January 20, 2003

Terror threat hits Tanzanian economy

As Western countries last week warned their citizens travelling to Zanzibar of possible terror attacks, Tanzanians say tourism on the archipelago has already been affected, even though no attack has occurred. The warning will be another blow to tourism in East Africa as western intelligence officials clearly believe that the region is now a soft target for terrorists.

Tanzania has tightened security at major entry points and tourist destinations especially on and around the Spice Islands of Zanzibar, following an alert that an attack is imminent in places frequented by Western tourists. The Zanzibar Minister for Home Affairs, Muhammed Seif Khatib, said that the country was on high alert following US and UK intelligence warnings that Osama bin Laden's terrorist network was planning to strike tourist locations and hotels in Zanzibar.

Tanzania has been on high alert since the December 2002 terrorist attacks on the Paradise Hotel in Mombasa and an Israeli airliner taking off from the Moi International Airport in Mombasa by people suspected to members of the Al Qaeda network.

Less than a month ago, Tanzanian lawmakers passed the Prevention of Terrorism Act (2002) in response to the 1998 US embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania and the September 11 attacks on the United States. Mr Khatib said the government was determined to prevent terrorism in Tanzania. "After discussions with US embassy officials in Dar es Salaam regarding the terrorist threats, and after a critical analysis of the matter, it has been found that the island of Zanzibar is vulnerable to terrorism," Mr Khatib said. He noted that given the geography of the island, security at its sea ports was "tricky," unlike the airport where security is assured as a result of the installation of a modern security system.

Meanwhile, Britain's Foreign Office said on its website last week that it had "received information that an international terrorist group may be planning an attack on the island of Zanzibar. While the advice stopped short of telling British tourists not to go to Zanzibar, the warning will be another blow to tourism in East Africa, which is now increasingly being seen as a potentially dangerous destination following the bombing of the Paradise Hotel. Around 42,000 British tourists visit Tanzania each year and 7,500 nationals live in the country. The fact that the issue made news headlines across the UK will also increase tour operators' anxiety of a downturn in tourist numbers to the East African region. The travel advisory also followed the decision of the British government to close its High Commission in Nairobi in December for four days after saying that it had received a specific threat to the building. Although Western intelligence are not giving out details on the nature of the threat, security officials clearly believe that East Africa is now a soft target for terrorists and some have stated that an al Qaeda cell may still be active in the region. "We believe that Tanzania, including Zanzibar and Pemba islands, is one of a number of countries in East Africa and the Horn of Africa, where there maybe an increased terrorist threat," an FCO statement said.

The British warning follows a similar message recently issued by the US and Australian governments, which also warned their citizens to be on high alert in Zanzibar. On Friday, January 17, Norway also issued a similar warning to its citizens resident in and visiting East Africa. Britain has come in for some criticism for the delay in putting out last week's announcement, but said its new assessment was "based on the information available at the time." (The East African, Nairobi)

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