Terrorizing Tourists: Why Are Terror Groups Targeting Tourists and Foreign Nationals?
Terror groups have various modus operandi. From suicide bombers to sending gunmen, every group employs its own set of tactics. Some like the Kurdish separatist group the PKK, specifically target government and military instillations. Till date there hasn’t been a PKK attack, which has targeted civilian installations. Other groups like the ISIS, Al-Qaeda, Boko Haram and Al-Shabab specifically target areas, which have a high density of civilians, foreign nationals and tourists.
The recent attack in Dhaka is an example of a terrorist group specifically targeting tourists and foreign nationals. The location chosen was at the heart of Dhaka’s diplomatic enclave. Foreign nationals and diplomats regularly visited the café targeted. Therefore, it is not a surprise that eighteen out of the twenty hostages killed were foreign nationals. Nine of the victims were Italian citizens and seven were Japanese. Japan and Italy do not have a significant place in the ISIS’ larger international propaganda. Yet sixteen of the twenty victims were Italian or Japanese. What explains the specific targeting of foreign nationals? This commentary investigates several incidents from across the world where foreign nationals have been specifically targeted. It exposes how terror groups view foreign nationals and tourists as means to magnify their impact and global outreach.
Maximum damage and maximum media coverage are the two key factors that determine how a terror outfit chooses their targets. The event must make its way to the front pages of newspapers across the world. The attacks in Dhaka and Bagdad occurred around the same time. The bombings in Bagdad claimed over a hundred lives while the hostage crisis in Dhaka claimed twenty. Impact wise, the attacks in Bagdad caused greater damage than the hostage crisis in Dhaka. Yet it was the events in Dhaka that grabbed the international headlines. The international impact of the Dhaka attacks was far greater because a majority of the victims were foreign nationals. Targeting foreign nationals fulfills the maximum damage and minimum media coverage factors. A similar story is panning out in Northern Africa. For the Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, whose operational base spans across North Africa and the Sahel region, the targets they select and not the damage caused determines the publicity the attacks get. In Burkina Faso, the attacks on a luxury hotel in January this year, included victims from the USA, Ukraine and Switzerland. Diplomats also frequented the targeted hotel. In November 2015 the Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb targeted the Radisson on Bamako, Mali. The victims in this case included Russian, US, Chinese and Israeli nationals. The most recent attacks on a beach resort in Ivory Coast included French and German victims.
All the attacks that the Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb were responsible for, targeted locations that were frequented by tourists and foreign nationals. Tourists and foreign nationals falling victim was not mere collateral damage but the attacks were planned in such a way that they are targeted. The oblivious reason for targeting tourists and foreign nationals was publicity. All these attacks grabbed headlines across the world. For a group like the Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb gaining international visibility is of particular importance. The rise of the Islamic State has grabbed the attention of not only the international community but also the large section of the Al-Qaeda’s support base. The Islamic State has successfully managed to attract fighters from the same groups that the Al-Qaeda recruits from. As a result the Al-Qaeda’s position in the hierarchy of extremist groups has been taken over by the Islamic State. The attacks in Mali, Burkina Faso and Ivory Coast were aimed to remind the international community about the threat the Al-Qaeda remains to pose. At a time when the international media is focused on the atrocities the Islamic State is committing, by targeting foreign nationals and tourists, the Al-Qaeda has also been able to grab some of the media space.
A similar motive to grab international attention played a role in the Al-Shabab targeting the Westgate Mall in Nairobi. The attacks claimed victims from twelve different countries and drew sharp international response. The same group in 2015 targeted a university in Garissa, Kenya. The attack on the university claimed more casualties yet the international attention it drew was not the same as Westgate. By targeting the Westgate Mall, a regional terror outfit like the Al-Shabab was able to make its presence felt across the world.
The attacks carried out by the Al-Shabab and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb targeted foreign nationals and tourists in an attempt to make their presence felt internationally. While both groups have been responsible for attacks that created much more damage, the ones in which foreign nationals were victims managed to grab global attention.
Specific targeting of foreign nationals and tourists is also a part of the Islamic State’s game plan. The attacks on the Sousse Beach in Tunisia specifically targeted British tourists. The Islamic State has also been blamed for the downing of the Russian aircraft over the Sinai region, which killed two hundred and twenty four Russian tourists. The attack on the Brussels airport killed several foreign nationals. Similarly the strikes in Paris involved the death of several foreign nationals. When it comes to the Islamic State, mere publicity might not be a good enough reason to explain why they are targeting tourists. Even without the attacks in Paris and Brussels, they were able to get international attention. By targeting tourists the Islamic State wants to spread fear about the vulnerability of Europe to such attacks. Carrying out attacks on tourist centers like Paris and Brussels the Islamic State wants to people to raise questions about safety in Europe. Going by the travel advisories issued by the US, Australia, India and Canada post Paris and Brussels, the Islamic State seems to have succeeded in its agenda. In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, the number of tourists flocking to Europe has fallen by over five percent. Even places like Rome, which has not been impacted by the attacks, has seen a fall in the number of tourists visiting.
Considering the large revenues tourism generates across Europe, Egypt and Turkey, Islamic State’s targeting of tourists is well planned. Already they have successfully spread fear, several nations have introduced travel advisories to Europe and tourist figures have fallen across Europe, Egypt and Turkey. Considering the large sums of revenue tourism generates in these regions, the economic impact of the fall in tourists will be telling.
Spreading fear is also a motive of the attackers in Dhaka. Thus far, targeted assassinations of bloggers, minority leaders and in some cases foreign nationals were the method preferred by Bangladeshi extremist groups. After the July 1 attack, the question of security in Bangladesh has become a matter of international concern. Not even a week after the attacks, the captain of the English cricket team Eoin Morgan, expressed his apprehensions of touring Bangladesh. Earlier in the year, when Bangladesh hosted the under-19 world cup, apart from Australia, none of the other teams withdrew due to safety concerns. The impact of the July 1 attacks have been such that, over three months before their tour is supposed to commence, the English team is already raising questions over safety. Across the spectrum, the primary objective of groups is to achieve maximum damage and to get maximum media coverage. Different terror groups use various tactics to achieve this end. The group responsible the July 1 shootout specifically targeted foreign nationals to gain international media attention. By targeting foreign nationals they are trying to build an image of Bangladesh as an unsafe location. The Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and the Al Shabab, choose their targets so that they can grab international attention and remind the world of the dangers they pose. It is difficult to see this being achieved by attacks not targeting foreign nationals and tourists. Even for a group like to Islamic State, targeting tourists enables them to spread fear and disrupt the one sector that brings in significant economic revenue. A barrage of travel advisories and a fall in the number of tourists have followed the attacks. With such a global response the targeting of tourists and foreign nationals is not something that is going to disappear soon. The hostage crisis in Bangladesh is another incident in the long list of attacks across the globe-targeting tourist. Alarm bells are being raised because the recent attack marks a change in tactics terror outfits in Bangladesh. International governments will now begin to raise questions on public safety in Bangladesh.
Sanjal Shastri is an Academic Associate at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad. The views expressed his own and do not reflect the views of the organization he is currently working with.