Massacre of students

Al Shabab militants target non-Muslim students on a college campus in Garissa in the worst terror attack in the country.

Published : Apr 29, 2015 12:30 IST

When the bodies of the Garissa University College attackers were taken away on April 4.

When the bodies of the Garissa University College attackers were taken away on April 4.

THE ATTACK BY GUNMEN BELONGING TO AL Shabab on a students’ hostel on the campus of Garissa University College on April 2 is one of the worst terrorist incidents Kenya has witnessed since it gained independence in 1963. The attack on the American embassy in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, in 1998, which killed more than 200 people, announced the arrival of Al Qaeda as a terrorist outfit on the international stage. Sixty-seven people lost their lives in the September 2013 terror attack on the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi. The Kenyan security forces took four days to clear the mall and kill the four terrorists involved in the attack. Security cameras showed Kenyan soldiers indulging in looting at the mall. Last year, more than 120 civilians were killed in attacks by al Shabab (meaning the youth in Arabic) militants.

The Kenyan government has failed dismally to tackle the threat posed by al Shabab despite claiming to have beefed up the country’s security and intelligence services. In all, 142 students and six security personnel were killed in the bloodletting that went on uninterrupted for several hours in the Garissa hostel. The slow response of the security forces and the ham-handed way in which the government handled the crisis have come in for a great deal of criticism. It took the government more than seven hours to deploy a special anti-terror unit at the scene of the massacre and 16 hours for it to swing into action to neutralise the terrorists.

There were warnings about an impending attack on the university campus in Garissa, a town situated north-east of Nairobi. But the government chose to deploy only two security guards at the gates of the hostel. Soldiers and police personnel deployed nearby, according to reports, did not bother to rush to the scene. It must be mentioned that a recent ruling by the Kenyan High Court stated that there was widespread corruption in the recruitment of security personnel. After the 2013 mall attack, the government went on a recruitment spree.

The attack on the hostel, which lasted more than 12 hours, was carried out by four young men who boasted that they had “come to kill and be killed” as they opened fire. The four al Shabab recruits were Kenyan citizens. The university college is situated near Kenya’s border with Somalia. The area is mainly populated by Kenyans of Somali ethnicity and has been a fertile recruiting ground for Islamists. There are reports that 25 per cent of al Shabab recruits are from Kenya. There are around two million Kenyans of Somali origin, constituting more than 6 per cent of the country’s population. They have felt discriminated against on the basis of religion, race and language. In fact, Somalia under the iron-fisted rule of Siad Barre in the 1960s and 1970s refused to recognise the colonial boundaries and claimed sovereignty over Somali-populated parts of Kenya. Border skirmishes between the two countries were common those days.

Most of the students of the university come from other parts of Kenya. The terrorists singled out non-Muslims for the massacre. Even female students were not spared. Many of them were allowed to talk to their parents before they met their gruesome end. Those allowed to speak to their parents were told to convey to their loved ones that it was the government’s policies that motivated al Shabab to target innocent citizens. Denouncing the “barbaric tactics” adopted by al Shabab, prominent Muslim clerics said such acts were “unacceptable, immoral and inconsistent with Islamic teachings”.

The main grouse of al Shabab, which has emerged as a potent terror outfit in the region, is the Kenyan government’s decision to invade Somalia, at the behest of its close ally, the United States. The invasion was not sanctioned either by the United Nations Security Council or by the African Union (A.U.). The government at the time was headed by President Mwai Kibaki and Prime Minister Raila Odinga. President Uhuru Kenyatta has not only continued with the policy of stationing Kenyan troops inside Somalia but also conducting air raids. The air raids were intensified after the April 2 attack on the university. The 6,000 Kenyan troops that occupy the south-western part of Somalia have not been able to establish their authority there. They have had to make alliances with the local warlords to have control over the territory.

At the beginning of its military intervention, Kenya bombed the strategic port of Kismayo, then under the control of al Shabab. As WikiLeaks intercepts have shown, the Kenyan government, in collaboration with Ethiopia and the U.S., planned “Operation Jubaland”, the code word for the invasion of Somalia. The idea was to carve out a friendly statelet along the border with Kenya and thus prevent groups such as al Shabab from infiltrating into the country. Huge hydrocarbon deposits have been discovered along the coast abutting Kenya and Somalia. The Kenyan authorities obviously calculated that for their successful exploitation and transportation, a friendly neighbour dispensation was vital. Kenya also did not want to be upstaged by Ethiopia and Uganda, which had preceded it in the dispatch of troops to Somalia and now wield considerable influence in parts of the country.

As the U.S. learned in 1992, Somalis do not take kindly to foreign intervention. The U.S. had to withdraw its 12,000-strong “peacekeeping” force in a hurry after the “Black Hawk Down” incident, which resulted in the death of many of its soldiers. (U.S. soldiers were airdropped in a crowded market in Mogadishu to capture warlords but they were overpowered by Somali fighters.) The U.S. now confines itself mainly to drone attacks, wreaking havoc on the civilian population. It has left it to the Kenyan, Ethiopian and Ugandan armies to fight on its behalf inside Somalia. As a result of foreign military interventions, al Shabab has become more radicalised and has pledged its loyalty to Al Qaeda. Al Shabab was part of the Islamic Courts Union, which had briefly re-established central authority in Somalia in the middle of the last decade.

Recent counterterrorism measures have specifically targeted the Somali community. After the 2013 terror attack on the shopping mall in Nairobi, more than 34,000 residents in the Somali-dominated suburb of Eastleigh were rounded up and herded into a football stadium for questioning. The Garissa attack coincided with the first anniversary of the assassination of a prominent cleric, known for his pro-jehadist views, in Kenya’s port city of Mombasa. There have been several cases of arbitrary arrests, extrajudicial killings and disappearances. The Somali community in Kenya also accuse the Kenyan elite of taking away their land in the coastal areas, which are popular with tourists worldwide.

In the wake of the Garissa mayhem, the Kenyan government has given the United Nations Human Rights Commission (UNHRC) an ultimatum to remove within three months a refugee camp housing more than half a million Somalis displaced by the war in their country. It warned that if the UNHRC did not do so, the refugees would be thrown out forcibly. The camp is situated an hour’s drive from Garissa. Kenya has also started building a wall along the entire length of its border with Somalia. In another related development, Kenyan authorities have banned remittances by Kenyans to their relatives in Somalia. On an average, $70 million was being sent annually to needy people in Somalia by their relatives in Kenya.

There has been a clamour for a rethink on the country’s policies towards Somalia after the recent events. Raila Odinga, leader of the opposition, has called for the withdrawal of Kenyan troops from Somalia. He claimed that Kenya had initially sent its troops because the international community was not willing to take up its responsibilities in Somalia. “We moved in there out of frustration and a feeling that the international community was too slow or unconcerned to come to our aid,” he told a U.S. government delegation. He said the time had come for Kenyan forces to withdraw to their own borders. Another key opposition leader, Kalyonso Musyoka, said a withdrawal of Kenyan troops should not be seen as “an act of cowardice” but as a strategic move to prevent terror attacks on Kenyan soil.

The government is, however, still talking tough. In response to the opposition’s demand that Kenyan forces leave Somalia, Kenyatta reiterated his government’s resolve to stay on. “We will not, we shall not, we will never leave Somalia until we achieve stability,” he said at the beginning of the year when calls for a troop withdrawal were getting louder. Vice-President William Ruto said the attack on the university was a “9/11 moment” for Kenyans. He said the government would redouble its efforts to confront terror.

The Kenyan government is under pressure domestically over a host of issues, including corruption. Many of its top functionaries are facing inquiry. Kenyatta and Ruto have successfully evaded trial at the International Criminal Court in the Hague for their role in the inter-ethnic riots that followed the 2007 elections, in which 1,300 people were killed and more than 60,000 were injured seriously.

The country’s economy has taken a hit, with the hitherto lucrative tourism industry being one of the sectors worst affected by the growing number of terror attacks. Kenyatta had promised the doubling of tourist inflow and 7-10 per cent economic growth. These targets, under the prevailing circumstances, will be extremely hard to achieve.

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