Col­lege massacre high­lights weak se­cu­rity in Kenya

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Robyn Dixon

It took just four gun­men to demon­strate Kenya’s im­po­tence against the So­mali mil­i­tant group Shabab.

In an attack heavy with fore­bod­ing sym­bol­ism, Shabab mas­sa­cred 147 col­lege stu­dents, all or most of them Chris­tians, in the eastern city of Garissa on the eve of Good Fri­day. At least 79 were in­jured, and the four gun­men were also killed.

Sur­vivors de­scribed their ter­ror Thurs­day as gun­men searched dor­mi­to­ries, ask­ing stu­dents whether they were Mus­lims and ex­e­cut­ing any Chris­tians.

Ear­lier in the day, Kenyan Pres­i­dent Uhuru Keny­atta down­played the attack’s sever­ity, although it was known that hun­dreds were trapped, telling Kenyans that sev­eral were killed and wounded.

Un­con­firmed lo­cal news re­ports sug­gested some stu­dents at Garissa Uni­ver­sity Col­lege were be­headed, as fu­ri­ous crit­ics railed at the fail­ure of se­cu­rity forces to pre­vent mass ter­ror­ist at­tacks on civil­ians.

Many said au­thor­i­ties should have boosted se­cu­rity at the cam­pus, an ob­vi­ous tar­get with a mixed Mus­lim and Chris­tian stu­dent body in north­ern Kenya, af­ter spe­cific in­tel­li­gence warn­ings in re­cent days of an im­pend­ing attack on a Kenyan uni­ver­sity. Oth­ers be­moaned that a tragedy mir­ror­ing Shabab’s 2013 attack at the West­gate mall in Nairobi, the cap­i­tal, which killed 67, could have oc­curred, with

even greater ca­su­al­ties.

Sur­vivors de­scribed how men with ma­chine guns swiftly shot down the two po­lice of­fi­cers guard­ing the col­lege be­fore swoop­ing into the cam­pus, spray­ing bul­lets ev­ery­where and tak­ing con­trol of one dor­mi­tory.

The tar­get­ing of Chris­tians, a clas­sic Shabab tac­tic, is de­signed to ramp up ten­sion be­tween the na­tion’s Mus­lim and Chris­tian pop­u­la­tions, help­ing it at­tract more re­cruits, an­a­lysts said.

The attack also un­der­scored the per­sis­tent fail­ures of Kenya’s se­cu­rity ser­vices: the cor­rup­tion that al­lows Sha­hab fighters to eas­ily pen­e­trate the bor­der and move around the coun­try; the in­tel­li­gence short­com­ings; and the heavy­handed ha­rass­ment of Kenya’s Mus­lim pop­u­la­tion that drives alien­ated, job­less young men into the arms of ex­trem­ists.

More than 100 stu­dents were held hostage on the cam­pus as the 15-hour siege dragged into the night. As dark­ness fell, a se­ries of deaf­en­ing ex­plo­sions rang out, ac­cord­ing to re­ports from the scene.

“The op­er­a­tion has ended suc­cess­fully. Four ter­ror­ists have been killed,” In­te­rior Min­is­ter Joseph Nkaissery told re­porters in Garissa. In the grisly fi­nale, the gun­men, strapped with ex­plo­sives, were blown up as Kenyan forces moved in, fir­ing, he said.

Shabab has suf­fered re­cent set­backs in So­ma­lia, with the killings of its se­cre­tive com­man­der, Ahmed Abdi Go­dane, and other top fig­ures in U.S. drone at­tacks. But it re­mains ca­pa­ble of car­ry­ing out dev­as­tat­ing at­tacks in So­ma­lia and neigh­bor­ing coun­tries, of­ten us­ing just a few gun­men.

The attack Thurs­day was its blood­i­est, and the sec­ond dead­li­est in Kenya af­ter the 1998 U.S. Em­bassy bomb­ing in Nairobi.

Ken Menkhaus, a Sha­hab and ter­ror­ism ex­pert at David­son Col­lege in North Carolina, said that though the group was grow­ing weaker in So­ma­lia, it was gain­ing strength in Kenya. He de­scribed the col­lege attack as “tragic and pre­dictable.”

“They have been look­ing at soft tar­gets in north­ern Kenya where they can op­er­ate more eas­ily than in Nairobi,” he said. “It was a very easy tar­get of op­por­tu­nity for them that was go­ing to have a very big im­pact on Kenyans.”

Of­fi­cials said all stu­dents were ac­counted for. More than 800 were on cam­pus dur­ing the attack; 587 fled or were res­cued, a fig­ure that ap­par­ently does not in­clude the in­jured. Dozens of in­jured stu­dents were flown to Nairobi for treat­ment.

Au­thor­i­ties named the com­man­der be­hind the attack as a for­mer school­teacher, Mo­hammed Mo­hamud, an eth­nic So­mali who also goes by the names Dulyadin and Ga­mad­heere and is a ma­jor Shabab fig­ure from south­ern So­ma­lia’s Mid­dle Juba re­gion. The Kenyan In­te­rior Min­istry re­leased a pho­to­graph of Mo­hamud and of­fered a re­ward of $220,000 for in­for­ma­tion lead­ing to his ar­rest. Au­thor­i­ties placed a $55,000 bounty on his head in De­cem­ber.

Claim­ing re­spon­si­bil­ity for the attack, Shabab said in a state­ment that the uni­ver­sity was on Mus­lim land and was there to pro­mul­gate “mis­sion­ary ac­tiv­i­ties and to spread de­viant ide­ol­ogy.”

Garissa is a non­sec­tar­ian, public in­sti­tu­tion that spe­cial­izes in science and tech­nol­ogy.

The attack came less than a week af­ter a sim­i­lar Shabab attack on a ho­tel in the So­mali cap­i­tal, Mo­gadishu, killed 24 peo­ple. In an un­usual de­par­ture from its fo­cus on East Africa, Shabab also re­cently threat­ened an attack on an un­spec­i­fied Amer­i­can mall.

Kenya’s gov­ern­ment, des­per­ate for a so­lu­tion, any so­lu­tion, to the coun­try’s se­cu­rity cri­sis, plans to build a wall on part of its 450-mile north­ern bor­der with So­ma­lia, said Issa Ti­mamy, gover­nor of Lamu state, the site of sev­eral deadly at­tacks in 2014. But crit­ics said a wall wouldn’t work, es­pe­cially with­out an im­prove­ment in the train­ing and qual­ity of se­cu­rity per­son­nel.

Hu­man rights groups have re­ported ex­tra­ju­di­cial killings of sus­pects by se­cu­rity forces, in­clud­ing sev­eral cler­ics on Kenya’s coast, and the ar­rests of hun­dreds of So­ma­lis at a time.

One lead­ing Shabab ex­pert, Stig Jarle Hansen, said that Kenyan po­lice were so cor­rupt that it was easy for de­tained Shabab mem­bers to bribe of­fi­cers to let them go, and that the bor­der was so por­ous and poorly pro­tected that Shabab could eas­ily strike in Kenya.

Shabab car­ried out nu­mer­ous at­tacks near the bor­der last year, in­clud­ing the mas­sacres of 28 bus pas­sen­gers and 36 quarry work­ers near Man­dera, and the killings of more than 90 peo­ple in sev­eral at­tacks near Lamu on the coast.

“The bor­der is to­tally leaky, partly be­cause it’s huge, but partly be­cause of the level of cor­rup­tion amongst the Kenyan bor­der ser­vices,” said Hansen, who has writ­ten a book about Shabab.

He said that at times the state­ments of Kenyan politi­cians were ob­vi­ously false. A re­cent Shabab video lam­pooned the pres­i­dent, Keny­atta, who in­sisted that last year’s at­tacks on Mpeke­toni, near Lamu, were by lo­cal po­lit­i­cal forces. The video showed Shabab forces in Mpeke­toni, with Keny­atta be­hind them on tele­vi­sion deny­ing they were there.

“It was gift wrap­ping for Shabab. At times Shabab has been more cor­rect in its in­for­ma­tion than the Kenyan gov­ern­ment,” Hansen said.

He said the mass ar­rests and al­le­ga­tions of ex­tra­ju­di­cial killings dam­age “the rep­u­ta­tion of the Kenyan se­cu­rity ser­vices in the eyes of the peo­ple, who can be­come po­ten­tial re­cruits. All th­ese prob­lems give Al Shabab a big op­er­a­tional ad­van­tage and a big pro­pa­ganda ad­van­tage.”

Menkhaus said Shabab, al­lied with Al Qaeda, had been over­shad­owed in re­cent months by Is­lamic State, which has at­tracted thou­sands of for­eign re­cruits.

“Some of what they’re do­ing is to try to re­gain ground. They’ve been com­pletely over­shad­owed in the public eye by the Is­lamic State in the past year. Th­ese at­tacks are some at­tempt to try to re­gain at­ten­tion, and they’ve suc­ceeded in do­ing that,” he said.

Menkhaus said that apart from cre­at­ing bor­der se­cu­rity ser­vices and po­lice who were more com­mit­ted and less cor­rupt, au­thor­i­ties needed to win back the Mus­lim pop­u­la­tion, many of whom were in­dif­fer­ent to or pas­sively sup­port­ive of Shabab be­cause they felt alien­ated by the abuses of se­cu­rity forces.

Kenya is more than 80% Chris­tian. About 11% of the pop­u­la­tion is Mus­lim.

“Win­ning back com­mit­ment from all of the Kenyans, so that when they see some­thing sus­pi­cious they re­port it, and there’s po­lice fol­low-through, th­ese are things that need to be ad­dressed im­me­di­ately,” he said.

Shabab’s at­tacks, he said, aimed to “drive a wedge be­tween the Mus­lim pop­u­la­tion and the Kenyan state and rest of so­ci­ety. It’s in­cum­bent on the Kenyan gov­ern­ment not to al­low them to frame it that way, and to re­spond in a way that doesn’t al­low them to do that.”

One long­time anti-cor­rup­tion cam­paigner, John Githongo, re­acted an­grily to the attack. “Garissa attack yet an­other out­rage. Cor­rup­tion and hubris costs us dear in the face of determined bar­baric foes,” he wrote on Twit­ter.

Dai Kurokawa Euro­pean Pressphoto Agency

RES­CUERS USHER a woman out of a build­ing where she was held hostage. A siege by So­mali gun­men in Garissa, Kenya, left 147 stu­dents dead.

Dai Kurokawa Euro­pean Pressphoto Agency

SOL­DIERS PRE­PARE to en­ter a build­ing at Garissa Uni­ver­sity Col­lege. The killing of Chris­tian stu­dents was de­signed to raise ten­sion be­tween the na­tion’s Mus­lim and Chris­tian pop­u­la­tions, an­a­lysts said.

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