilizing governments.


Through well-coordinated multiple suicide bombings and paramilitary-style assaults, Islamic terrorists, who view Western influence as having a corrosive effect on their societies, have killed hundreds of civilians at resorts, hotels and other tourist locations.  Casualties have been very high, including not only tourists, but hotel and resort staff as well.


In addition to the human toll, terrorists prey on people's safety and security concerns, which keeps tourists away and significantly damages foreign investment in many developing countries.  This economic damage is part of a larger terrorist agenda to destabilize governments, foment chaos and challenge the legitimacy of ruling regimes.   


While tourists have been targeted by terrorists around the globe for many years, the recent large-scale attacks in Egypt, Indonesia and Kenya illustrate the growing threat to travelers who find themselves caught up in political conflicts. 


The following examples illustrate terrorists' intertwined motives - driving out foreign influences and weakening governments.


Attacks in Egypt


In July 2005, at least 88 people were killed and over 100 others injured when three explosions ripped through a shopping area and hotel packed with tourists at the Red Sea resort city of Sharm el Sheik.  The triple suicide bombing was the deadliest terrorist attack in Egyptian history.


In a statement taking responsibility for the bombings, the Abdullah Azzam Brigades in Syria and Egypt, which claims to be affiliated with Al Qaeda, said it carried out the attack "on the Crusaders, Zionists and the renegade Egyptian regime" in response "to the crimes committed by the evil powers against the Muslims in Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine and Chechnya." 


This was not their first such attack.  Less than a year earlier, in October 2004, three suicide bombers detonated a truck bomb and two car bombs in Taba, Egypt, destroying the Hilton hotel and killing 34 people, most of them foreign tourists.  In their claim of responsibility for those bombings, the Abdullah Azzam Brigades announced that the attack was intended to "purify the land of Taba from the dirt and corruption of the grandchildren of monkeys and pigs [Jews]."


Following the Taba and Sharm el Sheik attacks, several nations warned their citizens to avoid the Sinai Peninsula, which is Egypt's largest tourist area.  As a result, the area's tourism industry reported a sharp drop-off in the number of visitors.  In addition, some tourism industry experts predict that Egypt's tourist revenues will decline by hundreds of millions of dollars and that its unemployment rate will rise significantly.  Other tourism officials are more optimistic that tourism will bounce back, but even a short term economic blow can lead to increased political instability in Egypt.


Egypt previously experienced a sharp decline in tourism and its economy was severely damaged in the aftermath of a 1997 terror attack in Luxor, in which 58 people were killed.  The Luxor attack was carried out by the Gama'at al-Islamiyya or Islamic Group (IG), which, like the Abdullah Azzam Brigades, rejects the West and Egypt's Western-oriented regime, and seeks to topple the government of President Hosni Mubarak and establish an Islamic theocracy.


By repeatedly attacking Egypt's tourism industry, the mainstay of its economy, terrorists have been able to advance two main goals - destabilizing the country and keeping out the West.


Attacks in Indonesia


In October 2002, a triple suicide bombing outside of a popular nightclub on the Indonesian island of Bali killed 202 people.  Most victims were Australian tourists.  The attack was carried out by Jemaah Islamiyah, an Al Qaeda-linked terrorist group that seeks to overthrow the Indonesian government and create an Islamic state in Southeast Asia. 


Jemaah Islamiyah considers Western ideas anathema to Muslim society.  The spiritual leader for the Bali bombers, Imam Samudra, who is known for his anti-Western rants, described Bali as "the biggest maksiat [immoral place] in Indonesia."  One of the planners of the 2002 Bali bombings was quoted as saying that the nightclub was chosen because it "was frequented by more than 90 per cent Westerners. They were our target, these foreigners."


Following the attacks, tourism dropped sharply on the island as foreign tourists, wary of future attacks, chose to visit other destinations instead.  Empowered by the Bali attack, Jemaah Islamiyah continued its campaign against Western visitors in Indonesia, bombing the U.S.-owned Marriott hotel, a well-known gathering spot for Westerners, in August 2003. Over 160 people died in the attack.  In its claim of responsibility, Jemaah Islamiah made it clear that it considers tourists to be agents of Western culture who are infiltrating Muslim lands, asserting that the attack was meant as a message to foreigners who "execute…Muslim brothers."   


Jemaah Islamiyah's campaign of terror also triggered a response from the Australian government, which urged its citizens to avoid the island.  Other nations, including the United States, advised their citizens to refrain from traveling to Indonesia as well.  This response exacerbated the drop in tourism and led to a decrease in the number of Westerners visiting Indonesia, advancing the group's goal of expelling them. 


Jemaah Islamiyah's attacks on tourists in Indonesia have caused significant damage to the nation's economy.  In 2000, the country earned approximately $4.8 billion (U.S.) from tourism.  Following the 2002 bombings, however, large numbers of cancellations sent the tourism industry into a tailspin.  From 2002 to 2003, the number of tourists who visited Bali fell by nearly 18%.  Many tourist-driven businesses on the island, such as hotels, restaurants and currency exchangers, closed due to the lack of visitors.  This economic damage dealt a blow to the Indonesian government, as many Balinese found themselves without work.


Jemaah Islamiyah poses the greatest threat to the Indonesia's central government, which has long been fighting insurrectionists in its provinces.  The bombing campaign across the nation has also had the effect of creating social instability and undermining the authority of the Indonesian government. 


Attacks in Kenya


In November 2002, Al Qaeda operatives launched a dual attack on Israeli tourists visiting Mombasa, Kenya.  First, the attackers fired a pair of shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles, which narrowly missed an Israeli passenger jet as it took off from Mombasa's airport.  Almost immediately afterward, three suicide bombers detonated a car bomb at the Paradise Lodge, an Israeli-owned hotel in Mombasa, killing three Israeli tourists and 10 Kenyans. Though the primary targets of this attack were Israeli Jews, who have long drawn the ire of Islamic terrorists, the operation was also an attack on Kenya's tourism industry.



While the Mombasa attacks resulted in relatively few Israeli deaths, they were designed to cause many more.  In its claim of responsibility for the Mombasa attacks, Al Qaeda proclaimed that it was targeting "The Christian-Jewish alliance" and promised future and more lethal attacks on Jews around the world. 


The tourism industry accounts for roughly 12% of Kenya's gross national product, bringing in around $500 million annually. As a developing country, Kenya relies on this massive influx of foreign capital to sustain its economy. Since 1998, however, Kenya's economy has suffered severely because of terrorism.  In that year, Al Qaeda bombed the U.S. embassy in Nairobi, killing 213 people.  The 2002 attack in Mombasa also caused immense damage to the nation's economy.  The attacks were a blow to Kenya's political stability, as the nation was in the middle of an electoral campaign at the time; local Muslims, a small minority, have long been protesting against perceived persecution by the Kenyan government.  Kenya was also a likely target because of its cooperation with U.S. counter-terrorism efforts in Africa. 


In the years following the Mombasa attacks, Kenya's tourism industry has been in serious decline.  Kenyan officials have estimated that the nation is losing about $1 million each day because of the decline in tourism; this totals almost 8% of the economy's revenue per year.  Many Kenyans work in the tourism industry and stand to lose their jobs because of the effect the terrorist attacks have had.


The attacks in Kenya illustrate another reason why terrorists have increasingly been targeting tourists: countries such as the United States, Israel, and many Western nations have greatly increased security and counterterrorism measures in their own countries, making them harder to target by terrorist groups.  When citizens of those nations travel abroad, however, they leave those security measures behind and become inviting "soft" targets.  A terrorist cell unable to penetrate Israel, for example, may be able to attack Israeli citizens when they leave their home country for a vacation abroad.




The terrorist attacks in Egypt, Indonesia and Kenya are by no means the only attacks that have been directed at tourists.  Other nations, such as Turkey and Morocco, have also experienced a number of assaults on and kidnappings of tourists in their countries in recent years.  Kurdish terrorists attacked popular tourist resorts in Kusadasi and Cesmi in July 2005, for example, causing many governments to issue warnings or advisories to their citizens about visiting Turkey.


Additionally, major terror attacks in the West can have significant effects on tourism even if not specifically directed against tourists.  Following the September 11th attacks in New York, American tourists canceled trips both to the city and around the world.  The same was true following the July 2005 suicide bombings in London.  Of course, for terrorists groups that lack the ability to conduct operations outside their home country, assaulting tourists at home is often their only means of striking a blow against the West. 


As terrorists continue their campaign to destabilize governments and expel foreign "influence" from their lands, it is likely that tourists will continue to be a prime target.   


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