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Targeting Tourists: Why do militant groups kill holidaymakers?

Charlotte Heath KellyDr. Charlotte Heath-Kelly, Leverhulme Trust Fellow, Political and International Studies, University of Warwick discusses the attack on tourists in Tunisia.

Theresa May has stated that there is no evidence to suggest that the Tunisian gunman specifically targeted British holidaymakers. That may well be true; however he definitely targeted tourists in general. Why?

This is not the first time that tourists have been executed by militant groups. In 2002, members of Jemaah Islamiyah blew up two busy nightclub venues in Bali’s Jalan Legian area, killing 202. In 1997, 62 people were shot dead on a visit to a temple site in Luxor, Egypt, by Al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya. So what do holidaymakers have to do with militant groups, or with international politics and security in general?

The answer to this question is strategic targeting. Militant groups target tourist for three broad reasons:

1) Security vulnerability: They are a soft target

Firstly, tourist hotels, beaches and visit sites are far removed from traditional military targets, which are well guarded and difficult to destroy. Tourists are easy to target and it would be impossible to deploy the military and police in adequate numbers to protect them without first destroying the fun atmosphere that tourists travel to attain.

2) Ideological Perception of economic & political domination through tourism industry.

Secondly, tourists are not simply targeted because they are undefended. Their presence can also be interpreted to mean something. To groups such as IS or Jemaah Islamiyah, the continuous presence of European (American, and Australian) tourists in foreign lands is easy to frame as economic and political exploitation. Individuals travel to have fun and relax, but the tourism industry as a whole is framed as an incursion upon national and cultural integrity. Tourists can be framed as debaucherous members of an exploitative international community which suppresses the national ability to thrive independently. This, combined with their vulnerability, starts to make them look like an attractive target for the militant group. However a third factor is also important:

3) The economic and political consequences for the country

Finally, militants target tourists because the visited region relies upon their money. When horrified holidaymakers return home, others then cancel their holiday plans, depriving locals of their income in a region which is dominated by the tourist industry. There is suddenly no money passing into the hands of anyone who services that industry. Militant groups seek to cause this economic upheaval in the hope that it will lead to political upheaval, in their favour. Once locals are detached from their jobs in the tourism industry, they will (it is imagined) come to support the cause of the militants to remake the country.

Notes to Editors

Contact Nicola Jones, Interim Communications Manager, University of Warwick,, 02476 150868, 07824 540863.


Nicola Jones

Interim Communications Manager

University of Warwick

tel: +44 (0)2476 150868 or

+44 (0)7824 540863.