Sunday, January 08, 2012

FCO travel advisory imminent terrorism warning for Kenya

Hard to know what to make of Saturday morning's tweaked travel advice on Kenya. Was it a response to the sudden successes of the Kenyan armed forces in southern Somali against Al-Shabaab and the fear of imminent retaliation? Reportedly, fifty militants were killed in an assault on Friday. Or was it a diplomatic message to Kenya after a Metropolitan Police counter-terrorism team returned from advising their Kenyan counterparts at the beginning of the month and probably found huge gaps in competence and intelligence.

The new advice is a paragraph inserted into the advice page, and the overall level of advice hasn't changed:

The Kenyan authorities have alerted the public to a heightened threat from terrorist attacks in Nairobi. We believe that terrorists may be in the final stages of planning attacks. Attacks could be indiscriminate and target Kenyan institutions as well as places where expatriates and foreign travellers gather, such as hotels, shopping centres and beaches. We strongly advise British Nationals to exercise extra vigilance and caution in public places and at public events.

Meanwhile, travel companies and airlines are continuing operations normally, the Americans haven't altered their advice since 4th November, the Kenyan media has made no mention of an imminent attack in Nairobi or anywhere else**, and the Nairobi police chief has claimed there is in fact "no new, specific threat against Nairobi". Last week on Nairobi's Capital Radio, the talk about tourism was all about how bad the service was for local tourists over the Christmas holiday period compared with the way foreign tourists are treated. That's an interesting and worrying subject on its own, but set in a context that many visitors will be familiar with - increased security due to a genuine threat of terrorism, comparable with the mood in Britain after the 7/7 bombings or at the height of the IRA's mainland campaign.

Kenyans, like Brits and Americans and many other nationalities, have bitter experiences of terrorism and in one sense the threat, while having many sources, is a general global one.  Of course the decision to go or not has to be a personal one, at least as long as the country's "traffic light" travel advisory*, currently orange, doesn't turn red. Travelling into areas where the FCO says "we advise against all travel" or "we advise against all but essential travel" can mean insurance cover is hard to obtain.

The question that needs to be put to the FCO travel advice unit is how far can they advise caution and extra vigilance without saying "we advise against all travel". At the moment  the red warning, advising against "all travel", doesn't apply to any part of Kenya, not even the Lamu archipelago or the Somali borderlands, let alone to the whole country.

For now, the mood on the ground in Kenya is not one of fear and panic but of concern and mild exasperation at the time it takes to get into a hotel or a shopping mall, with the quite elaborate security procedures that are widely in place and invariably conducted with very good humour.

* According the British FCO Travel Advice page.

** The Nation finally covered the story of the enhanced travel advisory on Sunday evening. What took them so long


  1. Most informative - thank you. We travel into Nairobi next week and have been considering cancelling due to this alert - I suppose the best advice is to keep an eye on the news - very annoying!

  2. Yes indeed. And I would take a look at Trip Advisor's Kenya forum, eg this thread:

    See, for the situation in Kenya today, the post from Doffcocker, near the end.

  3. Advisories like this are scary if you live in Nairobi because most of us have to go places where many people congregate. I thought that the Israelis were advising the Kenyans about security - feel more reassured by that than by advisories with no substance.

  4. Yes, in one sense I agree Hilary. What is extra vigilance and caution supposed to mean. Do you check under your car before getting in? Do you avoid entering a building with a group of strangers and wait until you can do so alone? It really is almost impossible to see how this kind of advice can be of any practical use.

    As for the use of Israeli advisors, personally I would have thought they're the very last people you'd want on your side if you're fighting Islamic extremists.

  5. You have a point - but they are supposed to be the best. And actually the real reason for this extreme caution is not the Israelis but the fact that Kenya is fighting Al Shaabab. I don't think the Israelis make any difference.