The embattled Kenyan President, Uhuru Kenyatta, faces mounting criticism over his government’s failure to tackle a growing domestic terror threat this weekend amid fears that the death toll from an attack by jihadists may yet increase beyond the official figure of 147.
Yesterday, survivors of the massacre at Garissa University College spoke of the cold calculation exhibited by al-Shabaab militants as they roamed through buildings, executing non-Muslims. The attack at an 800-strong campus, appeared to catch the government unawares, and locals have expressed anger at a policy of neglect that has made Kenya’s northern border areas virtual no-go zones.
Despite a tightening in the past week of some Western travel advisories, including the UK’s, and intelligence that a Kenyan university was a possible terror target, Interior Minister Joseph Nkaissery insisted the government had no prior knowledge of the attack. “This incident… is one of those incidents which can surprise any country,” he told reporters.
In Nairobi, distraught relatives converged on the city’s main mortuary to identify loved ones, while others undertook the long journey to Garissa, mid-way between Nairobi and the Somali border, to search for the missing.
In pictures: Kenya Garissa University shooting
In pictures: Kenya Garissa University shooting
A Kenya Defense Force soldier runs for cover near the perimeter wall where attackers are holding up at a campus in Garissa
Kenyan soldiers take cover as shots are fired in front of Garissa University
Students of the Garissa University College take shelter in a vehicle after fleeing from an attack by gunmen in Garissa
Kenyan police officers take cover outside the Garissa University College during an attack by gunmen in Garissa
Students gather and watch from a distance outside the Garissa University College after an attack by gunmen
Students of the Garissa University College get out of a house where they were taking shelter from an attack by gunmen in Garissa
Kenyan police officers take positions outside the Garissa University College as an ambulance carrying the injured going to a hospital, during an attack by gunmen in Garissa
Students get out of a house where they seek refuge after fleeing from an attack by gunmen in Garissa
Some students without their shirts of the Garissa University College get out of a house where they seek refuge after escaping from an attack by gunmen in Garissa
Kenya Defence Forces soldiers move behind a thicket in Garissa
The attack on the university is the worst terror incident on Kenyan soil since the 1998 al-Qaeda bombing of the US embassy in Nairobi. In a pre-dawn raid, five gunmen burst into the college, shooting students as they fled in terror and singling out non-Muslims for execution. The 15-hour siege ended with the gunmen detonating their suicide vests after they were surrounded.
“There were bodies everywhere in execution lines, we saw people whose heads had been blown off, bullet wounds everywhere, it was a grisly mess,” Reuben Nyaora, an aid worker who helped the wounded, told Agence France Presse. Many students still remain unaccounted for, raising fears the eventual death toll could be much higher.
Student Reuben Mwavita, 21, said he saw three female students kneeling in front of the gunmen, begging for mercy. “The mistake they made was to say ‘Jesus, please save us’, because that is when they were immediately shot,” he told Reuters.
Susan Kitoko, 24, who broke her hip when she jumped out of the first-floor window of her dormitory, said: “The attackers were just in the next room. I heard them ask people whether they were Christian or Muslim, then I heard gunshots and screams.”
Al-Shabaab, an affiliate of al-Qaeda, said the killing spree was revenge for Kenya’s participation in a UN-backed African Union force that has squeezed the group’s base of operations in Somalia.
It specifically targeted the institution in Garissa, a region dominated by ethnic Somalis, for teaching Christians in a “Muslim land under colony”, a reference to historical Somali territorial claims.
Before the attack, some students at the university shared their concerns about security with their families, given the town’s proximity to the Somali border and a thin security presence. At the students’ request, two security officers were provided. They were among the first to die in the attack.
With memories still fresh of the 2013 Westgate mall attack, in which 67 died, many will be asking if the government could have done more to forestall Thursday’s massacre. It had notice of a possible attack on a university, but had apparently taken no specific action beyond urging staff and students to be vigilant.
“The attack was preceded by a number of intelligence alarm bells, including a… warning posted on many campuses,” The Star, a Kenyan newspaper, said. “Once a warning is received, extra guards must be deployed.”
President Kenyatta is under pressure to act decisively against al-Shabaab. Since taking office two years ago, he has failed to stem the growing violence by militants that has claimed more than 400 lives. Hundreds of miles of border with Somalia remains largely unpatrolled, and rampant corruption has allowed militants to slip across with ease. Analysts say a heavy-handed counterterrorism approach in marginalised Muslim communities, particularly on the coast, has driven many Kenyans into the embrace of Islamist militants.